Lisa Johnson’s book Immortal Axes: Guitars that Rock isn’t just eye candy. Johnson could have contented herself and a vast majority of her potential readership with original pictures of guitarists of various types posing with their high-priced instruments. Guitar aficionados are well acquainted with such books. Johnson’s work, however, aspires to something different.
It delivers the goods on a visceral level. There’s no doubt. Johnson’s technical skills never falter – there’s little sense of repetition in her settings, angles, and color composition. She treats each of the book’s famous guitars and their current or former owners with equal respect, but it’s never too starry-eyed. Johnson’s book is grounded in the everyday world yet harbors boundless respect for the instrument’s stature and musical power.
She chooses from a broad selection of young and old guitarists. I am certain some readers will debate over inclusions and omissions from this book; they will be impressed more, however, by her wide cross-section of choices. No one can accuse her of playing favorites. It’s impossible to finish this book unmoved by both her love for guitar and her wealth of knowledge about its chief practitioners.
Her artistry is important to the book’s success, but I believe the fandom she conveys plays an even greater role. It isn’t teenage idolatry but rather a mature appreciation of the countless stories behind each of the book’s guitars. Her mastery of capturing the visual details, the faded paint, scratches, and damage sustained by each of these guitars tells the story of their players but, on a larger scale, tells the story of popular music post-1950.
Complaints about the book’s cosmetics are minor. The font of the text should be a little bigger, I believe, but it won’t be an impediment for many. There’s a fair amount of text included with this book and the writing is uniformly fine, but Immortal Axes relies far more on its visual content. The brief “vignettes” included with each subject are never ornamental, but they are not the book’s focus.
Johnson’s decision to focus on the instruments rather than the players isn’t groundbreaking. Earlier books have highlighted the craftsmanship and character of great guitars. None, in my memory however, married such visual history with the personal history like Immortal Axes does. Recurring themes, perhaps unintentionally, crop up. The idea that guitars are quasi-sentient vehicles for self-expression surfaces during the book and it isn’t difficult to see how Johnson’s photography, in mood and setting, reinforces that bit of fancy.
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