Early music photography

Vintage camera

© iStockphoto.com/Grigory Bibikov

The relationship between photography and music stretches back even further than the invention of sound recording. As early as the 1860s, sheet music was being illustrated with photographs of famous contemporary singers and with illustrative tableaux based around the theme of a particular song. Sometimes these covers took the form of collectors' items. For instance, in San Francisco in the 1870s, photographers Bradley and Rulofson began selling sheet music with real photographic prints of performers framed in by lithographs. These sheet music editions commanded a higher price than non-photographic versions and were sold to theatregoers after performances in the city as a souvenir (see the 19th century California sheet music website for example).

Such early examples begin to illustrate how photography has been instrumental in constructing the star images of popular music performers. This ability became particularly valued with the rise of the record industry in the early 20th century, when consumers' primary experience of music - listening to it - began to be separated from the physical presence (and thus image) of the performer. Photography offered one way, as Dave Laing (2003, 296) puts it, "to restore the visual to the disembodied voice".

The 1920s saw the relationship between photography and the star image becoming more intense, as a growing specialist music press both in the US and Europe, together with the arrival of 'talking pictures' in 1926, meant that music stars reached wider audiences than ever before. In the entertainment titles that sprang up to cater for the growing curiosity about movie stars, including musicians, the photographic image became central. As the Hollywood movie became the dominant entertainment form it also introduced new conventions in the photographic portraiture of entertainers. Previously the popular 'carte de visite' portraits (mass-produced postcard-style photographs) had been rather formal and stiff (see for instance the 19th century carte de visite of the famous opera singer Adelina Patti). Echoing the closeness and the nuanced emotional range that the screen camera could capture, glamour and celebrity portraits in the Hollywood era tended to be more close-up and intimate. They also utilised the latest advances in lighting, development and cosmetics, often resulting in a stylised, apparently almost flawless representation of the star.

These conventions became standard across the entertainment industry as a whole and the romantic and intimate style of the Hollywood portrait had a particular resonance for the new styles of singer that were becoming increasingly important by the 1930s with the development of the electric microphone. Lighting and compositional conventions developed for Hollywood stars thus became commonplace within the publicity photographs commissioned by the recording industry and as a result, became central to how audiences came into contact with images of musicians. Readers of fan magazines revelled in the visual images they offered. What was portrayed in the photographs appeared naturalistic - that was part of the skill behind their presentation. But behind it lay a desire to create an image that would be interpreted in a particular way - and then to develop that image, and indeed change it over the years. Some outstanding examples of this are the images associated with the singer Frank Sinatra.