Modern Rocks Gallery features exclusive photos documenting history of rock

Cat Cardenas

Classic rock fans who never got a chance to see Jimi Hendrix wail on his guitar or watch Oasis’ 1996 performance in Manchester can get a glimpse of those and other iconic moments in music at Modern Rocks Gallery.

The gallery, located at the Canopy Building in East Austin, displays exclusive photos of musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to The Clash. In May, the gallery will open an exhibit featuring photos of Nirvana never before released to the public.

Gallery owner Steve Walker moved to Austin two years ago, after years of touring as the guitarist for Modern English, with the hopes of combining his love of music with his passion for photography.

Walker said the photos allow visitors to connect to the art more than they would in a traditional art gallery.

“When you go into an art gallery, and you’re looking to buy a picture, you have to connect with it if you want it in your house,” Walker said. “Here, the connections are already made. You’ve seen them in concert, you’ve heard them on the radio — you feel as though you know them.”

Walker originally lined the walls exclusively with photos of his favorite musicians, reluctantly letting each photo go as it was purchased. Walker now includes photos of musicians he wasn’t always fond of, and said this has actually allowed him to appreciate musicians in different ways.

“At first, a lot of the pictures were of bands and musicians that I liked,” Walker said. “I wasn’t a huge Pink Floyd fan, but the pictures we have are some of the best in the world. I kind of grew to love them through the images.”

To celebrate the gallery’s one-year anniversary, Walker reached out to friend and photographer Stephen Wright, who photographed English rock band The Smiths. Walker calls his iconic photos of the band a fluke — he developed them in a homemade darkroom in his college dorm.

“The Smiths job should’ve gone to someone else,” Wright said. “I was in college and had photographed them at one of their performances. I sent them to the record label and Morissey liked them so much they hired me. The pictures were simple, but they were natural. I think that’s what they liked.”

Earlier this year, Walker got in touch with Kirk Weddle, the underwater photographer who shot Nirvana’s famous Nevermind album cover. Many of the 200 pictures from the shoot, which have never been made available to the public, will be featured at Modern Rocks in May. Weddle, who occasionally takes photographs for the University, said he’s tired about talking about the Nirvana shoot — but also very proud.

“It was stupid to shoot Nirvana underwater,” Weddle said. “They were a great band with a great concept, but they were tired and on tour. [Still,] sometimes the shots that hold up come out of a single moment. That moment, that sliver of time with someone is why I take pictures.”

Wright, Weddle and Walker all agreed the analog era of film photography allowed for irreplaceable images documenting the history of rock. For each of them, a roll of film meant 36 attempts to capture “the one.”

“Photography is so disposable now,” Walker said. “You can take hundreds of pictures and keep deleting what you don’t like. Back then, when you had rolls of film, you didn’t know if you had what you wanted or not, so you had to be good. That’s why the pictures here are so good.”