(originally written in those bygone days of yesteryear before universal camera phones)
Above, my photograph of Brian Wilson (Beach Boys' musical mastermind) and Rodney Bingenheimer ("Mayor of the Sunset Strip" documentary subject and influential DJ) celebrating the birthday of Chris Carter (no, not the "X-Files" one, the one in Dramarama) with assorted Beatles' memorabilia at a private party I attended. That's a pretty name-droppy mouthful, eh? Actually, it was pretty rare of me to be invited to such rarified events.
I felt no qualms about asking to photograph the two at this event because I had observed Wilson to be in excellent humor, without minders, having a great time at a private party. I didn't shoot his playing piano because I felt that would be socially intrusive. I was rewarded with a photo of a pleasant-looking Wilson with a sincere half-smile here, visibly enjoying himself. It's just a snapshot, but a nice one of famous people having a good time.
(For those unaware of the depth of Wilson's story, the summarize Proust version: he is one of the true musical geniuses of all time, not for the pop music you all know, but for the elaborately complex creativity of his compositions within the pop world that you probably don't know. The dvd examining the making of "Smile" documented one of the most bizarre stories in all modern music, how a young musical genius in his 20's, Wilson, felt that the Beatles had raised the bar so high that he took on a private challenge to outdo their collective creativity, and produced some of the most stunning music of all time, then succumbed to pressures from his bandmates to retreat to crass commercialism, did too many 1960's distractions to escape the pressure, and went certifiably nutso for several decades. The road back is the true tale.)
But any road back from mental illness presents a rocky one, even with the best care of friends, family, medical and business associates. My next photo: is from one of the palpable downsides, wherein Wilson still was showing unexpected strength in trying to extricate himself from visible depression. His closest brother Carl Wilson had just died, leaving oldest brother Brian as the unexpected survivor of all the Wilson brothers' Beach Boys. His own band-mate Mike Love had just unexpectedly won an expensive lawsuit to retain half of all songwriting royalties to tunes wherein he "allegedly" had only contributed a line of lyrics or two.
Wilson didn't look well that evening, haggard and lost. This very performance depicted, billed as Nancy Sinatra and her Band plus The Wondermints at Spaceland, was in fact an unadvertised as such tryout for the Wondermints to be Wilson's new back-up band. He sang with them utterly unannounced (I had had my sources to be there. Thank you again, Harvey Kubernik, author/producer/insider.)
The Wondermints wrote songs like and played like they had been the studio guys on Wilson's pet Beach Boys Lp, "Pet Sounds," and Wilson knew it. It was a good match. Wilson was in fact concocting a plan to finish, record and tour with his lost "Smile" work, the one shelved in 1967 after its "Good Vibrations" was released, left to rot due to the aforementioned pressures. He had reunited with its lyricist Van Dyke Parks for completion of song fragments and was recruiting bandmembers like the Wondermints. The keyboardist in my photo, Darian Sahanaja, indeed proved crucial to the project.
But the events of late had worn Wilson down despite his own self-help efforts, and that evening he, as aforementioned, looked strained, fearful and sort of on cruise control to get through. I did not feel it my right to ask him to pose with Nancy Sinatra, although that would have been a surefire photo-op money shot: he looked too wrung through the wringer. Live shots like mine during a performance are no intrusion, but an in-your-face pose would have been. Maybe it's one the clues as to why I'm not particularly famous, that I could intuit Wilson's troubles that evening, and respected him too much to push further.
So I didn't take a photo of Brian Wilson with Nancy Sinatra that night. Would you have? Photojournalists often debate what is true reportage vs. what is exploitation. I happen to think that a pro's instincts make the result self-validating, as it is NOT the sensibility of a paparazzo jumping out of the bushes to shove a celeb and ignite a tabloid-worthy moment of rage.
There's a whole genre of police/crime photos by Weegee that became true fine art, despite their depiction of ad hoc, horrific, genuine tragedies. His photo of a mother whose son jumped to his death trying to escape a burning building haunts anyone who's ever seen it. Go to LINK* if you dare...
The artistry is that the photographer made you feel the most intense emotional pain that exists by means of a mere visual sensory dimension, and you are a better, more empathetic human being in the process. (The Public Eye is a little seen but terrific fictitious depiction of his life, starring Joe Pesci.) Similar pics to that in the music genre, such as Kurt Cobain cowering in personal pain backstage, and Janis Joplin alone and drunk, have a similar validity in helping us understand the private personae of public figures, particularly as with those mentioned who were incredibly self-destructive. Sometimes it's all we have to try to understand their tragedies and what had made them tick or not tick.
Which is why I left the question open-ended.