I never knew much about the singer Kenny Rogers, credited with bringing a pop sensibility to country—or a country sensibility to pop, whichever you choose (“I’ve always been too pop for country and too country for pop,” he said in 2001). All I can recall is a song called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” that I didn’t like when I heard it on my transistor radio walking home from school in 1969. The song turns out to be a cover—it was written by Mel Tillis, the country music star. It didn’t seem to go well with the British Invasion and Motown stuff that made up a lot of the rest of what the station played. I confess that 12-year-old me didn’t know what the lyrics meant.
What I never knew is that he was a devoted and passionate photographer who was just as talented at photography as he was at his chosen kind of music. He studied under John Sexton and the Canadian photographers George Hurrell and Yousuf Karsh, and made medium- and large-format landscapes and scenic pictures as well as portraits of his famous friends and other celebrity musicians. You can see his five personal favorite photographs (one of which is the posed shot at the Lincoln Memorial above) in an article at Sports & Entertainment Nashville. The article by Bill Hobbs is nice too.
“I am an impulsive obsessive,” Rogers said. “I impulsively get involved with something, and then I get obsessed with it. So that’s what happened with photography.” Know the feeling?
Another good article about his photography is at The Guardian. All the articles seem to repeat that he started out with “a 35mm Brownie Hawkeye.” Repetitions like that are markers of the news getting the news from the news—the Hawkeye was a 620 rollfilm camera. Camera geekery aside, the Guardian author, Thomas Hobbs (any relation to the Sports & Entertainment Nashville author?), said his photographs have “real depth…it’s as if he was suggesting that America, even at its most beautiful, had something sinister lurking in the darkness.” He adds of one portrait that “arguably, Rogers captured the unnerving bombast of [Michael] Jackson’s eccentric celebrity more clearly than just about any other photographer.” Jackson sang backup on one song from Rogers’ 11th studio album, Share Your Love, produced by Lionel Ritchie in 1981.
There’s a great portrait of Rogers in his prime by the proto-paparazzo Ron Galella at this link. I dare not reproduce it here.
He published a number of books of his work, including Kenny Rogers: This Is My Country (58 Stunning Portraits of Country Music’s Heart & Soul), Kenny Rogers’ America, and his book of landscapes, American Beauty. None are still in print as far as I can tell; American Beauty might have sold out just since his death, and might be available again.
In his later years, he regularly posted his photos on Instagram. Including “Lincoln Memorial.”
We’re always diminished when one of our number succumbs, whether they’re famous for photography or for something else or not. Kenny Rogers was 81. Godspeed, fellow photo obsessive.
(Thanks to many tipsters)
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Dogman: “I met him many years ago during an interview for the paper where I was working. He was a very articulate man who seemed highly intelligent and not at all ‘star-like.’ I recall him saying something about considering his singing to be a business as much as an art. Later I found out about his interest in photography. I also recall seeing a fellow in the distance who looked remarkably like him photographing in Yellowstone National Park about twenty years ago. But I’ve been told I used to look like Kenny Rogers myself—tall, grey hair and beard—so who knows. Maybe just another lookalike.”
Mike Ferron: “Extra points if you remember Kenny as a psychadelic rocker….”