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An Interview With Chris Murray of Govinda Gallery

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Washington DC’s

Govinda Gallery

has been at the center of the music photography world for over twenty years. Owner Chris Murray’s kinship with such luminaries as Annie Leibovitz led him to collecting and promoting music-related photography as a distinct genre, and he has been a pioneer in assembling such unprecedented exhibits as the early Beatles portraits of Astrid Kirchherr. I spoke with him at
his Georgetown gallery in the fall of 2003, where he gave one of his first in-depth interviews.

LI: How did you start out with doing this gallery?

CM: I was friends with two artists – they were my best friends – and I really enjoyed their work. One of them I was married to and the other one was my best friend. And so one day I was just driving by here and I saw that this space was for rent. Just serendipity to tell you the truth. I though gee, what a nice little spot maybe I can have a shop there, so I just rented the place – it was cheap at the time – it’s not cheap now but it was cheap then—and I thought I would open an art gallery and show my friends’ work, and that’s exactly how it started, no business plan, no grand design, it was pure serendipity and just entrepreneurial. And so there was no grand plan, it just really kind of happened.

LI: Was it originally and art gallery or photography or both?

CM: I didn’t have a show here for the first five years anyway, and I think there was one show in here–this guy named Chris Makos, who was with Andy [Warhol]–and I ended up doing six or seven exhibits with Chris, more than anybody and…But no, it was primarily – the first five years or so were primarily artists from here–painters, and some painters from New York, and then I started showing Chris Makos’ photos, and then around 1980 I started representing Andy Warhol here. So we established ourselves locally as a fine art gallery, a gallery representing painters and sculptors, and most of them from this region, most of them not all of them. I had a great group of visionary artists, Mati Klarwein, whose work was used on the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew and on Santana Abraxas and many, many others, and Bob Venosa who used to design albums for CBS – this great designer who became a painter–and this group of visionary artists which were around too–along with the local artists. But I then started showing Andy Warhol’s work here because two of my best friends from college went to work for Andy, and so I had access to Andy through them, and Andy became a great friend to Govinda Gallery. And whenever I was in New York (which is where I’m from), I’d go up and see Andy and hang out in the studio either with Chris Makos or Bob Colacello, who was also the editor-in-chief of Interview magazine – he went to Georgetown [University] with me – and so I started showing Andy’s work here. Primarily his graphics, and we had several great shows — whenever Andy was in Washington he’d come visit here. Also, his first book of photos (called America) he had a booksigning here for that, and so showing Andy was a great thing for us because I loved his work, and so we segued really from or expanded from painting –artists from this area – into showing a lot of pop art as well. Which I was very interested in, and I enjoyed pop art and I enjoyed Andy’s work and you know, he was terrific, and through Andy and Chris Makos and his circle I started showing more and more photography. Andy’s paintings are very photo-influenced and photo-based, and so Andy got me more interested in photographic images, and so we started showing this whole new wave of cutting edge photographers who were doing a lot of work with fashion, because magazines like Andy’s Interview magazine were very cutting edge and avant garde at the time. It wasn’t – they would show in terms of photography, they would do full page spreads of totally unknown artists–several pages in a row–and then next to that have several pages of Helmut Newton or somebody–but it was a great thing, they were exposing new talent, and a lot of the great new photographers of the time like Greg Gorman and Matthew Ralston and David Seidner and Jean Pagliuso and so many of them — Erica Lenard – whose work I all got to know from Interview magazine–Peter Strongwater and Chris Makos would show their work for the first time (most of them), and a lot of it was cutting edge fashion photography. And these would be outtakes from that work, and they had a real fresh approach to taking photographs of fashion and the models and the way they’d set them up. And Andy was adventurous. And [I met] the great photo editor who was my great friend, Robert Hayes, and he introduced me to so many of the these photographers. And so we really got involved with Andy Warhol and circle for a good ten years and it was great fun.

