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'California Rocks’ at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art shows the heyday of rock ’n’ roll

Big concerts are on hold this summer, but North Bay music lovers can savor rock ’n’ roll memories at “California Rocks! Photographers Who Made the Scene, 1960-1980.”

The exhibition opened Wednesday, July 1, at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and runs until Sept. 13.

With a sharp focus on the Golden State, the show examines California’s role in the development of rock ’n’ roll music, said the museum’s director, Linda Keaton.

“It’s been an absolute blast working on this show,” Keaton said. “And with concerts being canceled, this is one way that people can get a little dose of rock ’n’ roll this summer.”

There are images of Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana in a candid moment at Bill Graham’s home in Mill Valley, a defiant Patti Smith at The Fillmore and Southern California’s Jackson Browne during his “Running on Empty” stadium tour.

The late Jim Marshall’s photo captured the Beatles’ final show, at Candlestick Park in 1966, and his black-and-white shot nails Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison.

Marshall also has an unlikely image in the exhibition of Jimi Hendrix at a drum set in a Sgt. Pepperesque jacket, a wistful look on his face.

In conceiving “California Rocks!” and selecting the images, Keaton and her team collaborated with longtime San Francisco Chronicle rock critic Joel Selvin.

“We wanted a variety of images, not just performance images,” Keaton said.

One of the most affecting is Bob Seidemann’s photo of Janis Joplin wearing only beads, her penetrating gaze meeting the lens.

The exhibition doesn’t stay within the bounds of the dates listed in its title. It includes a 1956 image of Elvis Presley at the Oakland Auditorium and a photo of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne at Berkeley’s Greek Theater in 1983.

Baron Wolman, who in 1967 became the founding photo editor at Rolling Stone, said he appreciates the show’s focus on California, which he called “a wonderful breeding ground for a new version of rock and roll.”

Change in the air

Wolman photographed legends such as Joplin with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. “There was change in the air,” he said “and the music was part of the change.”

Photographer Andee Nathanson said she sought to stay “in the moment” with the subjects she photographed, such as Gram Parsons, who had become her friend. Her image of the slender, shirtless Parsons at a piano exudes the innocence of the late 1960s.

Speaking about her photo of Donovan, Nathanson said, “You can almost hear the music coming off the page.”

Longtime Bay Area rock and sports photographer Michael Zagaris said it’s an “honor” to be in “California Rocks!”

Starting in the 1960s, he noted, musical creativity was in the air and that carried over to photographers’ approaches.

“There was no right way, only your way,” Zagaris said. “The camera was my entree into the scene.”

Zagaris, who pursued photography as a vocation after Eric Clapton asked to use his images, didn’t want to “just capture what was going on. I wanted to be in the band.” More than “capturing an image, capturing a moment in time, you’re bearing witness.”

One Zagaris photo in the exhibition is an image of Jim Morrison fronting The Doors at a May 1968 festival in San Jose.

A law school student in Santa Clara at that time, Zagaris spent $3.25 for a ticket and bought some film for his camera. He caught what has become an iconic image of Morrison lying onstage on his side, his right arm powerfully thrust into the air.

“I thought that our generation was changing the world, politically, musically, culturally,” Zagaris said.

“The war in Vietnam, we brought that in many respects to a standstill. It was the sexual revolution, the drugs. We were all part and parcel of that. It was an incredibly exciting time to be alive.”

Photographer Joel Bernstein grew up in suburban Philadelphia enamored with Joni Mitchell. In his mid-teens he took photos of her at coffee houses. She liked the images so much, she asked him to photograph her 1969 appearance at Carnegie Hall. He was in 11th grade.

That led to a long association with Mitchell and helped launch Bernstein’s photography career.

Bernstein, who is also a musician and lives in Oakland, said he’s looking forward to “California Rocks!” because “you get to compare and contrast the work you’re doing” with others’ photos.

“I hope a lot of people will get to see this exhibit because all of us had inside views of our subjects.”

Total access

The heady access photographers had in rock’s early days was remarkable. Not only did photographers get backstage, they spent time with musicians on the road and often at their homes, Zagaris recalled.

“If you were with the band,” he said, “you had total access.”

Photographers, especially freelancers, had to consider every frame as film wasn’t cheap and developing was expensive. And compared to modern technology, cameras then were primitive, Wolman recalled.

“The hardest tech challenge was the fact that there were no automatic cameras,” he said, “no dependable in-camera light meters that we could trust to make perfect exposures. No auto-focus. No motor drives.”

Photographers “had to consider everything: stage lights that were constantly changing, relatively slow film that required relatively slow shutter speeds,” he added.

“We had to intuit what was going on and manually set our cameras for the rapid new images we saw through our viewfinders.”

Wolman, 83, lives in Santa Fe and is battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He said he’s seeking a home for his archive of photographs.

His approach reflected the sensibility of the time. “I didn’t hear the music,” he said, “I saw it.”

“California Rocks” includes about 70 images, from more than 20 photographers, that show how music has shaped the state’s – and the world’s – cultural and social landscape.

Music from Hendrix, Joplin, Frank Zappa and the other artists portrayed will play in the galleries.

A strict virus protocol will be in place, Keaton said, with masks required, social distancing and no more than 21 people allowed into the museum at one time.

Ironically, this tribute to a time of free love and connection through music “will be a no-touch experience,” she said.

Keaton noted that some view photography as a lesser art form, but “when you look at these images, there’s no question that they’re fine art.”

The photos Selvin collected are “some of the best,” she said. “Some are well-known, but some have never been published or exhibited before, so that’s exciting.”

Keaton hopes people attend “because there’s nothing like seeing the photographs in person.”

Added Selvin, “There will be a lot of famous people on the walls, but the real star is California.”

California Rocks! Photographers Who Made The Scene, 1960-1980

When: 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Wednesdays - Sundays, July 1 - Sept. 13, 2020

Where: Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, 551 Broadway, Sonoma

Tickets: $5-$10

More info: 707-939-7862, x101 or svma.org

Health protocols will be in place, including limits on the number of visitors. Masks are required.

Michael Shapiro’s latest book is “The Creative Spark,” a collection of interviews with musicians and other creative people.

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