by S. Pulse
Calling all Austin music lovers. We have a “must visit” to add to your list. Check out “Fifty Years in Exile,” a photo exhibit of rare, never seen prints of the Rolling Stones from acclaimed photographer Norman Seeff. These photos became part of the art for the Stone’s album “Exile on Main Street.” Fifty-years later, Seeff revisited his contact sheets and developed this three-part show that includes: the original working handprints, newly created large format art prints, and a collection of original hand-signed photographs of other musical notables. The exhibit is located in east Austin at the Modern Rocks Gallery
Gallery owner, and former guitar player for Modern English, Steven Walker is often in house and can share the many brilliant back stories behind many of the photos. Walker, a photographer himself, has a unique perspective on rock-n-roll photography. Having been on both sides of the lens, he has keen insight into the industry and the challenges of visually capturing musical artists. We met up with Walker at his intimate gallery to discuss the exhibit, his gallery, and the many amazing photos on display at Modern Rocks. He started by generously sharing with us a captivating narrative surrounding Seeff’s ‘Exile’ shoot.
AUSTIN 101: Tell us a little bit about the ‘exile’ part of “Exile on Mainstreet”.
WALKER: So, what happened was Mick Jagger got a bit of a shock from the tax man back in the UK. They hadn’t paid tax in 8 years. They thought someone else had been looking out on that side of things for them, but nobody was. So, they heard from the tax man that you have about 8 years of tax due. Mick Jagger’s first thought was “See you later. I’m outta here.” Keith Richards rented a chateau in France, and they did some recording there.
NOTE: Prior to recording the final tracks in Los Angeles in 1972, the bulk of the album “Exile on Main Street” was conceived, and partially recorded, in the basement of Richard’s rented chateau on France’s Blue Coast. For more on the mayhem and creative genius that ensued at the chateau, view the 2010 documentary “Stones in Exile”, available for rent on Prime.
WALKER: So, Mick Jagger had this vision when they were doing the artwork for the album. He had seen the Russian National Ballet. They had been over to the US, and he (Mick) saw this footage of them coming off the plane, walking down the ramp, and then they all disappeared.
AUSTIN 101: So, that was their exile to freedom.
WALKER: Yes, absolutely. They defected to the US and have never been found since. They got off the plane and just ran. So, Mick had this vision and wanted to do this thing where the Stones were in exile as well, basically leaving the UK. He wanted to do this Titanic landing kind of thing. They set up a warehouse in LA which took some time. The band was drinking cheap red wine all day long. Bill Wyman was sick of it, so he just left. So, there is no Bill Wyman in the shot. But you will notice though there is this gentleman here. Who is this mystery person? It’s been said before that he was an assistant, but he was actually a local drug dealer, there to meet the band.
AUSTIN 101: I like his Christ-like pose here like he’s blessing the band.
WALKER: Yes. So, he stood in, (like) Bill Wyman’s stunt double. And the best of it is that Norman Seeff, before he was a photographer and an art director in the US, he is from South Africa originally, and Norman was a medical doctor. So, basically, he got his scalpel out and he took some pictures before of Bill Wyman and he cut Bill Wyman’s face out manually and stuck him on the prints that were rescanned.
AUSTIN 101: So Seeff was the original photoshopper?
WALKER: Yes! So, look at that picture there (points at original set of the postcards) and you’ll see Bill Wyman’s face stuck on there. To me, that story alone is just priceless. I mean, you talk about rock-n-roll history, all the crazy stories and you think back to those times. You realize you’ll never get stories like that again.
AUSTIN 101: Truly. And tell me about the mayhem in the last shot on the original working contact sheet?
WALKER: So, this woman was an actress/model who was put on the set. Mick put his arm around her, and she went in for a kiss. Mick tried to pull away and then they fell over.
AUSTIN 101: I guess the red wine was kicking in.
WALKER: Yes, and I love the last shot. It is just pure chaos. And what I love about these shots as well is, the whole way through (the various progressive shots), Charlie Watts is just standing at the back.
AUSTIN 101: Oh, I see. He’s not participating. He’s just standing straight up in the back being his stoic self.
WALKER: He is in the same position in every picture. He’s at the back, which is kind of his pose on stage as well.
AUSTIN 101: Which is kind of reflective of his personality.
WALKER: Yes, definitely. You can kind of see all their personalities coming out and I love it.
