Featuring a gallery of photos from the legendary Monterey Pop festival, the new gallery captures the energy of performance in unusual ways.
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop.” Pennebaker’s film is one of the most well-regarded concert documentaries of the 1960s and remains a cornerstone of American pop-culture iconography. Both the film and the art exhibit focus on the eponymous Monterey Pop Festival concert held in Monterey, California, June 16 through June 18, 1967. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & the Papas and Ravi Shankar are among those who played the Monterey County Fairgrounds. “Monterey Pop: 50 Years” immortalizes Pennebaker’s photos of the concert and those musicians who made it a moment fixed in the history of live music.
Though set in the splendor and frenzy of the concert setting, Pennebaker’s photography is surprisingly close to and seemingly familiar with his subjects. Nowhere is the audience pictured, despite the performers being onstage in front of thousands. While the backgrounds dazzle with stage lights and an implied audience, all focus yet remains on the humanity and personality of the performers.
A significant portion of the gallery is dedicated to close-ups and detail of Pennebaker’s subjects. Laura Nyro and Michelle Phillips are both captured in complimentative profiles. One of the several signed pieces in the exhibition is of the flats worn by Janis Joplin onstage. Yet the quiet intimacy of those close-ups is incomparable to the explosive movement and coloring of the series of wide shots focusing on The Who’s Keith Moon. That disparity between works in the collection is to Pennebaker’s credit: each photo is as individual and unique as the musicians they seek to represent.
The small distance between the camera to the musicians allows the personality of the photos to shine, both literally and figuratively. The lighting and sharp contrast in the exhibit is equally striking as it is pleasant, and Pennebaker’s eye for color dominates the collection. Lighting in unnatural oranges and blues is used to illuminate figures while leaving the background an undefined black. The rendering of Otis Redding is particularly visually dynamic, with the front-lit blues of Redding’s suit juxtaposed against the warm yellows of the venue’s lights.
The use of harsh, unnatural lighting coupled with extreme close-ups hints at the dynamics of the individual figure versus the performative aspect of music. Redding still stands out as a unique individual, even while bathed in yellow lighting against a dark, nebulous background. Pennebaker takes these famous musicians away from their stage setting and allows them to be individuals.
Although the main attraction of the exhibit is the people and the event pictured, there is still huge value to the talent with which those photos are created. Even if a viewer has no interest in 1960s American music or film, the photography itself still holds up on its own. Pennebaker is not one of the big-name musicians featured in Monterey Pop setlist, but his skill with a camera is what makes the collection worth seeing.
The exhibit is essentially a love note to a particular moment in American music history, and it is genuinely worth braving some cold weather to see for yourself the craft with which it is composed while it is still in Tulsa. It is unlikely such a caring rendition of 1967 Monterey, California, will again soon find its way to Oklahoma. I, for one, am in favor of indulging in it while we still have the chance.
“Monterey Pop: 50 Years” is currently at the Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education and is open Thursday through Saturday from 12 to 6 p.m. It will continue to be open for free to the public until Saturday, Jan. 20, when it will no longer be on view in Tulsa.