I am currently in the process of reviewing the primary influences and inspiration in my life in an effort to make my art more personal to me. As an avid reader, I can get lost in almost any source material if the information is compelling enough.
When I was very young, I spent a lot of time at my great-grandparents’ home. There weren’t a lot of toys in the house. Asking something as innocent as “Is paper really made from trees?” would result in my great-grandfather handing me a giant musty encyclopedia to learn about the process of pulping a tree and paper milling to pass the time.
Who needs Hot Wheels, when you can learn about textile manufacturing?
When I think of childhood, it often conjures the memories of hot Vegas summers, with me sitting on a plastic-wrapped couch, eating Hydrox cookies, reading any book that looked half-interesting. In addition to the Encyclopedias, there were also outdated scary medical books. I probably shouldn’t have been reading them alone, but I couldn’t help it.
Each encyclopedia entry there was often only a single black-and-white photo for any given entry, and they were pretty boring. The medical books, on the other hand, had giant full pages color vivisections, detailed anatomical illustrations, and step-by-step processes on how to handle horrific scenarios.
A notable exception, I remember the entry for “sneeze” had a series of time-lapsed images showing a man sneezing. The images in those books impressed upon me how much a visual component could illustrate or support a story. Some pictures would cause my mind to wander for hours with the new information I had just absorbed.
Some subject matter required illustrations because the photographic technology to capture it did not exist at the time. Those entries stoked my curiosity in ways I still cannot describe.
All of that reading helped foster some of my earliest obsessions in particular; hummingbirds, crows, jellyfish, vintage medical equipment and the macabre in general. (To the right is a self-portrait based on my memories of looking in those books. ANGSTY!)
Once I started school, I quickly realized how useful it was to have access to random information and stored knowledge. I was thankful that my grandfather in his own way taught me the value of reading and research.
Between growing up poor and sheltered and then living on my own, high school wasn’t very much fun for me. Beginning in my late teens, I became obsessed with music and the idea of leaving the cookie-cutter city I lived in.
The mid-nineties were an excellent time to be an angst-ridden teenager. The “grunge” movement was in full swing, it felt empowering to hear from other artists that were the often the weird kids in their classroom not that long ago too.
There were countless hours I would spend on city buses, walking to and from my job/school were spent listening to artists on headphones with my little yellow Walkman. Often, I would spend my nights awake and the days wondering more about the people that had created the sounds.
Shortly before I was on my own, my cousin David gave me a large box of older music magazines. When I began listening to rock and roll, because I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV, it hadn’t occurred to me to read an entire magazine devoted to the subject.
Inside that box were copies of entire years’ worth SPIN and Rollingstone, and a single issue of Interview & NME. I read each-and-every issue cover to cover.
Not unlike a box of Playboy magazines, I hid my treasure in my room from my prying parents.
Even with the information being several years old in some cases (“Hey Kids, check out that hot new band Pearl Jam!!!”), in that pre-internet suburban landscape, those magazines became my gateway to the world.
As an adolescent, it’s easy to feel isolated when you are a sensitive introvert trying to not be made fun of.
Like a lot of people in my generation, I found myself identifying with Kurt Cobain. In both his music and when he spoke about his chaotic upbringing.
He knew he was weird, and he didn’t care. Suddenly I felt a lot less weird.
Because of my overtly religious childhood, my introduction to popular music meant I was learning about artist old & new at the same time.
Reading about a band I liked, would often send me searching for find influences.
For example, in those same interviews, the members of Nirvana were so vocal about their inspirations, it led me to become obsessed with the Beatles, the Vaseline’s, Sonic Youth and the Ramones. Thanks, guys!
I also feel fortunate that before the resurgence of Vinyl in the late nineties, I was able to pick up many classic LP’s that influenced artists I admired by scouring bins at local thrift shops. Most of the time for under a dollar. :)
My initial curiosity about the sounds I was hearing evolved into a natural fascination with album art as another tangible way to connect with a band. Laying on my bed gazing at a 12″x 12″ record sleeve, it amazed me how much or how little the artwork could tell you about an artist and their work.
Pink Floyds “Dark side of the Moon” was such a simple cover, yet I could look at it while listening to the entire album, while there were albums with more elaborate covers that I didn’t think twice about. (Little did I know that Dark side was my earlies introduction to photo design-firm Hypgnosis, but I digress.)
Much like my earlier childhood with the encyclopedias, everything I read I wanted to retain.
I would devour knowledge from any printed source I could find. At the time magazines were cheaper than a book, and often more readily available in most waiting rooms, and stores, if the information was arts-related and half-interesting it was mine.
Sometimes that meant hovering over an expensive European arthouse mag trying to quickly learn about a new artist before a would clerk ask me to “Put the thing down if I wasn’t going to buy it.”
This scenario became so commonplace that allowed me to develop a muscle memory that lets me photographically remember names and faces, so I will be familiar with a subject when I encounter it again.
It might sound silly but getting a magazine subscription was one of my first personal milestones into adulthood and asserting my independence.
Living off of minimum wage and paying rent as a high school student is a daunting task. Having a place to live, and letting mail show up regularly was challenging responsibility at the time.
From the age of 16, until I was almost 30 I had a subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine. Every two weeks I would religiously read my new issue, article-by-article cover-to-cover.
It was reassuring to see art from artists, and entire ways of life that had never occurred to me living outside the doldrums of suburbia. I also feel it was my full-indoctrination into photography as an art form.