Twelve of the shots from Seeff’s photoshoot were used to create a 12-postcard concertina included in the first printing of the “Exile on Main Street” album. Each card contained a message created by Mick. It was an unusual and creative marketing ploy. A hard to come by original set of the cards is also on display at the gallery.
The music from “Exile on Main Street” reflected a new direction for the Rolling Stones. Walker pointed out that the album contained elements the Stones had picked up on the road, particularly while touring in the States. Components of the blues and country are present in many of the songs. Walker went on to note that the Exile album was illustrative of the genius of the Rolling Stones band, which he says is “their ability to continually adapt and grow.” Likewise, the photographer Norman Seeff is an artist that continues to evolve his creative virtuosity. As part of the fiftieth anniversary of the Exile album, Seeff, now 83, revisited his original negatives. Using editing, special treatments and colorization, Seeff enhanced his original shots to produce newly created large format art prints, which are also on display. Walker observed that in Seeff’s full-band piece, viewers can see a rare glimpse of the usually gentile Charlie Watt’s “kind of looking mean.” He truly does. The details and vivid clarity of the newly created pieces in large format are exquisite.
The show also includes original signed handprinted photographs from Seeff that Walker points out “I am so stoked to have here as well.” Virtually, everybody that was anybody came through Seeff’s LA studio at some point. The shots on display include Ray Charles, Tina and Ike Turner, Joni Mitchell, Steve Martin, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, The Ramones, Tom Waits, Andy Warhol, Blondie, and others. Also, there is a distinctive photo of Willie Nelson taken in LA where, perhaps impacted by his environment, he looks unusually edgy. We like to think he was missing Austin.
The other photographers displayed in the Modern Rock gallery are also intriguing. Walker has a knack for selecting unique shots. The musicians displayed have been photographed thousands of times, yet each shot chosen by Walker depicts something exceptional and distinctive. His best seller is a photo of former Governor Ann Richards holding both hands with Dolly Parton in an intimate greeting by local photographer Scott Newton. The shot is of two unexpected friends and begs to tell a story. Another criteria Walker uses when selecting photographs for his gallery is that he leans towards those pictures where an artist looks comfortable and is allowed to be authentic. After all, as he explains, “When you hang a picture on your wall you don’t want it to be of someone who feels uncomfortable being there.”
Another iconic shot displayed in the gallery is of the Rolling Stones art for “Beggars Banquet” by the photographer Michael Joseph. The ornate Renaissance-like setting includes a feast-laden table surrounded by various animals including a live goat. A lot is going on in this photo, but Walker provided a story that adds further intrigue. Walker said, “The night before (the shoot), Brian Jones got absolutely hammered in a local pub, was arrested, and spent the night in jail. And they picked him up from jail that morning.” Also, there was a monkey skull on the set that Walker explains, “Charlie Watts talked to the monkey skull the entire time.” We love these stories and the resulting photos.
Walker’s gallery also includes many outstanding shots of David Bowie. Anyone who has tried to take photos of a live performance (as we have) knows the challenge of capturing the artists rapid movements under continually changing concert lights. If you can relate, take notice of the gallery’s shot of David Bowie titled “The Archer” by photographer John Rowlands. At first glance, you may not know that it is a live performance shot. Walker explains that Rowland’s attended Bowie’s concerts two nights in a row, so he was able to anticipate the coming “draw of the bow.” He knew he had a split-second window to capture the shot as the house lights would go dark as Bowie released the bow. The photo was taken in 1976, before digital photography, yet it is perfect in terms of lighting, balance, and style than any painstakingly crafted studio shot.
In short, a visit to Steven Walker’s Modern Rocks gallery, will give you a front row seat to rock-n-roll history. He sells his fine prints not only here in Austin, but also online to customers around the world. He also curates special collections for hotels and other businesses. He explains, that, “I have always had this fascination between the visual arts and music.” His fervor is reflected on the walls of his gallery, and we are so pleased that he chose to make Austin his home. He explained that the feeling is mutual saying, “Music is important to so many people and it’s part of the fabric of Austin as well.”
Modern Rocks Gallery, 916 Springdale Road (in the Canopy Complex), Open 11 am – 5 pm Tues- Sat, free admission. Exhibit runs through September 30th.
While at the Canopy Complex consider also visiting the once SoCo based gallery Yard Dog and the many other artists housed in the complex. Also check out the unique diner at the Canopy, Sa Ten, where you can enjoy their sweet Saifa Coffee with Japanese toast (hint: we loved the Sriracha smoked salmon toast!).
Check out all our concert photos and coverage on Austin 101!