It's A Living: The Shape-Shifting Image Maker

by Harrison Jacobs

Riding the Wave: An outtake from this session with the B-52’s was used on the cover of their greatest hits compilation, Nude on the Moon: The B-52’s Anthology. “I never thought about the danger of taking my camera and my powerful flash into the water,” said Goldsmith. “I got the shot I wanted. I also got the shock of my life.”

Identity is how we define ourselves and how others define us. For an image maker like famed rock-and-roll photographer Lynn Goldsmith, a singular identity is something she’s always tried to shirk, even as she created and refined iconic personas for artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Frank Zappa.

Wardrobe Changes

Over the course of Goldsmith’s more than 40-year career, her award-winning work has appeared in and on the covers of Life, Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone, among others. Many of her photographs have become the defining image of the artists she has worked with.

Despite her success, Goldsmith has never understood her designation as a rock-and-roll photographer. “To me, there were portrait photographers, still-life photographers and photojournalists. But a rock-and-roll photographer? What was that?” she says. “If rock-and-roll means that it’s about breaking down barriers, revolution, which is what the words rock-and-roll meant at the start, that’s cool.”

It’s easy to understand her confusion. Goldsmith has had a wildly successful, if eclectic, career that has seen her make more professional transformations than a rock star changes wardrobe. Among her many identities, she has directed a network TV show, managed a leading 1970s band, founded a photo agency in her own name, and worked as a songwriter, an optic-music artist and, most famously, a photographer of icons in every facet of entertainment and public life. When asked how she became a photographer, she responds with a weary laugh.

“I’ve answered this one probably 500 times in my career,” she says. “I never intended on being a professional photographer. It actually didn’t occur to me.”

Making Her Own Identity

In her newest book, Rock and Roll Stories, Goldsmith set out to answer that oft-asked question: The meandering tale is as much about music and the ’60s as it is about an obsession with photography.

Goldsmith is a native of Detroit, a “Motor City girl,” as she likes to say. Her story starts with her amateur photographer dad. As a little girl, Goldsmith would watch her father develop portraits of her and her sister in his darkroom. “In that moment, I knew for certain magic existed,” Goldsmith writes in the book’s introduction. Soon after, she received her first camera, a baby Brownie, and began photographing her dolls.

When Goldsmith was four years old, her parents divorced, and the family bounced between Florida and Detroit for the next several years, until her mother remarried and they settled in Miami Beach. Goldsmith’s stepfather, who was in the hotel business, wanted to impress her and bought tickets to the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show for her 16th birthday. Little did he know, Goldsmith thought the Beatles were “goodie-goodies.” She was a fan of the Rolling Stones.

Not wanting to disappoint her step father, she accompanied him to the lobby of the Deauville Hotel to catch the Beatles arrival. According to Goldsmith, she was as excited to see the intricate design of the lobby carpet as the Beatles themselves.

When the group walked in, Goldsmith was entranced by their boots, which made her think of the soul singer James Brown, so she began photographing their feet. When John Lennon asked if she wanted to take a portrait of them, Goldsmith shook her head no—she had what she wanted. A photographer from the Miami Herald witnessed the unusual exchange and asked Goldsmith if he could process her film. The photo ended up in the next day’s paper, her first published image. Her assessment of this event is typical of her basic creative approach. “I was in the right place at the right time and had a particular attitude about what I was shooting that made it different from what everyone else did.”

Fab Four Feet: In Lynn Goldsmith’s first published image from 1964, she passed up a portrait of the Beatles for a picture of their stylish shoes, set off against the patterned carpeting at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach.

Getting Professional

Goldsmith attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, where she had no intentions of pursuing photography as a career. After graduating, like many 20-somethings, she was in the process of finding her way.

“I didn’t have this plan of being a celebrity portrait photographer, much less being a photographer. Even today, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up,” she jokes.

She did a stint as a substitute English teacher in Miami Beach and spent some time in Los Angeles with her sister before moving to New York, where she became a music marketer for Elektra Records.

Goldsmith was successful in marketing, and before long, she met Joshua White, founder of Joshua Television, which used “video magnification” to project rock acts onto big screens at concerts. Goldsmith went to work for him as a director.

