Woody Allen has been quoted as saying that “Ninety percent of success is showing up” and Rowland Scherman is a living testament to those words. In 1961, photographer Scherman showed up when a volunteer group called the Peace Corps came into being under the John F. Kennedy administration.
“It’s a cliche to say it, but Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ speech triggered my interest in the Peace Corps and I went down to help them out,” Scherman recalls, speaking by phone from his Cape Cod home. “They said, ‘We don’t need any photographers. We need doctors, nurses, technicians and teachers.’ I was told not to get my hopes up. Sure enough, a couple of days later all the press had gone because there was nothing to photograph. It was just (Peace Corps Director and Kennedy’s brother-in-law) Sargent Shriver and a few tables. Someone rushed in and said, ‘Princess Beatrix of The Netherlands is here and she wants to get her picture taken with Shriver.’ Someone said, ‘Where’s that kid with the camera?’ Princess Beatrix was a total beauty in 1961 and Sarge was one of the bestlooking guys in the world.
Anybody could have done it. It was just one of those lucky things.”
So what does this have to do with a Rock ‘n Roll photography exhibit in Birmingham, Alabama? Plenty. The reputation that Scherman earned as the Peace Corps’ first photographer launched a career that led him to the biggest names in popular music. Along the way, Scherman captured Bob Dylan’s ascent, The Beatles’ first U.S. concert and Woodstock on film, among a multitude of other musical and political projects. And, for more than 20 years, Scherman called Birmingham home.
This weekend, Scherman returns to Birmingham for the opening of WE Shot Rock ’n Roll!, an exhibit at the Art Folk Gallery that showcases Alabama photographers. The exhibit compliments the current Who Shot Rock ‘n Roll exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. In addition to Scherman’s photographs, the exhibit will feature contributions by Billy Brown, Beau Gustafson and Michael Sheehan among others.
“[Rowland] set the tone for how the Peace Corps was perceived through his photography,” Art Folk Gallery Director Anastasia Keenan says. “We’re working with the museum and we thought it would be a really great idea to showcase Alabama photographers and bring Rowland back to town because Rowland lives in Cape Cod now.”
Though perhaps an unlikely move for the native New Yorker, Scherman’s relocation to Birmingham in the ‘70s was a logical one from his perspective.
“I was living in Wales and the scene I had there abruptly ended and I came back to New York,” he says. “New York had segued from a beautiful hometown to a cold, grey place and the price of everything had tripled. New York in the ‘70s was pretty dismal. I called up a friend of mine, a guy named Bill Bagwell who had an agency in Birmingham. He said, ‘Come on down. I could use a photographer.’ So, I came down for a weekend and stayed for 20-something years. I was there from 1977 to 2000.”
The nonchalant nature in which Scherman describes this life-changing move is consistent with his take on his involvement in some monumental events. Though his talent is obviously a huge part of the equation, Scherman talks like a spectator that just stumbled into moments that are etched into the foundation of America. Is it the people, places or events that come to the surface when he looks back on his life?
“That’s an amazing question and it’s a whole day of talking,” Scherman says, followed by a long pause. “I guess the history of it, remembering the events. At the time, it was just a lot of fun. But looking back, they were seminal moments in history, like The Beatles’ first concert and Dylan turning from a no one to a hero over the course of a three-day weekend and Woodstock being as definitive as it was. I was old enough to appreciate it. I remember working for the Kennedys and traveling the world shooting pictures for the Peace Corps. Everywhere you went people waved and smiled and being an American in those days was like a badge of honor. Since Vietnam, it hasn’t been that way.”
When the talk turns to music photography, Scherman is again self-deprecating and bemused at his foray into that world. Was music photojournalism an early career goal of his?
