Blackness (2009)

philip townshend - andrew loog oldham - backstage pass

In this photograph from 1963, a young man seated in a chair holds up a picture. From his clothes, his hair, and the smug expression on his face, you might guess him to be a public schoolboy. Is this his favor­ite group? Are the people in the picture—people we now recognize, as we likely would not have when the picture was taken, as the Rolling Stones—people he would like to be? Or is he, perhaps in the way he positions the picture in his hands as if it is a top hat, signaling his superiority to the figures in the picture, the Rolling Stones as they were for their first televi­sion appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars on June 7, 1963, a program that required them, against every blues instinct they had worked so hard to possess, to dress in identical stage suits?

The photograph is by Philip Townsend. The person in the chair is Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager of the Rolling Stones—nineteen years old, younger than anyone in the band. He is going to put them on one side, force the Beatles onto the field on the other, and fight and win a war. He is going to take over the world. “The Rolling Stones are more than just a group—” he would write on the back of their first album, in 1964, “they are a way of life.”

The longer you look into the photograph, the more you are drawn to the black that dominates it—on the left, at the top, on the right—a whole room of black­ness. “Presence in painting,” T. J. Clark writes of the blackness in Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 Death of Marat, “so the Western tradition seems to assume, is ultimately dependent on… a place where representation can efface itself, because in it there is little or nothing to represent. A wall or void or an absence of light.” The photograph doesn’t capture a moment; it shows what could not be shown: the future. The void into which, you can imagine, the man in the chair is about to pitch the people he holds over his head.

From Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography, Thomas Denenberg (editor), Yale University Press, 2009

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