And during that time someone encouraged me to look into Annie Leibovitz’s photographs because I had seen Annie’s work and I knew it of course from Rolling Stone magazine. But somebody had seen a little clipping in American Photo magazine or something that she was coming out with a book, and so I contacted Annie through her studio and invited her to have an exhibition at Govinda, and she had never had an exhibition before, and she had just come out with her first book which was … photographs from her time at Rolling Stone magazine. She had just left Rolling Stone and was working at Vanity Fair magazine– and we also had good friends at Vanity Fair– but anyway Annie went to work for that magazine, and when she left Rolling Stone they did a book and we had that show here at Govinda Gallery, I think it was 1982 or ’83, and that was the very first show Annie ever had. (And it actually opened at the Sidney Janus gallery in New York City but then it came to Govinda.) And then subsequently–two years later–we did Annie’s second exhibit which was her American Express work that she had done–those very clever and terrific portraits of people that she had done where Annie really starting expanding, going into these drama influenced arrangements and it was very original–and sometimes you’d notice poignant portraits of these celebrities–in her American Express/Vanity Fair style, so to speak. We also then did a third show with Annie, which was her “White Oak Dance Project,” which were black and white photos of Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project and that was a terrific show. So really Annie’s first three shows, and during that period, we were also instrumental in arranging for her

National Portrait Gallery

museum show, so we really had a great relationship with Annie. So with Andy and Annie at that time, we were really having very exciting times and representing pop art. But during Annie’s first show, I bought my first music photograph, which was her classic portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And when I bought that portrait I told Annie, I said, “Annie, I just bought my first photo of yours,” and she said, “Chris, you know John was murdered that night,” and at that moment I flashed–I realized that not only is this a great picture but it was important picture, and I became interesting in cultivating and finding and discovering and enjoying and publishing and showing and exhibiting and representing great photography and significant photography related to music–not just rock photography, not at all, but great imagery that happened to be connected to contemporary music and jazz and rock’n’roll and blues. So since about ’83—so about 20 years now—we’ve been very strongly in that arena and in fact are the leading gallery in the world exhibiting and representing photography related to rock’n’roll and jazz and so that’s been fun. And you know, we’ve been doing a lot of other stuff too during that 20 years, showing a lot of terrific outside artists–Howard Finster and that whole school of self-taught visionary artists–and we published a catalog of Howard Finster’s American flag paintings. And we continue to…an artist named David Waters, we’re showing his collages that are inspired from Cuba and his travels around the world, so we’re still very interested in painting, but we’re very, very well known for our work in the area of photography.

LI: What do you think took so long for music related photography to be recognized as a serious art form?