Rollingstone differentiated itself to me over other magazines in that it arrived in my mailbox so often, and with its large print, high gloss 10X12 format meant every issue there was a beautiful shiny portrait or piece of art for me to admire.
Seeing a new large print piece of art so often, I began to develop favorite photographers and artists. Some of the most iconic covers in the magazines’ history I can remember where I was when I first saw the issue.
It was the repetition of seeing the covers so often for almost 15 years that I’ve only come to realize recently how much it has influenced me.
Much has been made of the magazines’ historic roots intermeshing music and politics of the counterculture movement. Embracing the revolution as a cultural shift, the magazine wrote not just about the albums and artists but embedded itself into the lifestyle, reporting on politics, movies and any other pop culture Millea that was in its periphery.
By the nineties, the publication leveraged its stake as a cultural touchstone and much like MTV the magazine was retooled as a lifestyle brand directed at a youth market. At the time of its rebranding American media made the move seem like a cynical cash grab.
Despite public grumblings, the magazine survived its shift into commercialized branding. The magazine stayed true to its documentation of rock and roll through journalism and its liberal ideological roots.
Though, you were more likely to see a softball article on “Hot New Friends Star Jennifer Anniston!” than a hard-hitting gonzo piece by Hunter S. Thompson,
I think that this can be best attributed up in a quote from Jann Wenner in its initial issue :
“You’re probably wondering what we’re trying to do. It’s hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper.
The name of it is Rolling Stone which comes from an old saying, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Muddy Waters used the name for a song he wrote. The Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy’s song. “Like a Rolling Stone” was the title of Bob Dylan’s first rock and roll record.
We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll.” —Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone, November 9, 1967
If the magazine had changed, to quote Dylan one more time, “For the times they are a-changin‘” it evolved because of times.
Though highly commercial, the magazine retained some of its independent journalism status with classic features like the yearly “Hot” issue, “The Rolling Stone Interview” and a streak incredible reporting on the hot-button political issues of the time spearheaded by journalist P.J. O Rourke.
In my opinion, the ascent of the magazines’ commercial peak, was when Mr. O Rourke interviewed a sax-playing presidential hopeful displaying him in a favorable light. While a far cry from the acerbic anti-Nixon screeds of Hunter S., it was far from a puff-piece.
The magazine was now fully integrated into the American lifestyle, and the attitudes and culture it represented were now considered the “norm”.
Film Critic Peter Travers also offered sensible and reliably fair criticism of current Hollywood movies at the Cineplex. To the uninitiated, it appeared to me that he was viewing the film with the average American in mind and filtered through his love of celluloid.
His reviews were plain-spoken, accurate, and with a populist bent. As a reviewer, he has been derided for giving repetitive critiques. Personally, I enjoy knowing when a film isn’t going to win an Academy Award but would be a fun way to spend two hours.
If there 80’s were criticized at the “Me” generation, it was in the nineties that it was monetized as the “GimMe“ generation.
For a brief moment, Rolling Stone had its finger on the pulse of popular culture and realized in the Cable/Video era it was no longer enough to identify with a star. You were marketed to want to look like them, dress like them, even the devices you should listen to their album on.
Through cross-over marketing, and repetition. At some points, it became hard to distinguish advertisements from images accompanying actual feature articles.
Even at my young age, I remember becoming acutely aware of the magnitude of this type of marketing during a cross-promotional campaign for Levi-Strauss Jeans.
To bolster sagging sales, they designed an ad campaign around a Hollywood remake of the 60’s television series “The Mod Squad”. The stars of the film were interviewed and then photographed in a line of clothes styled for the movie, which was then featured in advertisements in between the remaining pages.
The campaign while not a notable success, paved the way and set the pace for the expansion of brand identity into blurring the 4th wall between content and advertising.
By the mid-2000’s you have fashion spreads with the Kings of Leon representing “independent” rock and roll while wearing $500.00+ shirts.
Hard to see how this is going to inspire a kid to pick up an electric guitar, but I don’t have shirts to sell.
While I feel that much of the criticism lobbed at RollingStone during their massive corporatization is fair, I do maintain that the publication maintained enough compelling journalism to make it easy to roll my eyes and flip a page when I became annoyed.
The growth of the internet and changing attitudes saw its sales base diminish and the publication has been down subscribers since the early 2000’s. As a result, they were forced to downsize to a smaller standard 8×10 print size for their publication.
In my personal opinion, it was around this time, the ad space also increased dramatically. Whether it was real or perceived, or I just grew out of the magazine. I canceled my subscription.
While print media as an industry continues to wane, they have taken to task archiving their massive vault of artwork, and photography. The magazine recently celebrated the iconic images created in a magazine issue that has since been curated online that you can find here: The Photo Issue.
There is also a cover wall that spans their entire publication history. Inside there are amazing Behind-The-Scenes, blurbs, interviews, and factoids behind the images. You can view for yourself here.
Personally, I found this to be a lot of fun.
Over the years the publication has made many notable missteps but managed to endure controversy and at times even court it. While some of the publications more recent errors have tarnished the magazines’ image and journalistic credibility.
Referring to gaming as the “new Rock and Roll”, its efforts focused in the direction of simulated screen-caps and VR 360 immersive advertisements is a far cry from it’s origins of Annie Leibowitz standing over a nude John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Is gaming the Crystal Ball to Rolling Stones future? If history is our guide, it shows that RollingStone knows where to continue its path. With that said, there is no word on how its recent 50th Anniversary sale will affect its strategy going forward. Only time will tell.
Do you have a favorite RollingStone Cover? Sound off in the comments below!