Picks and Pans Review: Rolling Stone: the Photographs

updated 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Various Photographers

Founding editor Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone has gone from the funky, counterculture, black-and-white tabloid of 1967 to a slick magazine with a smart Madison Avenue look. It has, however, remained remarkably bold, irreverent and narcissistic, just what you would want from a magazine that celebrates the vitality of youth and rock and roll. Its 22-year history is captured in lively fashion in this coffee table book with 150 pictures by 35 photographers from the magazine's pages.

In its early heyday, Rolling Stone was mainly about pop music. Such photographers as Baron Wolman and Jim Marshall were devoted to music as well as picture taking, and they gained close access to their subjects, giving the magazine a candid peek at the lives of performers. Marshall's sensitive 1970 portrait of Janis Joplin slumped on a backstage couch and cradling a bottle of Southern Comfort is a bittersweet reminder of her tragic life.

The later pictures reflect the entertainment industry's growing ability to control celebrities and the press. The results are photographs with too little spontaneity and no surprises. Hiro's Steven Spielberg or Albert Watson's Clint Eastwood look like publicity stills. Deborah Feingold's Paul Simon, and others, resemble album covers—pictures taken for a subject's benefit, not the viewer's.

Rolling Stone has also been a prime victim and beneficiary of the trend toward having famous photographers collaborate with famous subjects, rather than make a portrait of their own creation. The book includes several shots of Madonna vamping for Herb Ritts's camera, producing glamorous mug shots but little insight and no enchantment.

The rewards are still impressive. Richard Avedon's stark and hard black-and-white portraits of "America's ruling class" are from a series done in 1976; his realistic representation of these leaders-Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, George Wallace—leaves no doubt of their personal power. Rose Kennedy is no sweet old lady but America's First Matriarch, a maker of kings. In studied contrast, Ave-don colorfully captures the outrageous Cyndi Lauper, the arrogant Prince and especially the taunting Eddie Murphy.

Rolling Stone's photographic star, Annie Leibovitz, displays a similarly aggressive style. She came to the magazine in 1969 while still in art school, and her work came to dominate the pages of Rolling Stone as it does this book. Possessing a journalist's eye, the timing of a shark and a startlingly distinctive style, she has revolutionized celebrity portraiture. Included are her sad-eyed figure of John Belushi at the side of a road, Lily Tomlin lifting an arm to reveal her hairy armpit, and a nude and vulnerable John Lennon adoring his wife, Yoko Ono. All these make plain Leibovitz's unique ability to convey emotional intimacy with her famous subjects.

Writer Tom Wolfe reflects in a preface on "the happy times that await the historians, yet unborn, of the 21st century" as they analyze "our gaudy era." Awaiting them are men in body paint, nude women, nude men, men in women's makeup, men wearing jewels and fur, women with blue hair, men with blue hair and men with snakes, breasts and belly buttons. (What might Jesse Helms make of it all? Did he I get a complimentary copy?)

Like the magazine it spun out of, this book is not exactly journalism, and it's not your standard history. Let's just quote a not-irrelevant rock group: "It's only rock I and roll and I like it, like it, like it...." (Simon and Schuster, $50)

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