CM: Because—well there are a number of reasons. One of them is the subject itself, rock’n’roll—twenty years ago when I first started doing that—was still twenty years younger, and it was a part of the—rock’n’roll has always been a bit of an outsider from day one with Elvis Presley and everything else, it’s always been sort of an outsider, and so people didn’t take the subject matter that seriously, first of all. A portrait of Winston Churchill was probably considered more significant that a portrait of Bob Dylan. That’s not necessarily true anymore. And so the subject matter itself wasn’t appreciated as much as other subject matter in photography because it was rock’n’roll, which is a bit of an outsider—that was one thing. The other thing is most of the work is documentary oriented and the good/best of it, as well as great portraits, and again the photographers themselves who were doing the work were more involved in shooting the subjects –if it was Annie I would say for Rolling Stone magazine–but she also went on tour with the Stones–and Jim Marshall–you know his work was used on album covers [by] the Allman Brothers–so many, so people were more into the music itself and getting the images, and they were getting out to the public eye through places like Rolling Stone magazine and [publisher] Jann Wenner. And there wasn’t at that point an established gallery or museum support or interest or network for this sort of material at the time. And that’s another reason it was slow going, the establishment, apart from rock’n’roll being an outsider to start with the establishment in photography—the galleries, the curators, the museums, etc. –didn’t have the interest in the subject itself period. A lot of photographic work at that time that was being highly regarded was really historical work, and even in terms of photographic work was even historic in terms of the whole masters like Stieglitz and Weston, and all the great photographers from that time, and then you have historical photography before that, from late 19th century and all that historical imagery, so it just really wasn’t—there didn’t exist an appreciation for the genre yet in the established photography world, magazines and the whole thing. So it–just that’s the second reason—it took a while, there wasn’t, it wasn’t already established as something that was being collected and shown, and so I think those are the two reasons–the subject matter itself which was considered outsider (if you will) at that time still. And then, you know, rock’n’roll is associated with rebellion and spontaneity and deep emotion and passion and these things, and it took catching up to all those powerful feelings for the established scene to get into it. Those are the two prime reasons—it just wasn’t established that way and it was a bit of an outsider. And then what happened is a lot of these photographers started developing incredible archives and kept doing this for a long time, and then the power of rock’n’roll–let’s face it, music and cinema are the two big cultural forces of our contemporary culture, and rock’n’roll music–which includes hip-hop, metal, R&B, soul –rock’n’roll is just a name for all that great stuff—hey, it’s powerful stuff. And it was hard going, by the way. It took a while for people to get interested, we were out there in the wilderness for a long time. And there were a few people who really saw what we were doing and appreciated it, and their support made a difference–really gave me the enthusiasm to keep pushing hard with this. And that’s all changed now, and now the genre is being acclaimed, and Vanity Fair magazine has a music issue, museums are showing this work now, Linda McCartney’s work and Annie’s and so many people’s, and so that’s all changed, there are collections, the

Experience Music Project

in Seattle, and

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

and now just standard museums–great museums everywhere are starting to collect this material.

LI: You were the turning point for this whole movement, though.

CM: We championed the genre, we did it right here—and we definitely championed that genre of photography, music-related photography–we did do that.

LI: Speaking of championing, I know you were talking about Annie and you two sort of found each other , but you’ve championed some people and brought them to the forefront and given them their first shows—Danny Clinch, for example. How do you recognize somebody when you first see their work—what is it about them that draws you in that makes you want to give them some exposure?

CM: Danny’s a good example. Since I have been interested in discovering and showing in a somewhat organized and systematic fashion, this kind of photography I’m always looking when I see material in newspapers, magazines, CD jackets, just everywhere in the media. I’m always reading things and looking at things that I’m interested in. And you know, I read a lot about music and I listen to a lot of music, and so I’m exposed to a lot of photographic images through people like Jann Wenner and Vanity Fair and a lot of magazines who have a lot of good editors who have put people’s work out there. So sometimes I’ll see an image and I’ll look at the credit and I’ll see who did it, and then I’ll be reading another story and I’ll see that name again. And so I’ll get to sort of maybe know the material out there from a number of sources. And certain types of work do draw me in. And what are the characteristics of that work? It’s hard to put your finger on, that’s one of the great things about it, it’s that intangible thing that gives its potency, gives it its beauty, gives it its specialness, and that is how I find a lot of this work. Somebody like Danny, who one would consider a younger photographer (though Danny’s not so young) –I’m interested in current photography. I was very interested in Pearl Jam, I’m interested in hip-hop, I’m interested in all sort of music, and so in Danny’s case, his portrait of Tupac Shakur really blew my mind and I thought it was a great emblem, a great portrait a great emblem of hip-hop and a great portrait of a great artist. And so I started seeing other great work of Danny’s and I approached him. The same with Anton Corbijn, great photographer from Holland. I first looked at Anton ten years ago in London. Looked at his photos out of the trunk of his car one day. So I’m interested in the material—I love the images, I love the artists that they photograph, usually I’m interested in their music, and when I see great images that link up with these great artists, it’s compelling for me and I identify them and then if I have an opportunity, I try and work with them and show their work.

LI: Do you see a difference between someone who’s just a stellar photographer in general and someone who’s good at this particular medium?

