Here, on the first floor of Manchester Central Library, is where the snap of photography captures the crackle of pop. Its temporary exhibition space has been given over to a retrospective of Jill Furmanovsky’s 50-year body of work, pinning moments in popular music to the display cases of heritage rock, fixing her butterfly subjects on the film stock of permanence.
Raised in what was then Rhodesia, she moved with her parents to London in 1965, the year of Ticket To Ride, and promptly fell for The Beatles. Her love of them was to lead her to St John’s Wood, where she took her first pop portrait, a snap of Paul McCartney with two of her school friends and, from there, via the Central School of Art and Design to the passion she was to develop into a lifelong career.
Photographing the Invisible traces a more-or-less chronological long and winding road through the changing times of pop in its broadest sense, from the prog and preening of the 70s to the comparative lull of now. Introducing most chapters are scrapbook frontispieces, collages pieced together from the cultural bric-a-brac of the periods Furmanovsky was photographing. Inevitably, much like watching old episodes of Top Of The Pops on BBC Four, regardless of the quality of the work on offer, those which reflect one’s own musical tastes tend to exert the greatest attraction.
For the many taking giddy selfies of their own against its backdrop on the Saturday afternoon of my visit, the wall of Oasis images – curated by the older of the Gallagher brothers – was clearly a thing of wonder. Others, perhaps, will find it harder to separate their lack of enthusiasm for the band’s Burnage-bred brand of post-Beatles populism from a pull to skirt over the objective strengths of Furmanovsky’s documentary in monochrome in order to hurry on around the corner to the photo of Jarvis Cocker contriving Superman poses at Glastonbury.
In the manner of the bands Furmanovsky has photographed, after opening in Manchester the plan is to take the retrospective on an international tour. That Oasis should headline Manchester, especially given Furmanovsky’s long association with the group, makes a certain kind of sense, but how tremendous might it be if, say, The Human League (represented here by Phil, Joanne and Susanne competing for how much make-up they can wear against a bedsheet backdrop) were to top the bill in Sheffield? Presuming, of course, that Sheffield is on the itinerary.
Such whimsical notions aside, the picture that gradually comes into focus is that of Furmanovsky’s enviable knack of being in the right place at the right time, in the pop-historical sense, in terms of the scenes she was afforded access to, and in an enviable instinct for recognising the precise moment at which to press the camera shutter.
Encapsulating these gifts is a wonderful shot of two punk Johnnies, Rotten and Ramone, at once candid and dense with narrative. In a single image, Furmanovsky diagrams the dividing lines of punk as it was understood across opposing Atlantic shores. Ramone radiates, if not wholesomeness exactly, then good health and confidence, caffeinating himself with a can of full sugar Pepsi. By way of contrast, Rotten, looking like a diffident cousin of Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike, is the very portrait of poorliness, ruminating over a plastic pint of ale as pale as his ashen skin.
If such a picture epitomises her work in the field, the opportunity for contrivance in her studio pieces, a period bursting with the new styles and colour of the new sounds of 80s pop, does no disservice to her talent for divining the spirit of her sitters. There’s a sense of shared enterprise in, for example, her photograph of Heaven 17, Socialist wolves in the guise of businessmen, plotting world domination over Sandie Shaw 7-inches and copies of Smash Hits.
In the end, it’s that realisation that her photographs are not so much taken as given up in the spirit of collaboration that scintillates. The viewer may find the likes of punk also-rans The Cortinas humdrum, but Furmanovsky herself never settles for the shrug of indifference. Whether her subjects are past or current, she’s electric.
Main image: Jarvis Cocker, Glastonbury Festival 2011, © Jill Furmanovsky
Jill Furmanovsky, Photographing The Invisible: 50 Years Of Rock Photography is at Manchester Central Library until June 24, 2023. For more information, click here.