TWO EXTREMES of rock 'n' roll's diverse visual aesthetic (classic rock edition) are on simultaneous display at a pair of Georgetown galleries. The first is where you'd expect to find photographs of or by musicians: Govinda Gallery, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in September, making it not only, according to owner Chris Murray, the oldest Washington art gallery in one continuous location, but the area's only one specializing in the niche of rock photography. It's showing a series of digitally altered black-and-white prints by singer-songwriter Donovan ("Mellow Yellow") called "Sapphographs," after the Greek poet whose lyrical verse on the subject of love from the 6th century B.C. inspired them.
Starring the rocker's wife, Linda Lawrence, his daughter Oriole and a family friend, all done up in whiteface and posing in linen robes, the pictures have both a (very distant) Cindy Sherman aesthetic and the air-brushed eroticism of bachelor-pad poster art, circa 1975. There's also an (unfortunate, to my mind) evocation of mimes. Not so much actual mimes, mind you, which are bad enough, but the representation of mimes in decorative art, such as the ceramic Pierrot and clown collectibles one might find on eBay. Still, they're perfectly in keeping with Donovan's hook-laden, if gauzy, musical mysticism, which I quite like. (Note to younger readers who aren't familiar with that sound: Think psychedelic, slightly less melancholy Belle and Sebastian.)
Stuck in the same time warp but at the other end of the spectrum is "Rock & Roll Icons of the '60s and '70s: James Fortune Photographs," an Alla Rogers Gallery exhibition of portraiture by prolific chronicler of rock royalty James Fortune. Don't much cotton to Donovan's artsy and a little bit twee tableaux vivants? Check out Fortune's pictures of Keith Moon, at least a couple of which feature the late Who drummer and professional wild man cavorting with what appear to be topless groupies (although I suppose they could be roadies whose grimy tour T-shirts are in the wash).
Other standouts include Fortune's portrait of a buff, bleeding and not-yet-wizened Iggy Pop after a 1974 performance at the Whisky a Go-Go, the legendary Sunset Strip nightclub in L.A. Several pictures of Paul McCartney, some with family members, but all with that mid-1970s mullet of his, are also among the strongest images in the show, which includes multiple shots of Mick Jagger on stage and various manifestations of Led Zeppelin.
Other compelling images feature curious, if slightly unnatural, groupings: Gene Simmons of Kiss and an awkward-looking Cher of, well, Cher; Elton John and Diana Ross; and Stevie Wonder, Olivia Newton John, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The prize, however, for strangeness, sexual undertones, danger and transgression -- and what is rock 'n' roll if not a little bit strange, sexy, dangerous and transgressive? -- must surely go to the artist's photograph of odd-threesome Linda Lovelace of "Deep Throat" fame; Moon (yes, him again); and Micky Dolenz of the Monkees. Man, wouldn't you love to hear the story behind that night?
Come to think of it, you can. Fortune will appear at the gallery Nov. 12 from 1 to 4, and you can ask him.
When it comes right down to it, much rock 'n' roll photography, like music videos, exists not for its own ends, but to sell something: records, nostalgia, the fantasy that we can somehow possess, or at least touch, a part of the artist. This would explain the LP cover art also on display at Alla Rogers. While Donovan's "Sapphographs" are certainly artful in and of themselves, one wonders whether anyone would look twice at them if the artist weren't a celebrity; if he didn't have a memoir, "The Hurdy Gurdy Man," coming out next month; and if his own 40-year anniversary CD/DVD anthology, "Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan," weren't on prominent display in the gallery.
But such has always been the synergy of pop culture: Listen to the music, wear the T shirt, live the lifestyle, own the art.
DONOVAN: SAPPHOGRAPHS -- Through Nov. 12. Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th St. NW. 202-333-1180. www.govindagallery.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 to 6. Free.
ROCK & ROLL ICONS OF THE '60S AND '70S: JAMES FORTUNE PHOTOGRAPHS -- Through Dec. 20 at Alla Rogers Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW. 202-333-8595. www.allarogers.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday noon to 5. Free.
Public programs associated with "Rock & Roll Icons" include:
Nov. 12 from 1 to 4 -- Photographer James Fortune will be at the gallery to answer visitors' questions.