Beatles to Bowie (The National Portrait Gallery, 12th December 2009 and 16th January 2009)

The Sixties as a decade isn’t really my era, but I did grow up with the music, because I played my parent’s vinyls as much as I could when I was a teenager.  This is why I found this exhibition so interesting and went back for a second visit.  I heard of many of the artists, but didn’t always have an image of them in my mind.   It just felt that as you walked into the exhibition that images capture their subjects as  if they are  forever young.  These are the images of people who are pensioners now, such as Roger Daltrey, Cilla Black and Mick Jagger, and here they are starting out.

As you enter the exhibition, the first image that you meet is a young Elvis. Take a second look, this is actually Cliff Richard.  Later in the exhibition there is also an image of Billy Fury resembling Elvis (by David Wedgbury). It shows how much Elvis has an influence on style in the early Sixties, with this stylised slicked back dark hair look.

The exhibition is set up in chronological order displaying examples from each year of the decade.  There is a clear transition as you walk through the exhibition from the polished posed black and white images which consists very much of straight edges to the later more softer focused colour images.  There is also a focus on the role of women and a wonderful image of the Poppets (Millon Dollar Poppets by John French) as well as a display of some of the clothes worn by female singers.  Women are also portrayed in such a way that they cut across the men, such as the intriguing photograph of The Rolling Stones with Pattie Boyd, where Boyd is in white in contrast to the male members of the group,  and is positioned as a diagonal at odds with them.  Her feet are off the ground.  This is a device used in several images in the exhibition.

Clothes and fashion are very important in the photographs, but many of the images focus on the face and  bring the subject’s faces right to the front of the photograph.  It is as if their face is in your face.  One of the most striking images is an early Terry O’Neill image of The Rolling Stones, where it is not just Jagger’s lips which are highlighed but all the lips of every member of the band.  There are lots of other images of The Rolling Stones and The Who which focus on the face, and which demonstrate how important these two groups were in the sixties.

Of course the images are posed, but in many there is a sense of theatricality about them, such as Angus Bean’s Johnny Kidd dressed as a pirate looking as if he is holding on to the rigging of a ship.  Michael Joseph’s 1968 image of The Rolling Stones makes a comment on class, showing the Rolling Stones as tramps at a banquet in a country house.  The irony for me was that The Rolling Stones themselves at this point were in a sense paving the way for a new aristocracy, the future inhabitants of the houses lived in by the landed gentry.

Photographers place their subjects in the landscape with very interesting results.  There is a mixture of those in urban setting and those in the countryside.  One of the most fascinating  is Tom Jones Overlooking Pontypridd (Tony Frank, 1966).  The photograph is very ambiguous drawing on Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wanderer. It is as if Jones was part of, and not part of, this landscape at the same time.  Portrayed as a solitary figure looking back at the town, he could be going home, or leaving.  Another image is The  Rolling Stones in Mason’s Yard by Gered Mankowitz.  Here we see a building, either half built, or half derelict.  The men are posed against the diagonal lines of the building site.  Buildings in decay are used a lot in the images.   For example, Beatles, Euston Road portrays the group leaping in the air against vast white space and below them is the derelict landscape of the Euston Road framing the bottom of the image. In contrast to this is a country landscape, The Beatles, Perthshire by Robert Whitaker, which places the subjects right at the front of the image with umbrellas and present a strange contrast with the sublime landscape in the background.

The delight for me was the images of Adam Faith. He was enormously handsome as a young man.  My parents owned many of his songs.   I also remember him in the film Stardust, which was my era, the Seventies.  The Sixties are presented as a progression from one image to another.   We see glimpses of Bowie and T Rex who were to embody the sense of the Seventies.  Will the Seventies be one of the next exhibitions?

I wanted to revisit this exhibition before it closed.  I found it a really fascinating and engaging exhibition.  I heard one visitor next to me, say this will be the last time we’ll be really interested in the Sixties as each generation grows up.  For me it was the narratives around the images themselves and why a photographer took a creative decision to produce the image in a certain way.   I felt it was really relevant, in this exhibition, to include images of the photographers who produced the images.  The labels at the side of each image said a little about the subject of the photograph,  rather the story behind the photographs themselves.  Without these narratives in the exhibition, though the catalogue does provide this background, I found myself viewing and thinking about why and how the images were produced.


Pepper, Terence (2009) Beatles to Bowie. The 60s Exposed.  London: The National Portrait Galley

Beatles to Bowie National Portrait Gallery

1 Comment Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: