Lisa Johnson has enjoyed a long and storied career as a rock band photographer. Her work captures what few others do: a humanizing portrayal of life on the road, the artistic and even semi-spiritualistic aspects of the profession, and a keen sense of polished presentation but never at the cost of visceral impact. Now, she follows this up with the upcoming release of her new book – entitled, Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock. The title is simple enough, arguably a superficial encapsulation of what the entirety of the book covers.
But to assume that’s the end of the story would do a disservice to the surprisingly layered, deeply moving read that is as much the sum of the varied photography Johnson expertly places throughout the book as it is a series of personal stories regarding each owner of the guitar collection featured. Johnson never wastes time by over-explaining the book’s contents. She trusts the reader will already be well initiated with the music world, particularly those of the powerhouses and trailblazers back in the golden age days of rock-and-roll. But within the absence of that framework, the reader (presuming they are initiated) can enjoy, wheels off, the delightful twists and stories behind each piece’s display.
“Immortal Axes is a photographic journey that brings insight into a treasure trove of iconic guitars,” Johnson writes in the book’s introduction. “These images portray the artists’ love, sweat, and tears, etched on their instruments by road wear and tear; patina cracks, stickers, personalization, customization, and most importantly, tales of mystery and imagination spun by the music they’ve made with wood and wire. Through thick and thin, these guitars have lifted the spirits of the player and listener, during good times and bad times; they inspired tunes sparked by life challenges, injustices, and politics and also by the magic of love.”
She beautifully illustrates the process of passion between performer and instrument, writing, “The player breathes life into a guitar, immortalizing it. When the guitar is eventually passed on to another or an artist leaves this earthly existence, the instrument, inanimate of the physical realm, remains the repository of the music it made for eternity.” It’s sentiments and passages such as these, expertly peppered throughout the read, that lift Immortal Axes from being just another rock sentimentalist’s ruminations into something almost fit of required reading for any metalhead, musical aficionado, or just someone curious about the genuine nuts and bolts of creativity within a music-based context.
For Johnson, it’s clear such sentiments equate to breathing. She’s entirely at home, never missing a beat, with the enthusiasm and panache she gives each page of the book – whether it be the design, distinctive text, or the actual images themselves. Nothing feels randomly inserted, or left to chance. Everything feels, to the contrary, almost mathematically planned. In less formalized text, super-duper condensed. The book is never bloated with content, nor lacking – the precision with which it is executed technically makes it just right. It’s a nice yang to the yin of the free-spirited, almost anarchistic nature of the creative process Johnson highlights so passionately. “‘Immortal’ describes what will never die,” she writes. “‘Immortal’ can also signify a person whose fame lasts for many years…The word can refer to a supernatural being…Something with continuous life is not subject to death or decay; it is perpetual and enjoys ever-lasting fame as it is remembered through time.”