“No, no, that’s another stumbled-upon issue,” he says with a laugh. “I was still in the Peace Corps and I heard about the Newport Folk Festival and I heard that Peter, Paul and Mary was going to be there and I was crazy about Mary. I took a weekend off and went up there. I crossed paths with a young Bob Dylan, who was just standing around. Then he did a workshop on Saturday afternoon and I covered that and Joan Baez sat-in with him. That gave Dylan all the legitimacy he ever needed because Joan Baez was a huge superstar. It was the biggest crowd Dylan had ever sung for and the response was amazing. He had a night show the next night and that was when he emerged as the
Rock ‘n Roll poet of a generation. He went from no one on Friday to the biggest hero in music on Sunday.”
That fateful trip to Newport in 1963 led Scherman to future projects with Dylan. A silhouetted concert photo of Dylan earned Scherman a 1967 Grammy Award for “Best Album Cover Photography” on Dylan’s Greatest Hits album. Scherman notes that concert photographers once had unique access that has since become limited.
“In my day, they wanted you to take pictures,” he says. “If you had a good camera, they knew you were a pro and you could go anywhere and you were helping them publicity-wise. It was a whole different trip. I was awfully lucky.”
Scherman is overtly excited about his return to Birmingham and his involvement in WE Shot Rock ‘n Roll! On Friday, July 29, a 5 p.m. reception commences the event and Scherman gets the floor two days later.
“Rowland is giving a lecture on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 and it is a retrospective of his career,” Keenan says. “We have 70 seats available for that and there will be a sign-up sheet at the opening reception.”
In a manner part and parcel with his life and career, Scherman left Birmingham as casually as he arrived in 1977. Scherman now resides in the Cape Cod town of Orleans and has entrenched himself in the area’s artistic community.
“I went here for a trip and I liked it so much I thought I’d stick around,” Scherman offers when asked about the move to his current home. “Cape Cod is like the summer vacation when we were kids and I just remember it so fondly. Nearing the end of my career, I was looking around for a place to spend some more time and this fit the bill. I’m a member of two or three art organizations here. Besides doing portraits, which I’ve always done, I put on shows with other art groups.”
Like musicians that have witnessed an industry revolution with the rise of Internet, iTunes and satellite radio, photographers have seen major changes in their craft.
“You go to an event now and everyone in the crowd is taking a picture of it,” Scherman says.
“Every single person in the crowd has a cell phone or a camera and they’re shooting a picture and two seconds later it could be in Shanghai or South America. The whole concept of photography has turned on its end. It used to take a week or two weeks to get the film back. Now, it takes two seconds to get it around the world. It’s astonishing. All of the cameras have computers in them and the computers are taught to take pictures. Practically everyone can take an astoundingly good picture effortlessly. Back in my day, as luck would have it, cameras had all those numbers on them and you had to match-up the numbers and the F-stop and the film speed you had to do it. Nowadays, you can hold a camera up and it does it all. If I were starting out now, I have no idea whether I could make it as big as I ever did, because the whole trip is different.”
To that end, I ask Scherman if he continues to follow photo technology or if he takes an oldschool approach to his equipment.
“I’m dog-paddling after the speed boat of technology,” he says. “Every camera that comes out is better than the one that just came out and cheaper and you can barely catch up. I love the cameras I’ve got, but I know that next year there are going to be even better ones.”
But while he admits that anyone can take a quality photo in today’s world, technology will never place you in the awe-inspiring situations that Scherman captured through his lens. His career is seemingly a tale of talent and timing, but perhaps persistence and an adventurous spirit deserve equal credit. Scherman offers a key glimpse into his success when he mentions that, early in his career, he was willing to go where other photographers would not.
“It took a while before the Peace Corps would let me go overseas and shoot what was happening, but that’s what the magazines wanted,” he says. “They didn’t have enough dough to send their own staffs to Togo. I brought back these pictures from far-flung places and they used them in mags and books. By volunteering, it made for a golden portfolio when I was only two years into the business.
With all of those credits, it was no big deal to start shooting for Newsweek, Time and Life and all those cats.”
A commencement reception will be held at Art Folk Gallery, located at 1731 1st Avenue North, on Friday, July 29, from 5 to 9 p.m. Rowland Scherman will speak on Sunday, July 31 at 3:30 p.m. The WE Shot Rock ‘n Roll! exhibit runs until September 18. For more information, please email email@example.com.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.