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Published: Friday, 2/20/2004

Looking beyond the songs


Who would think that when Big Jack Reynolds played the harmonica, he'd have to give it a bath afterward?

Thanks to John Rockwood, we now know that's what happens.

An exhibit of Rockwood's photographs in the Toledo Museum of Art's Community Gallery reveals four of the legendary blues artist's harmonicas soaking in a sink next to Reynolds' razor, toothbrush, and towel. Like many of the 97 mostly black-and-white images in "Passion in Focus," it is a moment the president of Blue Suit Records captured on a single-lens reflex camera while hanging around musicians, something he has done since the late 1960s.

Rockwood included some of his shots in Witness to the Blues, a book published by the Toledo Poets Center in 1999. For the exhibit at Toledo's museum, he has chosen 97 images from the realms of rock, jazz, and blues, capturing musicians at work and at rest, on stage, and backstage.

Besides Big Jack Reynolds, Rockwood has photographed Art Griswold, Keith Richards, Lou Reed, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Waylon Jennings, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Don Henley and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Robin Trower, Ritchie Havens, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, B.B. King, and scores of others in places like Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Findlay, and Bowling Green.

In one backstage shot taken in 1975, Bad Company's Mick Ralphs tunes his electric guitar against the backdrop of a block wall hung with public towel

dispensers. In another from the same year, Bob Seger waits in a dimly lit hallway, guitar slung over his shoulder, before a concert.

Shots from a 1975 KISS concert at Toledo's Sports Arena show how fans mimicked the eerie makeup of musicians Peter Criss, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley. Other images portray David Bowie on his 1975 Young Americans Tour; Bob Dylan performing in Pontiac, Mich., in 1981; Mick Jagger on his Voodoo Lounge Tour of 1994 in Detroit and performing in Cleveland in 1999, and B.B. King in Detroit in 2001.

Rockwood's portraits of musicians relaxing give his portfolio more of an insider's than a fan's-eye view. There's Tiny Tim, unwinding with a beer in Toledo in the 1990s, bassist Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple in a hotel bed, hands folded in a way that suggests he is praying, and a shirtless Ted Nugent with his guitar resting at his side.

The blues get their due, too. In a photograph taken in Ann Arbor in 1973, One String Sam performs on his one-string guitar in front of a bank of microphones. A second shot features a closeup of Sam's hands. Rockwood also has included in the exhibit several shots of blues clubs like the Blue Note in Lulu, Miss., taken in 1991.

Rockwood's photos form the musical element in an exhibit that also incorporates themes of family and hope in the photographs of Thomas Vines and Audrey Johnson.

Vines, a social worker, has 33 images in the show, most taken by him, but others from his family's albums. His portraits of children are especially tender and reflective of domestic life. Practicing shows a child seated at an upright piano, a John Thompson instructional book on the rack and a labeled keyboard mockup pressed against the back of the keys to guide the set of young hands. The scene is darkly lit with the brightest light bouncing off a teapot atop the tall piano.

In Puppy Love, a giggling girl and boy sit side by side, inviting onlookers into their reverie, and in Intelligentsia, a pensive child wearing a handmade mortar board sits cross-legged in a chair, elbows resting on a large book.

Vines' images of adults are equally engaging. The Steam Presser with its subject intent upon her work and bathed in a cloud of steam recalls the kind of work most black women were relegated to at one time.

African-American Gothic offers a touching variation of the painting it mimics, showing an elderly couple, the man in a white shirt and tie, the woman holding a baby. Vines' portraits of Coretta Scott King and Muhammad Ali, the latter of the great prizefighter hugging a little girl, evoke a similar mood.

Completing the exhibit are three photography works by Audrey Johnson. The employee of the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority has trained her camera on residents of LMHA neighborhoods and housing units to produce Faces of Our Children, a montage of five images; Love and Happiness, which depicts a little girl snuggled happily in the arms of a parent or grandparent, and Keep Hope Alive, which shows three young basketball hopefuls on the bench, one wearing a cast on his left arm.

"Passion in Focus" continues through March 14 in the Community Gallery of the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibit is free. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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