Pizazz Photography From Rolling Stone

ROLLING STONE: THE PHOTOGRAPHS Edited by Laurie Kratochvil, New York, Simon & Shuster, 118 pp., $50

THE first television generation, raised on thin narratives, aggressive commercials, and instantaneous new programs, might have rejected the still photograph along with saddle shoes and home bomb shelters. What can their children, the kids who furtively channel-hopped from ``Sesame Street'' to MTV, find of interest in the quiescence of the silver print?

This collection of photographs holds some answers, albeit occasionally disquieting ones. It explains, in visual terms, why contemporary photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Herb Ritts have the cachet, if not the income, of rock stars.

Despite the advent of television, the photographer, not the TV cameraman, has remained a stock protagonist in films and novels that critique contemporary culture. From Antonioni's ``Blow-Up'' (1966), loosely based on the lifestyle of English fashion photographer David Bailey, to Philip Caputo's Vietnam story, ``DelCorso's Gallery'' (1983), the photographer's privileged view of the world has been seen to entail a special moral responsibility. Simply put, photographic sight implies insight, whether it is present or not.

Which is not to say photography has been immune to television. These images, culled from the last 22 years of Rolling Stone magazine, jump off the page with kamikaze intensity. Whether it's the sultry (that's right, sultry) Michael J. Fox, the prancing, whippet-boned Tina Turner, or the tight-lipped Ronald Reagan, marooned on seamless white sheet, trying to find his public persona, the in-your-face glamour of these pictures owes to the curt visual language of television.

Photography in the age of TV often appears superficially intimate, responding to the television close-up as a visual metaphor for truth. Hence, on one page of this compendium, you find yourself a slim inch from the business end of John Belushi's cigar; soon after you can study Bob Dylan's thumbnails up close and personal.

Few of these photographers, fans themselves of the rock-and-roll and entertainment scene that Rolling Stone has covered, distance themselves physically or spiritually from their subjects. No jaundiced, sore-eared photographer on deadline for the local newspaper would have made pictures of rock celebrities like those of Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone's first staff photographer. Wolman managed a portrait of Little Richard, who, despite his volcanic showmanship, comes across as almost tender. Annie Leibovitz's shot of the nude John Lennon, curled like a bean sprout into Yoko Ono's impassive, and fully clothed, body is more sentimental than brazen.

The assertive formal devices employed in these photographs easily combine with the long-standing cultural trust in photography. Together they work like the eerie music in a mystery movie, creating the illusion that something important is going on.

And what is going on? In his preface, author Tom Wolfe, who has chronicled the triumph of style over substance in American culture, charts the celebrity photograph as the indicator of changing youth. Though he is conveniently forgetful of the drug and alcohol habits that have fueled much of the youthful insouciance he so obviously relishes, Wolfe is no doubt right about the ascendancy of youth culture. But that is not the whole story that these photographs tell.

``Rolling Stone: The Photographs'' is a time capsule of what celebrity has become during the 22 years of the magazine's existence. All the world's a stage - make that a screen - in these photographs, a place where the prefix ``mega'' seems perfectly appropriate plunked down in front of every noun. With the aid of the camera, sports, politics, and the arts have been added to the litany of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Without the text of Rolling Stone, which, in spite of its main emphasis on the rock scene, has published some substantial and influential social and political reporting, these photographs are unmoored. Mike Tyson, Henry Kissinger, a few punks, Boy George, Mikhail Baryshnikov, several skinheads, Tip O'Neill, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Madonna, Rose Kennedy, and the Apollo astronauts (or at least their suits) gather on these pages like equals, or at least relatives.

As a consequence, these dazzling pictures now illustrate more than originally intended. Taken together, they illuminate the homogenization of public life and the slippage into box-office values that have taken place in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Yet Tom Wolfe limns these photographs and the times they portray for what he calls ``a glorious sense of immunity,'' like that of Regency England or Rome under Lucullus. I would have said rococo. The technical expertise and visual pizazz, coupled with conspicuous indulgence, the love of artifice - and an assortment of bare bottoms - put me in mind of Jean Honor'e Fragonard and his paintings.

You remember Fragonard, the fashionable artist during the reign of Louis XV. His royal patrons fled or were killed during the French Revolution, their taste for erotic painted utopias departing with them. Fragonard survived the wrath of the revolution because of the respect other artists had for his consummate skill. Largely forgotten, he is said to have died eating ice cream.

Sometimes extraordinary talent squeaks through, evading the judgment of history. But you can't always count on it.

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