Photographing Bob Dylan. One Subject, Many Photographers…

I could just as easily have put David Bowie into the title of this article, or Paul McCartney. I could have included Mick Jagger, or Madonna, icons of the music industry who have had iconic photographs made of them. There are many other iconic musicians, but few have had so many iconic images made of them repeatedly over the years as Bob Dylan. A fact that presents a particular challenge to the next photographer on the taxi rank.

I chose Bob Dylan because of his continually evolving persona and continued sense of mystery, even now aged 81 – Bowie had similar qualities, but is obviously no longer with us – two elements that are both attractive and disconcerting for any portrait photographer. I have always believed that iconic images are most likely a result of creative collaboration between the maker and the sitter and I cannot imagine Dylan doing anything that he didn’t want to do. He is in control of his image and therefore the photographer not only has to respect that intention, but also to work with it. From his early days being photographed by Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith, Art Kane, Rowland Scherman, Elliott Landy, Ken Regan, Barry Feinstein, Lisa Law, Daniel Kramer, Don Hunstein and Jerry Schatzberg, amongst many others, Dylan recognised the power of the photographic image. Rarely photographed in the photo studio – the Jerry Schatzberg ones being most notable – the images that were published and widely seen were made on the street, in other peoples houses and whilst sound checking, playing and recording. Dylan as a restless spirit, always on the move setting the photographer the challenge of catching his thin mercury persona.

Through the 1960s and 70s Dylan remained a fleeting figure, his physical appearance and costume changed as his music confounded his fans, but his willingness to avoid the photographic studio remained in place. Although, both Lynn Goldsmith and Annie Leibovitz managed to coax him into the studio during the late 1970s. Coincidence that they were both female photographers?

The ability to spend time hanging out with a musician, making images in a relaxed and informal setting is my idea of the perfect situation to create strong work. Images that provide an insight into the musicians life without artificial pretence. If you have ever had to photograph a musician in a space defined by an infinity cove and/or a white/grey/black Colorama you will know what I mean. A blank space can be seen by some photographers as the perfect blank canvas on which to experiment with props, lighting set-ups, costume changes and conceptual ideas. But this needs to be part of a collaborative partnership and for this to happen there needs to be a mutual creative meeting of minds that is rare in my experience. Bowie was certainly someone who did this.

The 1980s saw Dylan finally agree to be photographed in the photo studio – as his record sales dropped – and fall prey to bad 80s fashion, over-lit portraits, excessive hairspray, make-up and awkward poses. Many say that he was lost musically and that he was struggling to find his place in the era of glossy production in both music and photography. There are certainly albums from that decade that suggest that was the case, but there are also photographs that act as evidence of photographers trying too hard to make him look ‘relevant’.

David Bailey tried in the 80s, so did Aaron Rapoport in 1985, Annie Leibovitz had a go in the 2000s and Bill Hayward in 2012 and Jake Wangner in 2020. William Clayton had a go at creating an iconic studio image of Dylan as did Mark Seliger. But these images fail to bring anything to the history of images previously created. Dylan is too often seen in these portraits as moody, disconnected, looking off-camera bored. Groomed and presented in his image of the time, but reduced to a mannequin for the photographer to record.

Photography is important to Dylan. He has allegedly overseen the design of his album covers since the late 1980s and he has included worked by both Bruce Davidson (Together Through Life 2009) and Ian Berry (Rough and Rowdy Ways 2020) as the main cover image. Recent videos for his bootleg releases Not Dark Yet Version 1 and Pretty Saro are constructed montages of classic documentary photographs including work by Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank and Paul Fusco amongst many others.

This love for documentary photography may go someway to explain why the most successful images of him have been created in this way. Add this to his famous lack of willingness to ‘perform’ for an audience and you have a good explanation for why the studio based images fall flat.

In an increasingly PR controlled environment it has become difficult for photographers to just ‘hang out’ with musicians documenting those moments in-between, when the mask slips and the true person behind the marketed image emerges. You could argue that pop stars today are doing this themselves on Instagram, and in a way that may be true, but many of these ‘captured’ images are highly controlled and made by the stars own on-salary photographers. This is a shame. Over control stifles creativity.

I have used Bob Dylan as my example here, but you could use other artists to come to a similar conclusion. The iconic image can be a constructed image and exist as a timeless graphic symbol of a period in that artist’s work, just think of Duffy’s cover of Alladin Sane for proof of that, you can also hear Duffy talking about how that image came together here https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2018/10/10/podcast-a-photographic-life-episode-24-plus-brian-duffy/ But if you are looking for the images that capture time, place and person you need to spend time getting to know that person in an environment where they feel comfortable, where they can be themselves. That can be a formal portrait, it can be an observed moment, but it has to be more about what that person is wearing, their hair and a background colour.

I’ll leave the last words to Bob, “Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed,
Dignity never been photographed
.”

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

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