Chris Cuffaro’s Greatest Hits Adorn The Walls Of The Past [PHOTOS+INTERVIEW] EVENT REVIEW: Chris Cuffaro's "Greatest Hits" Photography Exhibition @ Gibson Brands On Sunset 2/2/17
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I find myself on a new adventure in the gutted body of what was once a Sunset Strip beacon for music lovers: the outer shell of what could be considered one of our places of worship — the historic Tower Records. Opened in 1971, it’s now the home to Gibson Brands on Sunset. Still, with its trademark mustard yellow and tomato red sign that had been re-painted in late 2015 for Colin Hank’s documentary, All Things Must Pass, the record chain, which went out of business in 2006, feels slightly resuscitated if only for Hank’s documentary, and perhaps, this night; an evening featuring the works of Chris Cuffaro, one of the greatest rock portrait photographers you’ve probably never heard of.
For grunge history music aficionados and lovers of all things analogue — from vinyl to film — tonight is a special occasion. For it’s on this night, Cuffaro, who rose to prominence as a celluloid story teller capturing the movement that transformed the radio-rock landscape (perhaps not forever, but for a meaningful period), is showcasing his immense collection of printed negatives featuring bands and artists who are now legends, but back then, were either on the rise or in their heyday. With perhaps the exception of a few like Iggy Pop and Brian Wilson, who were already rock icons, there are monolithic, black-framed prints of Pearl Jam in a field of black and white waves of knee-high grass, a bare chested Michael Hutchence hip-wrapped in a white button down, as if left on the floor by a one night stand, and a pre-pop Gwen Stefani who appears like a frail, but somehow stoic and alluring window into a time when post punk, grunge, and metal-influenced rock was on every rock station’s playlist between 1990 and 1994.
When I first enter, PJ Harvey is playing and the mood is set like a Jean Cocteau tracking shot in The Blood of a Poet. It’s a little surreal, there’s a floating feeling, and yes, I’m completely sober. It’s the mood that’s set by the groove of Down By The Water, the filtered pools of light, the expanse of the original Tower Records sales floor turned warehouse, and Cuffaro’s images; a few of them featuring the ghosts of artists who have passed on including STP’s Scott Weiland, Kurt Cobain, and most recently, George Michael. As a fan of black and white, analog rock photography, seeing these images strike a strange, and off tune chord reminding me that it’s all limited: fame, success, music, moments — even this moment, all have an expiration date. Perhaps that’s why I love photography so much; it gives a sense of permanence to an otherwise fleeting existence.
I make my way toward the step and repeat and find the event’s publicist, Libby Coffey of the Mitch Schneider Organization PR Firm. Libby shares how the center light table covered with scattered proof sheets featuring Elvis Costello, Flea, Brian Wilson, No Doubt, Ice T, Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell, and several other of Cuffaro’s subjects, is her favorite element of the entire party because it shows the mistakes; the images taken before the one that became the famous magazine cover, liner photo, or gallery piece. I drift over to it and start looking through all the images and I’m transported back to the 2 years I spent printing proof sheets to gauge the best print time under a Beseler enlarger. It’s endearing and reminiscent and I now really want to talk to Cuffaro to learn more about his 30-plus years working with Hasselblads, Pentaxes, and Polaroids. Back to the step and repeat where I find him talking to Libby.
BC: What is tonight’s even all about?
Cuffaro: It’s celebrating 30 years of music photography, even though I’ve been shooting for 47 years, and I’ve been shooting music for 40 years, but I wanted to call it “30” because I thought it’d make me sound younger. It’s basically a celebration. It’s my way of saying thank you. I always tell people, this isn’t an exhibition. It’s a celebration.
BC: What’s your favorite analog camera to work with and why?
