Not all musical instruments are created visually equal. Trumpets? Roy DeCarava’s cover shot for Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” is about as sexy a photograph as there’s ever been. Violins? Man Ray’s “Le violin d’Ingres” is sexy in a very different way. Keyboards? Arnold Newman’s famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky turns a grand piano lid into God’s own eighth note. Trombones? Tubas? Flutes? Not so much.
Guitars are in a class of their own: the way they combine solid and void, metal and wood, straightness and curve. No other instrument can seem as much a natural extension of the body of its player — truly, a guitarist is a kind of centaur — or, in its shape, seem such an echo of the human torso. Sure, angels play harps. But gods — Jimi, Eric, Stevie Ray, B.B. — are associated with a different stringed instrument.
Pictures of all four — Hendrix, Clapton, Vaughan, King (who gets two) — appear in “Guitar Heroes: Photographs From Behind the Six String.” It runs at Pantopticon Gallery through June 9. Twelve photographers have work in the show, which offers nearly four dozen photographs. There are also six actual guitars. The instruments were made by Booches Custom Guitars, of Chelmsford, jointly run by Panopticon’s owner, Jason Landry, and his uncle, Joseph Landry.
Jason Landry’s dual love of guitar and camera isn’t so unusual. There are those for whom names like “Fender” and “Gibson” carry as much of a thrill as “Leica” and “Rolleiflex.” With both guitar and camera, art, craft, and technology combine.
The earliest photographs in the show are from 1950: Ernest C. Withers’s shot of B.B. King (wearing an ensemble of shorts, jacket, tie, dark socks, and two-tone shoes) and Harold Feinstein’s image of a bare-chested beachgoer at Coney Island. The most recent are from last year. The three most memorable of those may be Leslii Stevens’s of Buddy Guy (the expressivity of his hands!); Marc Lacatell’s picture of Joe Bonamassa (does Jack Nicholson need a stand-in?); and Gary Samson’s high-stepping Little Freddie King. With all due respect to King’s namesake, there are two-tone shoes — and then there are two-tone shoes.
Is it boomer-centric to think that the heart of the show are the pictures from the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s? Courtesy of Rowland Scherman, Bob Dylan shows up three times (in one of the photographs, no guitar is visible, but that’s all right). Courtesy of Roger Farrington, “Double Fantasy”-era John Lennon also shows up three times. Lennon makes a fourth appearance, courtesy of Scherman, in the company of Paul, George, and Ringo.
In Ron Pownall’s photograph from a 1981 Hartford Civic Center concert, Keith Richards almost looks healthy (almost). Pownall also has Ted Nugent, from 1978, looking as though he’s auditioning for the Rockettes (imagine the scene in the dressing room if he made it); Chuck Berry, from 1973, wearing one of the world’s ugliest shirts; and Muddy Waters, from 1969, with a pompadour so formidable it should have its own frets.
Speaking of pompadours, the Edge has a pretty good one of his own, in Jeff Thiebauth’s 1985 picture from a U2 concert at the Worcester Centrum. In Thiebauth’s shot of John Lee Hooker, at a 1990 Great Woods concert, the great bluesman could be the angel of death — he looks that grand, that menacing — except, as already noted, angels play harps, not guitars. Clearly, it’s their loss (heaven’s, too).