It’s (NOT) Only Rock’n’Roll. Mar...

It’s (NOT) Only Rock’n’Roll. Mark Allan’s photos at OTTO Gallery, in Bologna

Music and photography lovers cannot miss the exhibition “It’s (NOT) Only Rock’n’Roll. Mark Allan photos” curated by Pierfrancesco Pacoda at OTTO Gallery.Music and photography lovers cannot miss the exhibition “It’s (NOT) Only Rock’n’Roll. Mark Allan photos” curated by Pierfrancesco Pacoda at OTTO Gallery. The exhibition, already hosted last year at the International Museum and Library of Music in the same city, brings together forty-eight of the most famous shots by the official photographer of the Barbican Center in London, who immortalized all the great international protagonists of music between the 1980s and 2000s. The exhibition, divided into three exhibition rooms based on the type of images, retraces thirty years of a career that began out of passion when, while still a student at Goldsmiths College, the artist portrayed Freddy Mercury at Wembley Stadium in London during his performance at Live Aid (13 July 1985), a huge concert organized with the aim of raising funds to alleviate the famine that had hit Ethiopia in that period. From under the stage, bending down, Mark Allan managed to frame Mercury together with the writing “LIVE AID” and also for this reason the photo, which has become one of the emblems of the most ambitious international satellite transmission project ever carried out up to then, opened the doors for him of the “official” world of music photography. Reviewing his shots is therefore a total immersion in the flow of the recent history of music, whose evolution is marked by the milestones of some “legendary” concerts performed by world celebrities ranging from rock to soul, from pop to rap, with inroads into classical and symphonic music.

Mark Allan, Freddie Mercury, Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, London, 13 July 1985; Lou Reed, backstage in Warsaw, August 2000, copyright: Mark Allan / Allan Archive

In the epic portrait gallery on display in Bologna we recognize artists belonging to different musical genres and generations, such as David Bowie, Kylie Minogue, Kiss, Slash, The Foo Fighters, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Prince, George Michael, Liam Gallagher, Lou Reed, Amy Winehouse and Madonna, just to name a few with the aim of giving an idea of their caliber. In the first room there is mainly a succession of “action photos”, i.e. snapshots of a moment of a live performance that the perfection of photography makes iconic, in the second we find posed or “stolen” shots in the backstage of concerts, in the studio or during the recordings, while the third is dedicated to a series of shots in which the choice of black and white gives the images an almost cinematic quality. What all these portraits have in common, regardless of the circumstance that constitutes their occasion, is precisely their effectiveness in representing the subject in a way that always appears definitive in summarizing the inextricable fusion between character and person that has had such a large part, for each of them, in the creation of their fame. And in this aspect one of the most distinctive traits of the photographer’s personality also manifests itself: according to him synthesis is the result of a lightning-fast intuition that manifests itself while he is concentrated on «taking a very good photo in the shortest possible time», as he himself told us during the opening. Not therefore, as the impeccability of each shot would immediately lead one to think, a calculated elaboration of the character’s visual identity, but the natural aptitude for capturing the essential in a few seconds and returning it in a photograph that must first of all work in itself, as an image.

Mark Allan, David Bowie, backstage at the Roskilde Festival, Denmark, 1996; Madonna, at Wembley Stadium, London, 1989, copyright: Mark Allan / Allan Archive

For each photo displayed in the exhibition, the photographer remembers the situation, the technical challenges, the light conditions and the attitudes of the protagonists, with whom he is able to empathically enter into confidence thanks to his innate sensitivity and his enthusiasm for their music. Every image, to quote Roland Barthes’ famous definition in La chambre claire (Paris, 1980), has a very specific punctum, that sudden and engaging detail that inexplicably charges the photo with emotion and meaning. Sometimes this input comes from the photographer’s inspiration, as in the image of Peter Gabriel in the gardens of Real World Studios in Wiltshire, where the presence of the tree in the foreground suggests to Allan to ask the singer to pose in profile with the suitcase in hand. In certain cases it is the result of contingencies, as in the shot that portrays the singer Stevie Nicks at her home in California: the woman’s almost porcelain doll-like skin, which is mainly responsible for the surreal connotation of the composition, derives both from her paleness and having recently woken up, as well as from the need to use a particular film due to the dark environment. In other shots, the details that characterize the image derive from an impromptu creative collaboration with the artist, as in the image which portrays David Bowie backstage at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Here the collision between the leaden luminosity and the setting of the beach, suggested by the deckchair on which the singer sits and by the strip of sand that we see in the foreground, becomes even more surprising thanks to his idea to pose almost challenging the lens with his cigarette between his lips and a bucket and spade for children in his hand.

Mark Allan, George Michael, performs the first concert at the New Wembley Stadium, London, 9 June 2007, copyright: Mark Allan / Allan Archive

Some photos amaze for their technical mastery, such as the distant shot of George Michael’s concert at the New Wembley Stadium in London, where the singer in motion, thanks to a ray of sun that sculpts him, manages to stand out with a sharp profile on a wall of fans, in which every member of the crowd is also in perfect focus. Or like the low-angle shot of Kiss at the Forum in Kentish Town, in which the metallic details of their stage costumes, the plectrum glued to the musician’s tongue and the contrast of their silhouettes with the red light that the wraps them enhance the irreverent attitude of the band. Other images, however, hide encrypted testimonies, accessible only to expert musical connoisseurs, such as the portrait of Prince during his performance at the Wembley Arena in London in 1995, when he went on stage with the writing “SLAVE” on his cheek as a protest against his record company and the guitar in the shape of the unpronounceable “love symbol” (result of a cross between the symbols of the male and female sex) with which he had recently begun to sign his works precisely to free himself from it, holder of the registered trademark of his most famous stage name. And again, the jump of the frontman of the Manic Street Preachers at the 02 Arena in London, whose legs spread in the void framing the Welsh flag in the background, a tribute to the region from where a large contingent of the group’s most loyal supporters came from. Many other stories could be told, but the invitation is to discover them directly in the exhibition by diving into the world of celebrities and music in which Mark Allan’s shots reserve us a timeless front row seat.


It’s (NOT) Only Rock’n’Roll.  Le foto di Mark Allan
curated by Pierfrancesco Pacoda
4/05 – 15/06/2024
OTTO Gallery Arte contemporanea
Via D’Azeglio 55, Bologna


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