CM: The best ones have a passion for the work. Anton Corbijn—loves the music. Danny—loves the music. Annie–loved the music. Jim Marshall—loved the music. Gary Mankiewicz. These people loved the music–Bob Gruen—they really have a passion for the work. That’s – yes, I’ve found great images where people are just assigned to—a guy named Michael Joseph, a photographer from England who’s in the 70’s, he did the [Rolling Stones’] Beggar’s Banquet centerfold photo which is a great photo but he’s not –Michael is an advertising photographer who didn’t do lots with music, yet that’s a great photo and I found it and I wanted it. But in general, as you describe it, they have a passion for the work. And sometimes what separates, what helped their work is access, and they had a passion. And then, if they could come across they could get access one way or another to the artist they admired and wanted to shoot that was great, like Bob Gruen had great access to John Lennon and Dan Kramer had access to Bob Dylan and Barry Feinstein worked with George Harrison and these guys are great guys generally too. And gals, these men and women—and there are a lot of women out there who are great photographers too—Kate Simon, and so many of them that, Annie, Kate, so many terrific men and women who have worked in this area and they get access, they love the material and they’re also very talented in their own right in their work, their approach. I find many of them to be very unique individuals and personalities and very creative themselves, and the artists, I think, appreciate that. A lot of the musical artists appreciate—Bob Marley dug Kate Simon. You know, these people have a way of being very-–of understanding the artist’s work and staying in the background, not imposing themselves on them, and the next thing you know they’re part of the woodwork with these people and touring with them and working with them, and they’re getting great images ’cause they got great access.

LI: As you said, you are a big music fan. Who are some people that really turn you on musically besides the obvious – the Who, the Stones, the Beatles. Who do you listen to?

CM: I love the Stones and the Beatles, too. Bob Dylan is probably my favorite musical artist. I love Elvis, early Elvis, I still listen to Sun Studio Elvis, early RCA Elvis–I love Elvis. I have such a wide range, you know, I love Bjork, I love Jimi Hendrix of course—he was a huge inspiration. Jeff Beck is great, I just heard a tape of him live in concert a friend brought by, an amazing show. But I also love funk, I’m crazy about funk, James Brown, and I love Isaac Hayes and I love Otis Redding and Little Richard and, you know, just the great stuff everybody loves, Ray Charles. I admire Tupac Shakur a lot, his song “Ballad of a Dead Soldier” is one of the great songs of its time. Springsteen I’ve just got into more recently, he’s brilliant, so I have a wide range of interests. I love Bob Marley, brilliant, so I really have a wide range of interests. But those are some of my favorites. You know, I love Bob Dylan a lot, Bob’s the greatest.

LI: Radio has really changed, and there has been a lot of fragmentation in the rock’n’roll world in the last twenty years, a lot of new genres. The kids don’t seem to be exposed to as much of the breadth and history of the music.

CM: You know, it’s probably true to some degree. We’re sort of in a real wasteland right now musically in terms of what’s on the radio and what’s on TV, you know, what the media exposes us to is rather pathetic, what’s out there now it’s not really very significant. And I don’t need to name names—people are making a living and doing what they’re doing, but it does seem that pop music right now is really shallow. But you know, hey if people are enjoying dancing to it, and having fun with it that’s all right too, nothing wrong with that. You know, a lot of young people are enjoying bands like Justin Timberlake and Britney, and all the usual suspects so young people like that stuff and that’s fine for them if that’s what they want to listen to, but do they have a sense of what went before it, no, but I don’t think it’s just in rock’n’roll music, I think it’s in history in general and where they’re coming from and everything’s so fast now and so disposable, that I don’t think there is an appreciation for the legacy that’s there, and I don’t mean in a dead way, I mean just you know there is a great musical legacy out there that is incredible and people can draw from it like a library. So maybe today’s–maybe a lot of people today don’t appreciate that, or maybe they don’t have access to it, maybe they weren’t exposed to it is what it is actually… you were talking about the mid-seventies, you were fortunate maybe to be around for the sixties, seventies and hear that stuff. You know, it’s not on the airwaves now, you don’t hear it on the radio, you don’t hear it anywhere, you know. People – I have to tell you that I lot of people I’ve met who are young there are people who are obsessed about it, and you get people like the White Stripes—you know Jack White, is obsessed with Son House, so there is someone like Beck—is incredible, you know, I’ve seen him go from Mick Jagger to everything, he’s great, you know, he just mines it all and Bruce mines it all, so there’s still – even though the pop scene sucks right now, there’s still great music out there, and not just old music, people like the White Stripes. There’s a lot of great stuff out there still, a lot of great artists to photograph, and more outlets for their work.

