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Lou Reed: In the Woods, On the Prairie

by Jerome Weeks 5 Mar 2010 8:14 AM

What’s wrong with this picture? It’s a photograph, a glowing, beautiful landscape — by Lou Reed, surprisingly enough. It’s in an exhibition of his work called “Romanticism.” And only the second town to show it is — Wichita Falls, Texas. Jerome Weeks speaks with the rock icon.


The Wichita Falls Museum of Art is currently displaying an unusual exhibition of landscape photography. The photos themselves look haunting enough — even ghostly. But what may be more unusual is who took them.

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[Music plays]

This is Lou Reed’s ‘Sister Ray,’ the classic track by the Velvet Underground from their 1968 LP, White Light/White Heat. It’s a song about transvestite prostitutes shooting heroin — and shooting a sailor, who’s “dressed in pink and leather.” It’s more than 17 minutes of violence, explicit sex, deadpan comic irony and roaring electronic distortion.

And this is Cohn Drennan, the director of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art. He’s describing the central image in many of the photos by Lou Reed on display in his museum.

big Sur 2 smallerDRENNAN: “You’re looking at a very still, calm body of water. There’s not a ripple in it. But it’s framed by these trees. Just that water is wrapped around by these haunting branches. Now, things kind of glow because of the adapter that he put on his digital camera.”

Reed doesn’t think this shift in sensibility merits an explanation. The photos don’t, either.

REED: “It’s called nature. That’s all. Just things that looked beautiful.”

On the other hand, by now, you may be asking yourself: Glowing, beautiful landscapes?

By Lou Reed?

In Wichita Falls?

Actually, Reed has been interested in photography since the late ‘60s, when he watched what Andy Warhol was up to. But he only started exhibiting and publishing his work seven years ago. Reed was advised to look up David Adamson, a legendary pioneer in high-art digital printmaking who has worked with such artists as William Wegman, Robert Rauschenberg and Annie Liebovitz. Adamson says it was music photographer Mick Rock who brought him together with Reed. The Adamson Gallery in Washington D.C. has since debuted three of Reed’s photography exhibitions — with Adamson doing the master printmaking.

Adamson says that, inevitably perhaps, many people come to Reed’s work with grim-and-dirty, rock ‘n’ roll expectations. Reed’s second show (and book) was even called Lou Reed’s New York. But the latest show (and book) is definitely a departure.

It’s called Romanticism.

ADAMSON: “It’s very hard for him to understand that you put a show on with Lou Reed and the name itself brings a certain perception. Lou really doesn’t want that. He kind of wants to put his work out and people look at it for the beauty of the images.”

So we should set aside thoughts of “Sister Ray” or “The Black Angel’s Death Song” or even Metal Machine Music.

REED: “Well. That would help.”

WEEKS: “Is that something that gets in the way of people appreciating the photos?”

REED: “Oh, let’s not make a thing of it, please. Let’s just stick to the photos.”

Winter Landscape with Church, Caspar David Friedrich, (oil) 1811

Reed called the show Romanticism because Gerhard Steidl, who designs his books, showed him a painting by the German Romantic artist, Caspar David Friedrich. It looked like one of Reed’s images. Steidl was also the one, Reed says, who excluded all urban  shots from Romanticism — because of Reed’s earlier work on New York. There’d be no images of cities this time.

As for the similarity with Friedrich: The 19th-century artist is known for his wintry, misty, mystical landscapes. And in Romanticism, Reed’s photos do have silvery colors and an almost extra-sensory level of detail. They look like infra-red photos.

Reed insists they’re not. But his Canon camera has been specially adapted.

REED: “I don’t want to get into that end of the technical thing. It’s just been worked on by this person I know of at Canon. He can do certain things to these cameras. It’s kind of remarkable.”

As for why Reed’s photos are in North Texas, museum director Drennan says that’s easy enough to explain. Drennan has long admired the Adamson Gallery, having lived in Washington D.C. for 15 years. He saw the show on their website and simply contacted them. And that’s how the only two places to display Romanticism have been Washington, D.C. — and Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.

big sur3 smaller
For the exhibition, Reed insisted that the photos appear with no titles, no information about the different locations they were shot, including Scotland and Big Sur.

REED: “This is not trying to replicate the way things look. The colors aren’t accurate. Well, you know, because it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t change anything if I said this is Portugal.”

What Reed does want, he says, is for the photos to elicit emotions – though he won’t say which ones. Adamson thinks the new exhibition simply expresses a side Reed has always had.

ADAMSON: “Having known Lou, he’s actually a very sensitive, romantic person. You know, so there’s this side of him. And he’s got the other side, the really hard-edged, rock’ n’ roll icon.”

[Music plays]

In fact, throughout Reed’s career, he’s occasionally created tender, reflective songs — from the soaring, somber “A Perfect Day” on his second solo LP, 1972’s Transformer, to the instrumental, “Rouge,” with his wife Laurie Anderson.

But there I go again.

Talking about his music.

Photo of Lou Reed from Cinematical.