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Lensing the Legends: Sherry Rayn Barnett Visually Captures the Essence of Music
In her exquisite new book Eye of the Music, The Photography of Sherry Rayn Barnett, New York to LA, 1969-1989, the eponymous shutterbug chronicles the music scene coast-to-coast for two decades. For 250-plus pages illustrated with mostly black and white photos – with the occasional splash of color, such as of Prince at the Hollywood premiere of Purple Rain – Barnett regales the eye, as well as the inner ear.
There are soulful evocations of Paul Simon, tantalizing images of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, a majestic, meditative portrait of Chuck Berry, and even some surprises, including a jovial Joan Baez and Frank Zappa. Her lyrical, insightful imagery is also accompanied by Barnett’s commentary, written in her own hand, with a foreword by music critic Holly Gleason.
Barnett’s work has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, Circus, Crawdaddy, Creem, People, Forbes, Guitar Player, Acoustic Guitar and many other outlets. Her photos have been highlighted at the Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, displayed at solo exhibitions, on permanent exhibit at the Los Angeles Forum, and can be seen at the Martin Guitar Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Eye of the Music is the first time her optically opulent oeuvre has been collected in a single volume – but hopefully, not the last.
Photography, especially of the rock scene, has arguably been a male-dominated world, but occasionally female talents such as Annie Leibovitz and Sherry Rayn Barnett shine forth. Although Leibovitz was Rolling Stone’s chief photographer for a decade, she’s probably best known for lensing celebrities in general, while Barnett focuses on the musicians, per se.
In this candid conversation Barnett discusses lensing the legends, her creative process, music and causes, her famous high school, the song that changed the “native” New Yorker’s life, a particularly troubled artist, her own rock band, and more.
To paraphrase Eric Clapton: “Let it Rayn!”
Rock Cellar: Tell us about the use of your photo of Tina Turner at this year’s televised 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Actually, I’ve contributed to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony before. For example, a Chuck Berry closing shot a few years ago when he was inducted and did the closing song. This year, with Tina Turner being inducted as a solo artist, they used a photograph of mine that ironically was from my very first professional shoot, my first assignment, from the Electric Circus in New York City in 1969. And they chose to use that photo to close out the segment with Christina Aguilera singing “River Deep, Mountain High.” It was such an honor.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about that first photo shoot with Ike and Tina Turner?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Amazingly, I was still in high school. I got the assignment from an underground newspaper that gave me my start, Corpus. The editor and I went to the Chelsea Hotel [in Manhattan] to interview Ike and Tina. They were both dressed in their faux leopard pajamas and robes and it was just an amazing opportunity to do my first shoot.
Tina slept through most of the interview; she was passed out on the bed – it was mostly with Ike. Later that night we went to the show at the Electric Circus where I photographed Ike and Tina and the Ikettes. Which of course was simply an absolutely amazing live show.
Tina has remained one of the top five performers I’ve ever photographed.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about your personal background?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I was born and raised in New York City, Queens, in Forest Hills … My Dad would take me to Palisades Amusement Park, where in addition to the rides they’d have weekend rock & roll shows. With Cousin Bruce Morrow of WINS. I’d take a Brownie box camera … and take my very first photos with those little blurry soft focus box cameras. It was very exciting for me to be able to have the visual of the artist that I’d listen to on early rock and roll records.
My mom was a songwriter, musician, dancer, and when she was shopping her songs, she was taking me, I realized in retrospect, to the Brill Building, to drop her songs off with publishers there. Her name was Peggy Stokes, she wrote songs that were demo-ed by the best studio players in NYC. Her arranger was Stan Applebaum, who did the string arrangement for Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and all the Neil Sedaka hits… I had music in my life from the very beginning.
I went to the High School of Performing Arts, the school in Fame [in the 1980 movie] you had to audition to get into. I was in the music department and was a classical guitar major.
Rock Cellar: How did you get into photography in general, and rock photography in particular?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I really just wanted to put a face with the music I was hearing. It was more of a holistic idea … In high school I approached a few underground papers and started going down to the [Greenwich] Village and photographing shows in the Folk and Blues venues, like the cafes, primarily the Bitter End, the Gaslight Café and a bit at the Village Gate. I wanted to capture the essence of the music I was hearing. I wanted to capture it visually and to share it. It became a passion.
Rock Cellar: Have you primarily been a freelance, staff or house photographer?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: That’s interesting. I consider myself more freelance than anything. The first [publication] I was on the masthead for in New York was called Rock Magazine, as staff photographer. When I moved to California – they had an L.A. office – I became the West Coast staff photographer. When I shot for Music Connection when they were just starting out, I was their first staff photographer. I was also a staff photographer for The Hollywood Reporter. But really, it still had the essence of freelancing and I owned my own work. It wasn’t like working for a big corporation.