LI: You mentioned being exposed to things. The way the education system is going, where kids are just not getting the exposure to art and music in school –where is that going to take your medium?

CM: I think this material [rock’n’roll music] should be in the curriculum. I know in universities there is a lot of study–there are more and more classes on jazz and contemporary music—yeah, I think we’re greatly affecting our schools. As for places like the Experience Music Project and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and other museums and institutions, they really have a lot of educational programs that are trying to disseminate the legacy of the blues for instance. The show we’re having now [Blues photographs of Dick Waterman] and let people know where all this music has come from. And it’s inevitable that this work will come more and more into the curriculum. We now have people who are head of publishing companies, head of museums, head of governments who are of the age that they love rock’n’roll too and they love the legacy, the rich one that we all enjoy, so this will happen too. It’s being appreciated now, and it’s going to be more and more appreciated. And photography definitely plays a big role in that.

LI: You are currently hosting an exhibit and have published a tie-in book of the Dick Waterman blues photo archives, many of which have never been exhibited before. How did this book and exhibit come about?

CM: That again was being in the right place at the right time. I was down in Memphis with my son, who said let’s trace the roots of the blues, and we went down to Oxford, Miss. and we came across Dick there and his work, and I was so inspired by the stories—he was telling these first-hand accounts of the pre-war blues legends [whom he managed]—Son House and Skip James and John Hurt and Muddy Waters and all these incredible people who I did know from the Rolling Stones and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup from Elvis Presley and I knew Skip James from Eric Clapton, you know Eric did [Skip’s] “I’m So Glad,” Mick did “Little Red Rooster” [by] Willie Dixon. And so these guys, I knew about the blues from these guys, and Bob Dylan of course was a great proponent of the blues too. So all of my heroes from Elvis to Dylan to the Stones, they all were doing blues songs, and so I appreciated the blues and enjoyed it on its own merits, of course. I came in through rock’n’roll, but then I started listening to Muddy, and Buddy Guy, especially the electric blues I liked, and worked my way back till finally I got to the great stuff like Robert Johnson and John Hurt and all that great stuff. So Dick’s archive wasn’t–you know, a lot of these photographers I had met did the work back in the day, and when they were with the Stones or doing whatever they were doing–Dick managing blues artists–and I was compelled to let other people know about this work, to share it – to have him do that with maybe a book and an exhibit, and so that’s how that happened. I was just inspired, to tell you the truth. When I saw Dick’s photos and met Dick and heard his stories, I knew other people would enjoy this too just like I was enjoying it.

LI: I see a link between these [music-related] photos that goes back to some of the earlier documentary photographers of the Dust Bowl era, Margaret Bourke-White and others and those photographs of Woody Guthrie.

CM: I just was in Barnes and Noble the other day and I saw this book on Woody and it was aimed for young readers and the photographs were terrific, I had never seen these photos of Woody and they were really amazing, and they really told me more than I had ever knew or read or heard about Woody, just from looking at these photos. When you’re getting back to there and back to Skip James and Woody Guthrie you’re pretty much getting as far back as you’re going to go so it’s not as if this–that’s about the beginning of the legacy, it’s right there in the blues and folk music, that’s really it right there.

LI: There is also some early jazz-related photography out there.

