Right Place, Right Time: a good definition of luck, along with the ability to recognize RPRT and to take advantage of fortunate circumstances. I thought about this quite a bit yesterday, as I was having my own very special RPRT moment at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, the opening day of Taking Aim: Unforgettable Rock 'n' Roll Photographs Selected by Graham Nash. From the EMP’s website:

“This dynamic new exhibition, organized by Experience Music Project, showcases some of the most memorable photography in the history of popular music, as chosen by legendary musician Graham Nash of supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, who is also well-known as a photographer, collector and pioneer in digital imaging and printing.

As guest curator, Graham Nash, brings his rich musical history, keen eye and storytelling skills to an exhibition of 98 rock 'n' roll images taken by 40 of the world's greatest music photographers, including Anton Corbijn, Lynn Goldsmith, Annie Leibovitz, Jim Marshall, Neal Preston, Mick Rock, Francesco Scavullo and Nash himself.

While organizing the exhibition with Jasen Emmons, EMP's director of curatorial affairs, Nash considered thousands of images and received invaluable feedback from a curatorial advisory panel consisting of Deborah Klochko, executive director of the Museum of Photographic Arts; Sylvia Wolf, former photography curator at the Whitney and current director of the Henry Art Gallery; and Christian Peterson, associate curator of photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Nash selected what he considers to be great photographs that exemplify the spirit of rock 'n' roll, whether the artist is Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious or Johnny Cash. The images range from iconic shots to others that have never been published.

The exhibition includes an audio tour narrated by Nash. He shares insights about the images, artists and photographers, as well as his own connections to them.”

So, of COURSE I would be there, that’s MAH THANG. BUT, what made it all a once-in-a-lifetime event were yesterday’s public panel discussions at the EMP featuring Nash and some of the absolute TOP of the TOP of renowned rock photographers discussing some of their most-famous images. I felt like Homer Simpson in a donut shop. I was very eager to hear and see these folks, all of whom in some way had enriched and influenced my life. From left to right: Jini Dellaccio, Charles Peterson, Jim Marshall, Joel Bernstein, Graham Nash, Alan Messer, Chris Walter, Alice Wheeler, Henry Diltz, and Neal Preston.

The first thing I noticed as I took my seat in the small JBL Theater was that this was an older crowd, very noticeably so compared to most of the concerts I go to, anyway. There were only a few people in their 20s/30s in the audience. It surprised me quite a bit, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, the panel itself was primarily made up of people ranging from 40-somethings-like-me Alice Wheeler and Charles Peterson to 74-year-old Jim Marshall and (can you believe THIS) Jini Dellaccio, who is in her 90s! Has the heyday of rock n’ roll and rock photography come and gone? I suppose so, although it feels odd to say. I feel like I have one foot always back in the day and one foot out and about in the present. I still get just as excited when I get a good shot as I did when I was 21. But the business of rock has changed tremendously, and perhaps the art of the heroic or poignant visual rock moment is not as appreciated as it once was. But it is by ME, and by my very enthusiastic seatmates in the theater.

Graham Nash, if you didn’t know, is a real photo geek, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. He isn’t a musician that happens to take some pictures. He is a talented,knowledgeable, and lifelong photographer. He is also a very affable and intelligent guy, who easily balances acerbic barbs about Neil Young with drooling tech-laden specs about photo scanners. His selections for Taking Aim seem to fall into three categories: the Iconic, those shots that we have seen so many times that they seem as familiar as a family photograph, although generally more sweaty and with more eyeliner; the Concert Energy Moment, which is as it sounds – epic and grand, a feeling of movement or transcendence; and Rock Star Downtime, showing the lag, slog, grime, hangers-on, boredom, and loneliness of the many hours spent not having the Iconic or Concert Energy Moments. His choices give us insight into his own experiences and how he was both immersed in and in real awe of his own musical world. This is his photograph of Joni Mitchell, listening to a playback in the studio:

As you would imagine, the stories told by the photographers were just so engaging – some very funny, some surprising, a few that were sad. Many of them began taking rock photos at the same age I did – 16 -- and many learned their craft as they went along. I was relieved in some way to hear that I wasn’t the only one to have lost an entire tour’s worth of photographs to lab mistakes (oh, that broke my heart to pieces in 1983 for the Kinks, f-you Chicago Kodak),had trouble getting paid at times in anything other than promises, or never had a darkroom. Some of them eagerly accepted digital cameras while others still shoot film whenever possible. Some had no issues using flash photography at shows, and some thought it was intrusive. All except perhaps for the youngest of the panel benefited from the days when no one stopped you from bringing a camera of any kind into a show or prevented you from shooting more than the first three songs of the set. There were the wide-open possibilities in the still-new pop music business when your friends bashing around on guitars might actually become incredibly famous, and your good photos then became important, and then you became famous and important.

During a break between the panels, I popped up to see the exhibit itself. I will certainly have to make another trip over to see it again at my leisure, because I didn't have the time to just stand and stare and think and analyze as I would have liked to. There is a lot to think about in all of the images, from the technical to the emotional to the historical and cultural. My favorite photo is this one of Elvis Costello in what looks to be Holland's tiniest hotel room ever, by probably my favorite rock photographer, Anton Corbijn. This photo is also on the cover of the Taking Aim book (although I have a minor complaint with the crop on the picture to fit the vertical format, bah).

The EMP made a shout-out for the general pop to submit their work, too, so I sent in five recent leetle-cam pics just for the fun of it. I was surprised and then all giddy to see them on the monitor at the exhibition, because I am silly like that. Fun! The EMP does a really good job at interactivity; it helps to make the museum a really special place.

Back to the theater and the panel for more photos and stories. Many talked about the change in the business – tight-fisted image control from management, fewer outlets for photography, less interest/money in concert shots. Most supplement their income by doing other kinds of photo work (Neal Preston shoots sports, Alice Wheeler, general art/portraiture, Charles Peterson does commercial campaigns), and a few have such a body of work that they can re-publish and re-package (both Jim Marshall and Alan Messer have books coming out this year about Johnny Cash, for example) as they wish. All of them seem to retain a very sincere appreciation for the particular thrill of rock photography and understand that Right Place, Right Time + their own good eyes gave them quite a ride. They also understand about ego and self-promotion. None of them could have succeeded in such a very competitive profession without that component of the personality.

So many times during the afternoon when one of the wonderful photographs would pop on the screen and the audience would ooh and ahh in recognition and appreciation, the photographers would say, “I was just lucky, it just happened and I happened to catch it.” But it isn’t quite that. Not quite. Yes, you have to be there, be ready. The light has to be right, you have to have enough film (or memory space). You have to have some feel of composition and know how to turn your bloody camera on. But to catch a piece of magic…you are hooking into something else. You must, in some fashion, be able to anticipate it by the absolute fraction of a second. If you don’t, by the time you recognize it and click the shutter, the moment is already gone. It’s the difference between a good shot and a WOW shot. You might know what you have at that time, and you might not, but you’ve got to have that something in you that tells you, “Now.”

Now + WOW = why those who do rock photography love it so. You will endure beer slopped on you, jerk promoters, evil-eyed groupies, elbows in the head, fat blocks of glaring security, technical failures, tired feet and arms and ears and eyes, and a thousand crap-to-meh-to-good-to-very good shots just to get the one WOW. And you will do it over and over and over again, paid or unpaid, because you never know what could happen. If you wanted predictability and an assured outcome, you’d be shooting bowls of fruit or cans of creamed corn or frowning zitty middle school students.

I could babble on about this pretty much endlessly, but it would be better for you to buy the Taking Aim companion publication from Chronicle Books and go see the exhibit here at the EMP through May, or wherever it lands on its two-year tour afterward.

Thank you very much EMP and Graham Nash and all the photographers for a day I won’t soon forget.