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10 Groundbreaking Celebrity and Music Photographers

Brad Elterman's photograph Ali and the Sea of Faces
Brad Elterman's photograph Ali and the Sea of Faces
© Brad Elterman

Right now, there are at least three music-themed photo exhibits going on in L.A., and a few celebrity-themed ones, too. Peter Fetterman Gallery is showing "Forever Young: The Art of Music Photography" through Sept. 8, while Kana Manglapus Projects is exhibiting "Factory 77" through Sept. 10, featuring images by local celebrity photographer Brad Elterman. And, of course, the Annenberg Space for Photography through Oct. 7 is giving us "Who Shot Rock & Roll" -- an exhibit that's been traveling around for a few years, with an accompanying book published in 2009.

But it doesn't stop there. The Getty Center is exhibiting "Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity" and "Herb Ritts: L.A. Style," both on view through Sept. 2. Meanwhile, Mr. Musichead Gallery is all about showcasing art by and about musicians, including photography -- all the time.

With such a plethora of photo shows about musicians and celebrities happening right now, it can be hard to tell which photographers stand out, and why. We combed through all the exhibits to find some of the best photographers, and discovered a few who weren't in any shows, even though they deserved to be. Here are 10 of the biggest vanguards in celebrity and music photography.

Kid With Camera (David Waldman)
Kid With Camera (David Waldman)

10. David Waldman, aka Kid With Camera

Over a decade ago, Toronto-based photographer David Waldman started taking pictures for his black-and-white zine, Kid With Camera. As one of the first consistent and prolific photo-bloggers, Waldman didn't have the luxury of Wordpress or Movable Type, so he hand-coded hundreds of HTML pages for his accompanying website with the same name. Soon, Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph started buying ads, and Waldman found himself going from poor art student to professional photographer. He's since captured images of nearly 1,000 bands, and has created album art and promo pics for groups like Austra. Meanwhile, his recent solo exhibition at the NXNE festival in Toronto featured The Exhibition About You: The Audience. From petty fights at shows to the handmade goods on merchandise tables, Walman says, "I photographed everything I saw. ... I thought it was gonzo to include these observations." Hunter S. Thompson would be proud.

Elterman's All the Right Ingredients for a Sellable Photograph!
Elterman's All the Right Ingredients for a Sellable Photograph!
© Brad Elterman

9. Brad Elterman

Another kid with a camera, Brad Elterman, recalls, "Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I would borrow my parents' car every day and drive over Coldwater Canyon to discover the magic of the Sunset Strip and '70s pop culture." As a man with a camera, Elterman now has a portfolio of pictures with subjects ranging from John Lennon to Bob Dylan and Madonna to Muhammed Ali. These candid snapshots of musicians and celebrities reflect Elterman's knack of being in the right place at the right time, consistently capturing candid images of celebrities just being themselves.

 

Blondie at the Whiskey, 1977
Blondie at the Whiskey, 1977
© Jenny Lens

8. Jenny Lens

L.A. native Jenny Lens documented the local music and pop subculture with a passion, while her photographs continue to circulate without her credit. Henry Rollins describes her as an "ace photographer.... who captured the scene so perfectly." In the 1970s and '80s, she took pictures of The Go-Gos, The Ramones and Iggy Pop, just to name a few -- many which appear in her book, Punk Pioneers. But it's this photo of Debbie Harry that's her favorite. "Debbie danced around the stage, wearing a variety of conceptual theatrical costumes," recalls Lens. "From a beret and trench coat revealing a short black dress and thigh-high black leather boots; wedding gown and veil; bright, florescent-green dress; to every girl's favorite -- polka dots. She and the band were so accessible and nice. So many of us were dancing on the Whiskey floor, near the stage, having a great time." These days, Lens is focusing more on taking lifestyle images that she describes as "creative, empowering, healing, metaphysical -- celebrations of our dreams manifested." We look forward to seeing what's next.

7. Tyler Shields

Picture Mischa Barton biting raw meat, or a bloody Lindsay Lohan brandishing a knife. Tyler Shields has, and he hasn't stopped there. Shields has shot Heather Morris with a black eye, showing us another side of the cute, dumb-blonde character on Glee. The photographer and his girlfriend, Francesca Eastwood (Clint's daughter), also recently bought a sought-after $100,000 Hermes Birkin bag -- setting it on fire before cutting it apart with a chainsaw, all in the name of "art." Shields' antics continue to cause controversy and provoke us to ask whether he's a Warhol or wannabe. We're still not 100 percent sure, but it's fun trying to figure it out.