Rock Cellar: Who influenced your style of photography?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Good question. Ansel Adams, one of the greats. And Brett Weston. To be able to use natural light to capture anything really. Beautiful black and white work – I’m shooting primarily in black and white. Then there was a photographer named David Gahr, who was shooting a lot of folk artists. When I started photographing musicians, I basically went with what I, at that point a teenager, was listening to – folk music, folk rock.
Also, at that time I was very caught up in the anti-Vietnam War movement, the whole countercultural movement, that was combined, bringing together newer values and social consciousness to the music I was listening to.
Rock Cellar: Eye of the Music is mostly in black and white. Why don’t you shoot more in color?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Of course I do now, because I shoot digitally. And I did all along [shoot in color], but it’s just the beauty in the black and white film that I wanted to focus on. Because I started out there – I did shoot color along the way. I could do Eye of the Music in color and do the book again. [Laughs.] There’s such an artfulness and textual feeling to black and white film. And of course, there was always that challenge of shooting in low light, which I learned to compensate for and excel.
We had 35mm film and 36 exposures to capture a number of great shots in one roll of film, because that’s all I had. I started out without a big budget and was working within those confines, and I developed my own film, too. But I didn’t develop color.
Rock Cellar: What cameras, lenses, etc., have you used over the years? Why do you feel those pieces of equipment empower you to capture the quintessential, what you call “the moment of time,” of these musicians?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I started out with a Kodak 35mm camera which got stolen from me one night after shooting at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. I always wanted to have a Nikon, so I got a used Nikon and remained a Nikon shooter from then until now.
Again, budgetary concerns – I started out with one Nikon body and one lens. So, I had to be up front and center. I was able to do that by shooting in the smaller clubs – I love shooting … the largest arenas I’d shoot in were Carnegie Hall, Town Hall. During those days there wasn’t a mass of photographers in front of the stage. A lot of shows I shot I was the only photographer there, fortunately.
I basically was getting lots of my own assignments. I wasn’t shooting the larger rock bands, I was shooting the individual artists I love. Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, B.B. King. Occasionally, I’d shoot the Grateful Dead or some large rock band; I was kind of on my own course.
Rock Cellar: What’s it like shooting legends such as Tina Turner, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Prince, Linda Ronstadt, the Eurythmics, Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: In one word, exciting. It’s always thrilling to me to photograph the people I was listening too. They inspired me, musically, spiritually, in every way. They were the soundtrack of my life. I was very fortunate to photograph a number of them, actually before they were legends. Photographing Bonnie Raitt performing at the Gaslight Café – the picture of her in Eye of the Music is up close and personal. It was because I got right there, there weren’t a lot of photographers at that time. Very, very different from the way it is now. One of the keys was having access. It wasn’t the mass of marketing, P.R., takeover that’s happened in recent years.
Seeing Nina Simone at the Village Gate. Or Karen Carpenter. By then I was out here in L.A., starting to shoot at larger venues, the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre. Tina Turner at the Forum instead of the Electric Circus. Everything continues to get bigger. Even now I love to shoot in more intimate situations. There’s just a connection you can never make in a large arena.
Rock Cellar: Which musicians have you evolved close working and/or personal relationships with over the years?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I worked with Manhattan Transfer at various times. Starting with shooting them in rehearsal for the Grammys with Ella Fitzgerald, I believe it was 1983. We never realized how important those photos would be, historically, as well as to members of the group. I have gotten hired to photograph them again for promotional as well as live pictures. One of the Transfers, Cheryl Bentyne, became a friend and even contributed an endorsement on the back of Eye of the Music.
…Another artist who I became friends with after working with them is Toni Basil, after shooting the iconic photograph for “Mickey” and stills for her series of ’80s music videos.
Rock Cellar: Sixties and seventies music often had a protest component. I saw John and Yoko sing “Give Peace a Chance” at an antiwar rally in Bryant Park, NYC. Starting on page 158 of Eye of the Music are photos of Peter, Paul and Mary. What was their cause? Who else was involved with that issue?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Peter, Paul and Mary were involved in all of the causes that were socially conscious. They were part of the anti-Vietnam movement, they were at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, they fought for Civil Rights in the ’60s and into the ’70s. By the ’80s, they were part of the anti-nuke movement. I photographed them at each of those times. Those artists, some of their success, was because of what they believed in and what they spoke out for and against.
So, in my book I had to include Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie… Tom Paxton. And he’s still at it! I love that man. He and Judy Collins are just enduring artists and I have such respect for them.
Rock Cellar: What other protest-related events did you cover besides Survival Sunday, aka Alliance for Survival events?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Those are the shows I covered in L.A. in the late ’70s, early ’80s, three of those concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. I also photographed Bonnie Raitt, who of course has spoken out and been such an incredible activist. I shot her at a rally against the San Onofre power plant. There was also Peace Sunday in ’82 at the Rose Bowl, with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, which was also in the book.