Cuffaro: My dream since I was 10 was a Nikon F2. That was my baby. Back in the day, we always said, that if you didn’t have a Nikon F2 you weren’t a real photographer. I would also have to say the Hasselblad. If you look, you can see all the square stuff [on the walls] is the Hasselblad. The Hasselblad EL/M. I used Hasselblad the last 12 years [of the work seen here], but I liked them all. I used them all. I used Polaroid. The old Polaroid 665 film. I used a Polaroid 110 B. That’s the fun thing about back in the day — you had different cameras for different looks. Now it’s the same camera and the looks are created in post production.
BC: Did digital kill the analog star?
Cuffaro: Not for me, I haven’t shot film in almost 15 tears, but I don’t care. I love digital — I love it more actually. A lot of photographers are gone because they couldn’t stick with it, but I had no problems. I don’t need to shoot film ever again.
BC: What do you attribute your success to?
Cuffaro: Growing up, my heroes were [Richard] Avedon, [Irving] Penn, and [Richard] Maynard. They were gods to me and I stole everything from them if you look, you’ll see, oh, that’s a Maynard, that’s an Avedon. I also said for years, that my style just came from growing up. I started very young, so I was like, looking at everything. I was looking at fashion magazines, I was looking at everything growing up, not knowing what I was going to be shooting. I moved to LA to be a fashion photographer, and my first boss said to me, “You’re in the wrong town and you know nothing about fashion.” And I went like, oh, what am I going to do now?
The thing I’m most proud of is my work ethic. There’s not a fucker that I won’t work with. You tell me that there are photographers who work 12 hours a day…I will work 13. Nobody’s ever outworked me. It’s my mentality. I’m not going to sit down and rest.
BC: Anything you want to share that no one ever asks you?
Cuffaro: I just like to have fun. I’m the luckiest fucker on the planet. I’ve had more fun than anyone I know, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.
I like Chris. He’s energetic, charismatic, and with no heirs. It’s become clear to me that the reason why his images feel genuine is because he’s a genuine photographer and person. He came up working with what I like to think of as the chemical grit of photography. Digital is a great advancement, but my own personal experiences starting with a Pentax K1000, developing negatives in black canisters, printing images on fiber paper, washing them in developer, stop, and fix baths, and having the final selects mounted on archival board, framed and hung in my home or in a gallery — that’s the process of analog. In some ways, it’s the difference between carving a sculpture from stone and making one with a 3-D printer. Something human and physical is lost with the new technology. There’s still artistry, but perhaps, just a little less soul.
By the time (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding by Elvis Costello plays, I’ve started my first cocktail. A bartender named Tiara served me a Morrissey Mule made with a new vodka out of Austin TX called Deep Eddy Vodka. I look past her and see an enormous, grand scale print of The Moz himself and think about the Henry Rollins portrait over my shoulder on the opposite wall. Those who know these two, probably know of Rollins’ early distain for Morrissey and now there’re both looking at each other from across a room of spectators. Hundreds have filled the innards of what was once Tower Records and everyone is somewhere between drinking, talking, and gazing at black and white portraits that are timestamps of a musical period so pivotal and influential to not only many here tonight, but millions around the world.
It’s interesting how the clear, no-bullshit, and prolific talent of one person can attract so many whose talents are unknown. It is Hollywood after all, and this room is most likely (at least) half filled with starry-eyed servers who got the night off from whatever restaurant they come from and don’t even know the significance of the building they’re milling around in. That’s the beauty of this town. It attracts all types and it’s a place where sets are built, destroyed, and — as with this Tower Records – often re-built (or in this case, repainted) if even for a documentary — which was serendipitous for this night featuring Cuffaro’s work, stories, and music that inspired much so much for the past 30 years.
The exhibit is moving locations to Mr. Musichead Gallery and will continue to be on display until February 18, 2017.
Official Website: http://cuffarophoto.com
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Constantin Preda is a Los Angeles based TV Producer, Music Video Director, and Film/Video Assistant Director who enjoys traveling the world, photographing people, attending concerts, and camping with his mutt, Sandy.