When White was hired to run ABC’s In Concert series in 1972, Goldsmith went along for the ride, becoming the youngest woman accepted into the Directors’ Guild of America. Around the same time, White gave Goldsmith one of her first professional cameras, a Nikon FTN with a 50mm lens.

While working as director of In Concert, Goldsmith met Grand Funk Railroad, a popular Michigan-based rock band with a large following but not much credibility from the music press. They didn’t have a number one single, and Goldsmith thought she could change that. She made a wager with the band’s new manager to make her a co-manager if she could land a number one hit single in all three trade magazines.

This was to become one of Goldsmith’s first experiments in crafting identities. She understood that the strength of Grand Funk Railroad was being from America during a time when British bands were ruling the charts, and she convinced them to write a single titled “We’re an American Band.”

Inside the album cover is a now-classic Goldsmith image showing the band members completely naked amidst haystacks, with American flags blocking their private parts. She predicted the image alone would generate enough buzz to drive record sales.

With the band’s new theme, her art direction for a redesigned stage show and the publicity photos she shot, the band’s transformation was complete. On the same day, “We’re an American Band” went to number one in Record World, Billboard and CashBox.

Becoming an Image Maker

Goldsmith spent five years managing Grand Funk Railroad. However, as the band grew in popularity, they became less receptive to her guidance. She, in turn, became less and less creatively satisfied and began turning to her camera as an outlet. After five albums, she called it quits. She convinced them to do the album “Born to Die” and photographed the band in open coffins, an inside joke to herself. Her identity as a band manager was dead. It was time for another transformation.

She credits the moment she left Grand Funk as when she chose photography as her focus. After spending the first part of her career working with and managing large groups of people, Goldsmith longed for the type of creative autonomy that photography could provide.

“I wanted to travel, and the camera was a passport,” she explains. While there were certainly other stops still along the way to photography—her career as the motivational musician Will Powers being one—Goldsmith began doing what she has become most famous for photographing musicians.

As a young photographer, Goldsmith became known as the girl who would ride her bicycle across Manhattan to the offices of Newsweek, Time and other magazines, carrying photo stories. She would pitch editors on the spot, and they would take her ideas into editorial meetings. She was, and is, a pushy, persistent personality, never afraid of rejection or the word no.

In a recent lecture at the Annenberg Space for Photography, Goldsmith told a story that exemplifies how her personality led to success. While she freelanced for magazines, she often set out on her own to attract clients. One day, she spotted Frank Zappa entering the St. Regis Hotel. She wrote him a letter proposing that, “if I gave him time for a shoot, I could make images that he liked and save him time from doing a lot of photo sessions where he would have no control over what magazines were given.” Zappa agreed and ended up loving the images. She photographed him extensively for the next 13 years, shooting many of his album covers—most famously, Sheik Yerbouti—and syndicating the photos she made worldwide.

Crucial to Goldsmith’s success is her ability to bring things out of people other photographers cannot. She isn’t afraid to change someone’s expected image or challenge a person’s perception of him- or herself. “Styling is conducive to enabling artists to actually be who they are,” she explains. “They just didn’t know that their look didn’t reflect it. As soon as they see it, they know.”

Goldsmith may be a woman of strong opinions and a keen sense of who people are, but according to her, she never set out to change people. “I allow them to have a safe place to try things,” she says. “In trying on those identities, if it really fits who they are, they go with the flow.”

On Set with a Rolling Stone: Lynn Goldsmith consults with Keith Richards during a photo shoot.

A Champion for Photographers

Goldsmith may be an exceptional photographer, but she’s also always had a knack for business. Shortly after her photo career took off, she founded the photo agency LGI to license her images and those of her friends.

In starting the agency, her path was much the same as in her photography career—being in the right place at the right time, with the right mix of perceptiveness and attitude. The story goes like this: One day, Goldsmith was contacted by a representative from the agency Sigma, asking about pictures of Lindsay Wagner, star of The Bionic Woman TV show and a personal friend, for a client in Japan. Goldsmith shot some images, and when the Sigma rep came to collect them, he offered Goldsmith $6,000 in cash. Confused, she asked if that was how he paid all his photographers. When he explained that he’d done the sale outside of the agency, Goldsmith realized there was something wrong with the agency world.

