Lisa Johnson’s “Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock” (BOOK)

Guitar freaks, rejoice. Lisa Johnson’s Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock. The veteran photographer has built her glowing reputation not through pursuing typical music photojournalism, i.e. capturing performers in action during concert, but rather documenting the instrument in an artistic way and as a standalone statement. Text accompanying each selection varies; some recall the circumstances under which the pictures were taken while others discuss the instrument’s history with that guitarist. No one size fits all.

Johnson understands the narrative possibilities of this book like few others. These guitars and the writing about each bout their use grasps their significance in musical history without much effort, but there’s something deeper at work. The writing and photography reveal the artist behind the instrument in some significant yet far from all-encompassing fashion. Take a musician featured early in the book for example – Peter Frampton. Onetime member of Humble Pie and huge solo artist in his own right, Frampton clearly recalls arcane trivia about each instrument in his life. He contributes the book’s forward as well.

It isn’t an unusual story for musicians on his level. Immortal Axes isn’t so much a “coffee table” book as it is a family album – these instruments are akin to flesh and blood people for many, if not all, of the individuals covered therein. Many of the photographs, likewise, will have unique resonance for guitar devotees – seeing instruments made famous by iconic players as diverse as B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, and Stephen Stills, among many others, will move many readers.


The presentation is superb. Johnson’s extraordinary visual sense pervades every aspect of Immortal Axes without ever seeming gimmicky or obscuring the content. Her photography and the page layout alike make expert use of space. She never settles on one consistent backdrop for her shots but favors placing the instruments in a natural context rather than staged studio or concert photos. It is notable how she keeps musicians out of each entry – it would otherwise divert attention from the guitars.

The book isn’t lengthy. Immortal Axes is in the tradition of what people once called “coffee table” books, visually oriented volumes with minimal text and high-quality photography. Many look on this sub-genre with a mix of amusement and derision. Johnson’s work is worthy of neither. She’s authored both an eye-catching and substantive account of the cultural, personal, and artistic influence one instrument can wield over countless lives.

It doesn’t enjoy the same primacy it once possessed. Hip-hop and outrageous bass has displaced the guitar as the leading instrument in popular music. Sequencers, synthesizers, technology of every persuasion now rules the roost and the discipline someone once needed to establish themselves as a skilled musical performer seems as quaint as a covered wagon or pay phone booth. This book pushes back against that. It won’t single-handedly turn back a cultural tide but offers a stunning visual rebuke to the idea that changing times has rendered immortal axes passé. Johnson finds beauty in these works of wood, steel, wire, and plastic and you will too. 

Michael Rand 

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