Volume 75, Number 9 | July 20- 26, 2005

Morrison Hotel Gallery
124 Prince St.
New York, NY 10012

Pioneer in rock photography to show in Soho

Work by former “Melody Maker” photojournalist

BY Aileen Torres

Villager photo by Wentzell
Photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Barrie Wentzell (1968).
Barrie Wentzell, a photographer for the seminal UK publication Melody Maker from 1965-1975, had an uncanny knack for taking pictures of musical artists who would go on to become legends. To note, his 1965 photograph of Diana Ross made the cover of the weekly music newspaper and caught the attention of the then-assistant editor, who recruited Wentzell to become a staff photographer; a stint that lasted through a decade-long “party,” as Wentzell calls it, of revolutionary music, love and creation.

While he was lucky to have worked for the premiere music publication in the UK during those halcyon days of rock ‘n’ roll, Wentzell’s work attests that he earned his keep with an artistic touch that elevates his participation above mere spectatorship. He had open access to his subjects—they were all pretty much part of the same “family,” as Wentzell describes it, hanging out at clubs together and going to each other’s parties—and his photographs are infused with an intimacy naturally arising from such a connection. His work—“I only shoot in black and white,” he says—has a deep, yet subtle sense of light and shadow, a sort of muted chiaroscuro effect that lends a poetic atmosphere to the photos, many of which have very soft halos of light emanating behind the figures, whether in poses of performance or repose.

Wentzell, who was born in 1942 in Durham, England and attended Maidstone Art School in Kent in the late 1950s, approached his assignments with an easygoing manner and would often spend a lot of time with his subjects, just chatting, many times in the artists’ homes. For instance, he once took a portrait shot of Pete Townshend in the musician’s flat in London in 1968. “He was telling me about this wild idea he had to do something all about a deaf, dumb and blind kid,” recounts Wentzell. “Pete always was a thinker.” For those who aren’t well-versed in the rock canon, this idea would blossom into the rock opera “Tommy Boy,” featuring a character called the “Pinball Wizard” as the said kid.

The list of artists Wentzell has photographed includes Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton—to name a few. “There was nobody to follow when I started,” said Wentzell, because rock ‘n’ roll photography was a nascent field then. “I made it up as I went along. The Melody Maker just left it to us [the photographers]. We had a lot of freedom.” He looked to the photojournalists Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith and Walker Evans to be his artistic teachers.

“In England, when I was a kid, there were only illustrated magazines. Everything was illustrated in a story. I guess I followed from a tradition of that,” said Wentzell. “We were shooting, capturing on film. It was an atmosphere of fun.”

Diana Ross, 1965.
Of his technique, Wentzell says, “I didn’t like using flash. I wanted to capture the atmosphere.” He would often position himself about two feet away from his subjects to get that desired effect, which he was able to do because “we had an intimacy with the musicians and the artists. It was great. You could hang out with Eric Clapton [for example] during the day—just hang out. Very loose.

“It’s the look in the eyes. It’s the person. It wasn’t the image,” says Wentzell, speaking of the essence of the photos. “It was the real thing. Back then, we never had makeup artists, we had no stylist.”

His photo of Hendrix, shown here, was taken at Hendrix’s manager’s office in Soho, London, in 1968. “Jimi was depressed that day,” remembers Wentzell. The musician had come in and started telling Wentzell how exhausted he was from his grueling schedule at the time.

As for Wentzell’s own schedule then, he was doing several shoots a day, moving around town to go see this and that band or performer, and even checking out new talent to send word back to the office whether they were worth a look-see. For instance, “The first time I ever saw the Stones was in ’64. It was free, on a Saturday afternoon. They played rhythm and blues, like Chuck Berry,” said Wentzell, who, similar to his colleagues, knew what he liked, and he was definitely intrigued by the Rolling Stones.
Life was always fun and heady then, and work was very much a pleasure for Wentzell during his days as a photographer for Melody Maker. But in 1975, he decided to put an end to his swinging life. One reason was that Wentzell had begun to sense the music scene morphing in a direction that was abandoning authenticity. “Some of the artists started believing their publicity,” he explains. So, he said to himself, “I don’t want to do this anymore—it’s just about the image. It wasn’t about the music anymore.” He also had new responsibilities needing his attention; namely, taking care of his young daughter. So, he bid farewell to his Soho studio and transplanted his family to the Isle of Wight.

Wentzell has since made his way to Toronto, where he currently lives. He is digging through his archives in preparation for a book he is working on.

About four months ago, a friend of his ran into Peter Blachley, co-owner of Morrison Hotel, a new gallery in Soho featuring fine art rock ‘n’ roll photography—black-and-white, silver gelatin, hand-signed prints. Previous exhibits there have featured the work of Henry Diltz (the other owner of the gallery, who was the official photographer of Woodstock and is responsible for many prominent rock album covers, including The Doors’ “Morrison Hotel” and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut album), Bob Gruen (who took many photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono), Frank Stefanko (responsible for the cover photos of Bruce Springsteen’s albums “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River”) and Elliott Landy (who has photographed such rock legends as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Band, Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison). Wentzell’s friend told Blachley about Wentzell, and Blachley then browsed through Wentzell’s website to check out the work of this former Melody Maker photographer. “When I saw it, I thought it was perfect for the gallery,” said Blachley. “ He’s one of the great undiscovered photographers.”

The Barrie Wentzell exhibit will run through Aug. 2 at Morrison Hotel. Wentzell’s work can also be viewed and purchased online at www.barriewentzell.com.

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