Rock Cellar: Eye of the Music is subtitled New York to LA, 1969-1989. What about your photography today?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: When we were putting the book together, I wasn’t planning on limiting it to those two decades. But there was so much work. So, I stopped in ’89. I’m not a photographer who shoots lots of arena artists, I shoot festivals, such as the Four Corners Folk Festival in Colorado, all sorts of eclectic artists. I just love that. I love being able to discover new artists. Here in L.A. I shot at the Levitt Pavilion for several years, at MacArthur Park and Pasadena; I was a staff photographer.
Rock Cellar: Rock ’n’ roll was largely the musical expression of the youth culture. Yippies like Abbie Hoffman famously declared: “Don’t trust anybody over 30.” In their song “My Generation”, The Who famously sang: “Hope I die before I get old.” Tell us about shooting rock stars when they are mid-life and have even become senior citizens?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: [Laughs.] The Levitt Pavilion would book some older artists, such as Mark Lindsay [of Paul Revere and the Raiders], Brian Hyland [whose big 1960 hit was “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”] and Peter Asher [half of the Peter and Gordon duo]. In terms of photographing them, I try to help make them look as good as possible. Especially these artists who are giving 100% and taking people back to places and times they loved so much.
Rock Cellar: Have you ever shot events with “paparazzi” and if so, what do you think of them?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: [Laughs.] I shot lots of events in the mid-’80s when I got hired by The Hollywood Reporter. I’d shoot movie premieres, such as Purple Rain with Prince. I was amongst the paparazzi but I wasn’t actually with them, because they’d open up the doors to photographers from The Hollywood Reporter. It was an interesting gig for me – but probably the least artful of anything I’ve ever done. I learned to shoot really fast and the perks were I got to photograph the opening of the Hard Rock at San Francisco with Cyndi Lauper and Prince’s private performance at the premiere.
Rock Cellar: I attended Richmond Hill High School with Lauper in Queens.
Sherry Rayn Barnett: [Laughs.]
Rock Cellar: There’s a photo of Keith Moon in your book, and he was notorious for his bad behavior. Were any of the musicians you shot difficult to deal with?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: A lot of them are eccentric. I haven’t personally had any negative experiences. Except Nina Simone, you would not want to encounter her at certain times. A lot of times mood swings are drug related.
Rock Cellar: Do you have a favorite photo you shot?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: It probably goes down to my top five. The most explosive performers, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Janis Joplin, Prince. And over the years Joni Mitchell in various situations. Onstage with James Taylor. The work I’ve shot is in a variety of musical genres, such as Miles Davis or the jazz series I shot for Polygram. I love reaching out into other areas, especially with artists that haven’t been photographed that much.
Rock Cellar: Do you have a favorite song?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: [Laughs.] Ed, you’re killing me. I could say “California Dreamin’” brought me out here to L.A.
Rock Cellar: Did you ever shoot the Mamas & the Papas?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: No, they were broken up before I was old enough.
Rock Cellar: That was mighty inconsiderate of them.
Sherry Rayn Barnett: That’s true, but I will say one of my most memorable shoots was at the Fillmore East, with Dave Mason and Mama Cass. So, I did get to photograph Cass Elliot, with Odetta opening for them. Talk about a powerful performer, Odetta!
Rock Cellar: Why did you switch to digital cameras? What cameras are you using?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I had no choice. I had enough years in the darkroom. I enjoy the new technology, I’m still shooting Nikons. But boy, Canon and Sony have really upped their games.
Rock Cellar: You are also a musician?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I’m in a band called Mustangs of the West. I play electric guitar, lead guitar in the group… We got a record deal with Blue Elan Records. They released an album we recorded with producer Mark Howard called Time.
Rock Cellar: We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there a question you have never been asked in an interview that you would like to be asked?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: I don’t think it’s been delved into too much, but being a female photographer in the boys’ world of rock and roll. I didn’t think of it for most of my career because I just pretty much inserted myself into places that I wanted to be and where I could photograph the artists I wanted to photograph.
But in retrospect, I look back at how few women were tour photographers. Probably because the guys wanted to hang out with the guys. And back in the days of groupies, women didn’t really fit in backstage as much. There have been a few excellent women tour photographers, such as Linda Wolf, who shot Mad Dogs and Englishmen. There haven’t been a lot. What women photographers were at Woodstock? Lisa Law was there.
And if you look at the galleries, there’s a small percentage of women photographers. I’m hoping that will change. That never stopped me, but I think it’s great that now there are more female photographers for young girls to look up to. I’m glad, and hoping things change more.
Rock Cellar: What’s next for Sherry Rayn Barnett?
Sherry Rayn Barnett: Ahh. What’s next, we’ll see post-pandemic how much the live music world opens up. I expect to continue shooting. There may be a second book, I certainly have a lot more work that hasn’t been published. I would like to do speaking engagements about the time period of legendary musicians covered in Eye of The Music and how it laid the groundwork for new generations of singer songwriters and Americana artists of today – and more female artists as musicians, writers and producers. And to play music.
For info on EYE OF THE MUSIC see: www.sherrybarnettphotography.com
For info on Sherry Rayn Barnett see: https://rockpaperphoto.com/