At the same time, Goldsmith’s photographer friends were impressed with her success selling her photo stories directly to magazine offices. When she asked why they didn’t also go to magazines like Time, her friends responded that they only marketed photos to music magazines such as Creem. To demonstrate that their work could also make it in mainstream publications, she began taking her friends’ work along with her to pitch. Over time, she realized how much time and effort it took to represent her colleagues’ work, which led her to open LGI.

The agency grew exponentially, representing work by more than 300 photographers by the time Goldsmith sold it to Corbis in 1997. When asked why she decided to sell, she is unequivocal. “I got tired of all the business and not enough shooting,” she says. “I really felt that this was not what I intended when starting in photography. I intended on being free. Now I was a slave.”

Another factor in Goldsmith’s decision to sell was the coming digital age. “With the advent of digital technology, the investment we’d have to make to be effective with the photographers we represented would have been huge,” she explains. “It would mean taking on more responsibility in that area of the photo business.”

Freedom as a Muse

Selling LGI freed Goldsmith financially to pursue whatever she desired. For someone whose goal in life was to remain free of a fixed identity, that freedom proved to be creatively fruitful. Goldsmith has spent her latest transformation crafting The Looking Glass, a fine art series that challenges photography’s role in creating and fixing identity.

Over time, Goldsmith’s mastery in crafting highly appealing public personas as a rock-and-roll photographer began to make her feel like she was a part of “the masquerade and falsehood of the photographic process,” in which the focus was on “the surface, not the soul—where the subjects are objects, decorative, symbolic objects.”* To break from this mold, she decided to embark on a personal project that reveals deeper parts of the human psyche and highlights the relationship between what we see and what we imagine. Drawing on elements from consumer culture, she uses digital technology to create composite images that are as much about photography as anything created directly from a camera.

“With the whole idea of digital, nothing exists until there’s a print,” she explains. With this new mantra in mind, she layers hundreds of images of storefronts, window displays, fashion mannequins, self-portraits and constructed sets, mixing and manipulating elements to create images that challenge the idea of a “single, solitary sense of self.”

At the center of this work is the way Goldsmith uses the images to question the validity of her own identity. She appears in all of the images, her visage transported onto faces of the various mannequins she costumes and photographs. Thus tranformed, the Goldsmithfaced mannequins straddle the line between true and false identities, the human and the plastic.

Looking Back on a Life in Photography

As a photo industry veteran, Goldsmith is qualified to make bird’s-eye observations of the current state of the business. According to her, the shift from print to digital and print media to the Internet has made becoming a photographer far more complicated.

Nowadays, the quality of photography is exceptional, due in large part to great photography schools, says Goldsmith. Yet, because of a glut of good work and photographers that don’t understand the business, the value of an image has gone down.

“So many people are just giving their pictures away. It used to be the ones who gave those pictures away weren’t very good,” she says. “But now, unless the student decides on a business plan, understands the cost of starting a career—unless you’re really lucky, you’re headed for disaster.”

Goldsmith continues to work, although she doesn’t have to. At this point, she doesn’t have the desire “to go through what one must go through” to be a professional photographer in today’s industry, but that doesn’t mean she’ll ever stop working.

“Music and photography have been more a part of my life than not. That’s what I do. That’s who I am,” she says. “I think my life is often like my photo shoots. You start out with what you think is a direction, but you have to be open to things that can happen in the moment that change it. I work hard. I have a lot of energy and have the good fortune to have people supportive of my work. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the life I wanted and feel I still do.”

Goldsmith’s recent series The Looking Glass starts with images of New York City window dressings. “By removing objects from the windows and adding new elements, I aim to highlight the psychological relationship between what we see and what we imagine,” she explains. By incorporating self portraits into these elaborate scenes, Goldsmith uses her face as a stage, offering different looks that undermine any attempt to fix her image. For more on this work, watch this Hahnemuhle video in PDNedu’s digital edition or view it online here.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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