The snapshots are like the musicians themselves: gritty, raw and uncensored. That’s because the 362 photos in “Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen” were mostly taken by fans, not professional photographers.
The book, to be released Oct. 24, is a candid compendium of musical history marked by the trapped-in-time moments that moved a concert-goer to raise camera to eye, or cellphone to air. The text accompanying each picture was written by Bill Bentley, a music industry veteran who served as senior publicist for Warner Bros. Records and worked with some of rock’s biggest names, including Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and R.E.M.
Bentley is as much a fan as the people who ultimately submitted more than 4,000 photos to Smithsonian for the project after an open call in 2015. He crafts intimate portraits of the bands and performers, careful to include tidbits that readers might not have heard before.
“The beauty of music to me has always been the surprises,” Bentley said. “You can start by getting into the Rolling Stones and end up discovering Muddy Waters.”
Deciding which photos would make the cut took more than eight months.
“It was overwhelming,” said Bentley. “You could only do about 100 a day; your mind would go numb.”
When the work was complete, the book placed massive stars like the Beatles, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Prince, Bob Dylan and the Who alongside lesser-known makers who advanced the art form, including the 13th Floor Elevators and Laura Nyro. The joy and devotion contained in the photos is as infectious as the music itself.
“Music is the most democratic language in American culture, in that everyone can understand it,” Bentley said. “Some people don’t go to art museums or the movies, but everybody listens to music.”