Unless you’re a photography buff, you probably haven’t heard of Alec Byrne. And given everything his lens has seen, that needs to change. If Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” were about a young photographer caught up in a blazing music scene, that character would be Alec Byrne. And with his newly released photobook London Rock: The Unseen Archive, Byrne allows us into the world of capturing the London rock scene at the height of its fervor.
In 1967, Alec Byrne was a seventeen year old photographer whose skill, determination, and sheer luck landed him the music photography gig of a lifetime. To get there, Byrne worked as a dispatch rider for a press agency by day, slowly building his portfolio. He learned on film with limited resources, forcing him to hone his skill and develop a keen eye for light and composition. Within months, he was on NME’s official payroll as a professional photographer in the middle of London’s rock revolution. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Byrne gallivanted with the gamut of classic rock royalty, from Hendrix to Bowie to Jagger to The Beatles, capturing it all on film along the way. Yet for years, after all the backstage sessions and concert shots had finished, Byrne’s film lay forgotten, gathering dust in his garage as he moved into other realms of photography. In fact, Byrne never thought much of the undeniably iconic images until 2015 when a shot of David Bowie from 1969 accompanied his box set. After Bowie’s passing, Byrne gathered his collection of gig photography and portraits to share with the world.
London Rock is a marvel of photography, giving its reader the inside look at a world of photojournalism no longer possible. In his introduction, Byrne recounts stories of his various subjects, altogether almost unbelievable in the stature of their subjects and the unfettered access he enjoyed. He retells getting onto to the closed set of Mick Jagger’s movie “Performance” by sheer persistence and charm, walking in a park with David Bowie, free of any publicity team or entourage, and snapping shots of Paul and Ringo as they took a smoke break outside of a press event at Abbey Road. The rapid, messy explosion of rock n roll coupled with the uncertainty of a budding new industry left the perfect backdrop for Byrne, barely 20 years old, to achieve a collection of photographs of both fantastic skill and caliber.
All of these and hundreds of other extraordinary shots lie within the 252 glossy pages of London Rock. The large, 11×14 inch photobook features an extensive array of beautiful shots including candids, gig photos, backstage shots, and portraiture. Subjects include every impressive name in music in the 60s and 70s: Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, The Who, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and Bob Marley, to name a few. Byrne’s undeniable style manages to capture both intimacy, the result of his knack at putting his subjects at ease, and grandeur without becoming overwhelming. This collection is a look not only at the various artists and gigs of classic rock’s heyday, but at the more personal experiences of the larger-than-life characters who lie within. London Rock: The Unseen Archive is without a doubt a masterful achievement by a master of his craft.
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