 

Kate Moss, NYC, 2002
Kate Moss, NYC, 2002
© Mick Rock

6. Mick Rock

Music photojournalist Mick Rock has been taking pictures of musicians and celebrities for more than 40 years, and he's still doing it today. More than 200 of his images are published in Chronicle Books' Mick Rock: Exposed -- The Faces of Rock 'n' Roll, with commentary from the former manager of the Rolling Stones, Andrew Loog Oldham, and British playwright Tom Stoppard. In the book, Rock writes, "I love the whole process involved in a session. Something happens inside of me -- a kind of transformation. I enter the magic garden of the frame. I become the other, the image maker, and everything is possible...." He's one of the few legendary photographers who didn't stop after the era of Andy Warhol and Queen, continuing with the likes of Lady Gaga, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Killers as subjects. Only time will tell who else catches his eye.

Sonic Youth, Four Stills From the Video for "Death Valley '69," 1984, printed 2008
Sonic Youth, Four Stills From the Video for "Death Valley '69," 1984, printed 2008
© Richard Kern, collection of the artist, courtesy of the Annenberg Space for Photography

5. Richard Kern

New York-based Richard Kern got his start as an underground filmmaker and artist in the 1980s, but after directing the music video for Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69" in 1985, he was on the road toward becoming a well-known photographer (not surprising, considering his own father was the editor of a local daily paper in North Carolina, where he'd often double as a photographer himself). Kern's pictures are often more provocative than those of his colleagues, a quality rooted in his background as an avant-garde artist versus straight-up photojournalist. Today, Kern's clients include GQ, Playboy and Herve Leger, but he doesn't just take pictures of artists, actors and rock stars: His portfolio includes a series of naked girls smoking weed (link NSFW), which is pretty rock-star in itself.

 

Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood, 1989
Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood, 1989
© Herb Ritts Foundation, Gift of the Herb Ritts Foundation, courtesy of Getty Center Exhibitions

4. Herb Ritts

Herb Ritts (1952-2002) helped elevate celebrity photography, and photography in general, to an art form. The L.A.-born artist worked primarily in black-and-white, creating dramatic, detailed portraits that merged fashion, celebrity and nude photography into one genre that was all his own. Ritts also directed music videos for Madonna, Chris Isaak, Janet Jackson, and Britney Spears, while making a living shooting high-fashion ad campaigns throughout his career. While Ritts' images capture the spirit of the 1980s and '90s, they've proven to be ultimately timeless in form.

Serena and Venus Williams
Serena and Venus Williams
Annie Leibovitz, from Women by Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag, courtesy Random House Group

3. Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz's career is a rich and storied journey, beginning in 1973, when Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner appointed her chief photographer of the magazine. From covering Richard Nixon's resignation with Hunter S. Thompson, to photographing Barack Obama's campaign, Leibovitz's name has become synonymous with "celebrity photographer." As she describes in her book Annie Leibovitz at Work, "Being a photographer was my life. I took pictures all the time, and pretty much everything I photographed seemed interesting. Every single time I went out to take a picture was different. The circumstances were different. The place was different. The dynamics were different. Every single time. You never knew what was going to unfold." In 2009, The Telegraph reported that Annie Leibovitz borrowed $15.5 million in order to repay debts, using her entire body of work as collateral. On the one hand, that's a lot of money. On the other, it's not often that your own work becomes an asset in itself, especially when it's valued that highly -- literally.

 

Pamela Anderson
Pamela Anderson
© David LaChapelle, from Artists and Prostitutes, courtesy of Taschen

2. David LaChapelle

Taschen describes him as "the Fellini of photography" and the medium's "greatest star," and it's not hard to see why. David LaChapelle got his start at Interview magazine, where he was offered a gig by Warhol himself. Since then, LaChapelle has been the go-to photographer for a range of celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor and Tupac Shakur to Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera, and dozens of high-profile celebrities in between. Like many of his colleagues, LaChapelle has directed music videos, but he's recently made an effort to move away from the restrictive role of commercial photography in order to concentrate on making fine-art photography. Even so, his photos have been fine art all along. LaChapelle's shots are instantly recognizable for their expertly staged composition and vivid color schemes, so that even when there's no celebrity in sight, the photo itself makes the subject look like a star.

Martin Luther King Jr., 1965
Martin Luther King Jr., 1965
© The Dennis Hopper Trust, also courtesy of Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York

1. Dennis Hopper

The late, great Dennis Hopper wasn't just an actor: he was a fixture in the L.A. art scene for decades. Even before Hopper became famous for his roles in Easy Rider (1969) and Blue Velvet (1987), writer Terry Southern reportedly named him an up-and-coming photographer "to watch" in the mid-1960s. Hopper's photography was the highlight of MOCA's 2010 retrospective, "Dennis Hopper Double Standard," curated by Julian Schnabel. While capturing art-world luminaries such as Ed Ruscha and Claes Oldenburg and documenting the civil rights movement, Hopper's camera became a window to the world of celebrity from an insider's perspective, where big stars were stripped of their credentials and captured just being themselves.

Tanja M. Laden manages Flavorpill Los Angeles and blogs at Pop Curious. Follow her on Twitter at @PopCuriousMag and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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