The history of rock has always been defined by those brave enough to pick up the guitar. The strumming of the strings, the electrifying harmonies formed beside the bass and the singer, the sheer volume roaring from the amplifiers – it all starts with the guitar, and photographer Lisa Johnson pays tribute to some of the greatest six-strings of all time in her new book Immortal Axes. Made up almost entirely of stunning, professionally shot photos, Immortal Axes doesn’t fill pages with a lot of previously-heard anecdotes and stories that have made their way from The Tonight Show to Howard Stern and back, but instead offers us a raw depiction of the guitars, their scars, and the hypnotic radiance they seem to bear at all times.
Unlike some of the other instrument photography I’ve been looking at in the past year, Immortal Axes is comprised of multi-angle shots that are made to draw us closer to the strings. As a longtime guitarist myself, I couldn’t help but feel magnetized towards the signature pieces from Johnny Cash and Peter Frampton in particular, finding myself recalling the different melodies that lived and died on these fretboards at one time or another. The layout here is both surreal and very straightforward, which is a combination I don’t see in a lot of content like this. Johnson is invested in her medium and the story being told through the celebration of these guitars and the history their strings carry.
There are no abbreviated entries in this anthological collection of legendary guitars; multiple genres are covered, although I will say that the rock-based coverage of artists like Lita Ford, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck among others is probably the most thorough and enrapturing of the lot. Leaving out the recycled fireside tales that we’ve all heard in the past was key to giving these pages a flow that can’t be beaten, and while there are technical data like the make/model of the guitars we’re looking at, I never felt like I was looking at a book that was made only for the guitar aficionados when I read it just last week. The serious enthusiast will approve, but all in all, I think Immortal Axes appeals all the more to those who appreciate photography as a medium in general.
Lisa Johnson’s sequel to 108 Rock Star Guitars should be deemed required reading for fans of rock, country, jazz, and blues guitarists everywhere this year, but ultimately I think this book’s legacy will rest more on the construction of its narrative more than it will anything else. Johnson is a very gifted photographer who knows how to take, frame, and present a shot to her audience, and although this will likely be viewed as a companion piece to the records that these guitars helped to create, I believe it’s going to stand on its own as a testament to the passionate (and often misjudged) relationship between those in the media and the players who produce the medium itself.