CM: We showed the three greatest jazz photos in here three big exhibits—Bill Claxton, Herman Leonard and Bill Gottlieb, and we had the first one-person shows for all three of those guys here in Washington and brilliant work. Great stuff, you know, so, there is a great legacy of jazz photography out there. We had a jazz festival here—each year we do a different jazz show—and we had fun and we did those three, the festival stopped and we didn’t do a show that year and we haven’t done one since.

LI: As you mentioned, you’re really the first guy to do this. Do you think that the music/photography/art world has really given you credit the role you’ve played in bringing this genre to the forefront?

CM: You know, to a large degree, yes. We’ve had, I’ve been incredibly gratified by the support from a lot of avenues and individuals who have recognized that and you know, we’re organizing the first traveling museum show on photography and rock’n’roll, and it’s going to be from Elvis to Tupac, and it’s going to be amazing. And it’ll be about three more years before it’s finally out on the road, but it’s going to be a great show and I think that show and book—there’ll be a great book–will do a lot to bring a real, to solidify the place in historical photography for this genre, for this material. Because there really is a golden age from Elvis to Tupac if you will, and it’s right up to where we are now, so those fifty years is the history of it, you really can get a hold of it, it’s a fifty-year period there where we can grab it and take a look at it and show the best work and see how it’s connected, ’cause it is, and see how photographers developed during those fifty years. ‘Cause there was a development, so there is a real exciting story there between photography and music and the imagery and post-World War II American culture. And to England—it became an international culture as well and so that’s a great story. And this show is going to demonstrate all that – we’ve been working on that for some time now, and we took a hiatus from it, and now we’re getting back into it, and that’s going to be a great show, and I think that’ll do a lot to for the record to let this work be seen, as it were, in that context of an important museum exhibition. But we have gotten, I know what you mean, and to some degree rock’n’roll is still an outsider, and jazz musicians by the way, they always were. And that’s part of the fun of it. But no, it’s happening. I was in Delaware last year at a wedding–at the Delaware Museum of Fine Art having a pop-in on the way back from a wedding–and they were having a Linda McCartney exhibit of photos (which we had here ten years ago at Linda’s first gallery show in America–it started in L.A. at the

Fahey/Klein Gallery

and then came to Govinda), but I went up to one of the docents, an elderly, very lovely elderly lady and I said, “Oh, how are you doing with the show?,” and she said it was the most popular show in the history of the museum. I know Annie’s Rolling Stone—Annie’s show was the most attended show in the history of the National Portrait Gallery. I mean, this so, it is getting, people are taking notice and now museums are opening dedicated to this genre and they’re the certainly interested in the material. So yeah, I don’t feel at all that we haven’t gotten our props, I feel we are and that’s wonderful–we have gotten great response from the printed media, [who] have done some terrific stories on our efforts, and we’re doing publishing of books with this material too. And so we’ve been getting a tremendous response, to tell you the truth, now. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago, another story, we were really in the wilderness for a while there, there was nobody interested. But that’s all changed, and now everybody’s interested.

So now you have museums like the

Corcoran

, and the

Whitney

, and

Metropolitan Museum of Art

, and the

Boston Museum of Fine Arts

….all of these museums are going to start collecting this work, there’s no doubt that they’re going to want to have the great…the

National Portrait Gallery

in London they already do. They are already collecting great portraits of these, of this material. So they are starting to do it, and there will be great collections out there, the best photos of Elvis, the best photos of Bruce, and the best photos of Tupac and James Brown – James Brown just got Kennedy Center Honors, you know, so the legacy of this music is being acknowledged and now of course you have commerce. You know, it’s always been part of commerce, rock’n’roll music–people are trying to sell records and all that, but now you see it in advertisements every day for every product whether it be cars or computers or diapers or whatever they’re trying to sell, they’re always tagging rock’n’roll to it. It’s the music of our day now, it’s not just crazy rebellious music of Elvis and Bob Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones anymore, it’s where it’s at.

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About Lisa Iannucci