Mistress of image: Debbie Harry, photographed on a trip to Britain by Chris Stein, c.1982
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Picture this: the love affair between rockers and the lens

From Deborah Harry to Ed Sheeran, four visual journeys through the lives of pop stars. 

Jimmy Page 
Jimmy Page
Genesis, 512pp, £40

Marianne Faithfull: a Life on Record 
Marianne Faithfull
Rizzoli, 300pp, £45

Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk 
Chris Stein
Rizzoli, 208pp, £35

A Visual Journey 
Ed Sheeran and Phillip Butah
Cassell Illustrated, 208pp, £18.99

In 1957, at the age of 13, Jimmy Page appeared on the BBC1 talent show All Your Own with his skiffle group. Three years later he was a professional guitarist and by his mid-twenties he was leading the biggest band in the world, Led Zeppelin. In Jimmy Page, his “photographic autobiography”, you can trace the history of British rock from junior to veterans’ circuit through his hair: the schoolboy quiff giving way to rocker sideburns, the decade of looking shaggy in front of country houses, the long years of dyed black ponytails and finally (to his credit, and the shame of every other rocker his age) shoulder-length grey. His clothes tell the same tale, from the regulation Carnaby Street ruffles and velvet of the Sixties and the garishly embroidered flared silk suits of the Seventies, through the awkward “Man at C&A” Eighties of slacks and jackets, up to the discovery of forgiving long coats, with a white silk scarf for a raffish touch.

Most revealing, though, is his body language. In his first flush of Sixties fame with the Yardbirds, on or offstage, he is stiff and expressionless, not so much self-conscious as unconscious. He smiles for the first time in 1968 when lining up with the newly formed Led Zeppelin but immediately thinks better of it. Within two years, he is gazing imperiously into the lens or wielding his guitar like a ritual object, fully aware of his effect. Long lists of tour dates alongside the photographs suggest how he acquired this knowledge.

Still, it is only around the time of the Led Zeppelin reunion shows in 2007, which finally put his legacy beyond doubt, that he starts smiling with any regularity. Similarly, Marianne Faithfull, in her own photo book, looks lost for the 30 years after her Sixties pop stardom, relaxing only after her transformation in the Noughties into a Weimar-style chanteuse. Marianne Faithfull: a Life on Record is more of a scrapbook than Page’s tome – irritatingly not-quite-chronological but attractively annotated in her own hand (spirited misspellings and “Ugh!”s included) where his text is scant and guarded.

Faithfull’s story, from aristocratic starlet on Mick Jagger’s arm to homeless junkie to triumphant return as the voice of hard-won experience, is well known, not least from her 1994 autobiography. All the same, the wide-eyed hunger of the radiantly beautiful teenager makes you catch your breath, as does the guileless enthusiasm with which she takes on everything from singing to acting to hanging out. If she could see this when compiling the book, she doesn’t let on. Ditto her equally obvious relief when she moves into an eccentric grande dame-hood her family might have approved of, or the surprising joylessness of her celebrated comeback in the late Seventies, captured in endless drab pictures of her looking miserable behind a cigarette. But no amount of her brisk, luvvie cheerfulness can take the chill off a caption such as “Cecil Beaton photograph of me very smacked out”.

Like Page, Faithfull was the first to tread her particular path, though the result became a cautionary tale rather than a legend. You get no lingering sense of victimhood from Debbie Harry, the chief subject of Negative by Chris Stein, her partner both in the band Blondie and in much of their life. Managers, producers and fans all used Faithfull as a blank canvas for their desires and ambitions, but in Harry’s case it was her and Stein who conducted the first half of their career like a giant game of pretend (or, as this was Seventies New York, a long art project). Stein, who takes good pictures and writes even better captions, notes: “Debbie was constantly asked, ‘How does it feel to be a sex symbol?’ Literally exactly that question, over and over again.” He is amazed that no one understood they were playing with the idea from the start, taking on Marilyn Monroe’s glamour and Andy Warhol’s trash culture and producing images – Harry in leather
knickers or a pillowcase or a burnt dress – that were in equal parts sexual and comical.

Pictured in a series of grubby halls and diners, Harry often looks like a visitor from the world of fashion, like Kate Moss or Alexa Chung backstage with Arctic Monkeys, which suggests few women have followed her lead. Her male contemporaries, rather than ransacking fashion like she did, are focused on recycling rock’s past. In redolent, intimate shots of post-hippie, pre-punk acts such as Jayne County and the New York Dolls, you can see a scene coalescing out of glitter, rock’n’roll nostalgia, paramilitary chic and, in the case of the Blondie drummer Clem Burke, full-on mod.

The only person in Negative who looks like they’re trying too hard is Television’s Richard Hell, in the ripped shirt often said to have invented punk. Otherwise, everyone seems to be having loads of fun, which is not something you could say about Ed Sheeran in A Visual Journey. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter, who mixes hummable tunes with lovelorn lyrics and traces of hip-hop and R’n’B, is a modern-day sales phenomenon to rank with Adele. He is also, he says, proof that “record sales don’t have to rely on image”, which makes his choice of a pictorial record puzzling, even if, as he insists, the photorealist drawings by his boyhood friend Phillip Butah “[tie] together the music and visual perfectly”.

As a “really geeky ginger kid”, Sheeran rejected rock’s offer of reinvention, outlined in the three other books here, and chose instead an anti-style of black T-shirts, hoodies and jeans that would advertise his authenticity and sincerity, his “soul and heart and emotion”. It’s a strange, mangled ethos descended from British punk, a delusional double standard that allows him to copy the tattoos and messy hair of his childhood heroes Green Day but still dismiss Beyoncé (and no doubt Debbie Harry, too) because she dresses up. It’s also deeply, deeply dull. Sheeran proudly declares, “I’ve never tried to be something I’m not,” and entreats readers to “Just be you. That’s the best advice I can give.” (“Ugh!” as someone might say.) In reality, his is every bit as much an image as Marianne Faithfull’s minidresses, Jimmy Page’s bell-bottoms or Debbie Harry’s jumpsuits, just not one worth recording. 

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution