Modern Rocks Gallery Brings Iconic Music Photography to Austin Art Scene
Founded by former Modern English guitarist Steven Walker, the East Austin space showcases rare images of renowned artists
Established in 2014 by Steve Walker, Modern Rocks Gallery is a rock ‘n’ roll haven where fans can enjoy an impressive display of iconic photos and artwork of legendary musicians.
With images captured by some of the industry’s leading photographers, Modern Rocks Gallery’s presence and prestige grows larger each year.
The gallery’s latest high profile exhibitions include “Fifty Years in Exile,” a collection of pictures from The Rolling Stones’ 1972 session with Norman Seef, as well as photographer Ed Caraeff’s first solo show, featuring archives of images of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Dolly Parton and more. “David Bowie: Starman,” a collection of rare Bowie prints that spans his entire career, is currently on view.
Modern Rocks, which is located in the Canopy studio buildings, was founded by Walker, a former guitarist for the band Modern English, who you may know for their timeless classic, “I Melt With You.” Walker made his way into the world of photography as a way to document his touring life on the road. For 15 years, the artist found himself at truck stops and hotels in unfamiliar places and decided to capture his experiences on film.
“I’ve always been a massive fan of photography, and I’ve always found there’s a really significant link between music and the visuals that come along with album covers and the way bands portray their image through imagery, people like David Bowie especially,” explains Walker. “I was always fascinated by it and I started taking pictures, and that kind of reignited the passion that I almost forgot I had, which is that first and foremost I’m a music fan more than anything.”
When Modern English took a hiatus and stopped touring, Walker began managing a friend’s art gallery in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, while still shooting live performances for other bands around the city. Tired of the expensive and stressful nature of city life in London, Walker aspired to be his own boss and decided to take a shot at opening a space in America.
Austin may seem like an unexpected location for an international rockstar to settle down with his family, but Walker loved the small town feel of the city, combined with the ever-evolving abundance of things to do here. The choice made even more sense considering there’s no shortage of live performances or devoted music fans in the city.
“I had been through Austin on tour quite a few times and I got a really nice feeling about the place each time,” says Walker. “I remember once after doing a gig, we were staying in the Austin Motel and we walked across the road and got a drink at the Continental. I remember sitting there and saying to our drummer at the time, ‘I really got a good feeling about this place.’”
Using his connections in the London art world, Walker acquired 12 prints with his savings, and without any advertising or grand announcements, Modern Rocks Gallery opened. The name is partly an homage to Modern English, as well as a nod to the genre of music the space captures in its exhibitions. After starting off the gallery’s collection with prints from the U.K., Walker eventually wanted to focus on collecting works from American artists as well.
Soon he found Scott Newton, the in-house cameraman for Austin City Limits on PBS, who has documented Austin’s music scene since the 1970s. Newton’s archive includes rare photos of Willie Nelson, Ann Richards and Dolly Parton, among others. Walker and Newton got along “like a house on fire” and worked together to draw even more people into the gallery. The gallery owner speaks with glowing enthusiasm about each and every artist he’s had the opportunity to highlight.
“We’ve been here 10 years now. The gallery’s been going from strength to strength and it grows every year,” says Walker. “Now, we are dealing with some of the biggest photographers in the world and I’m sending prints worldwide. It’s been a fantastic journey and I think Austin is a huge part of that journey. Austin allowed me to start off very, very small and grow, whereas some places you kind of have to hit the ground running and you have to get investments. Austin was more accommodating and more friendly.”
When the pandemic brought uncertainty for the future of most businesses, Walker was pleasantly surprised to find the gallery could continue generating profit through online sales of prints — people were stuck at home and wanted to redecorate.
After life returned to some semblance of normalcy and people were out and about again, Walker wanted to feel the presence of the local community again, planning back-to-back exhibitions in 2022 to showcase remarkable talent.
Moving into 2023, upcoming shows to look out for include a SXSW special with Stephen Stills. The exhibit will feature stunning portraits of Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Stills’ solo work. The musician and artist himself will be in the gallery promoting a double album set to be released in late March.
Following SXSW, the gallery will highlight Baron Wolman, the first ever in-house cameraman at Rolling Stone. The exhibit will present Wolman’s 1968 assignment to capture the groupies in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Also in the works for the fall is a solo display by Lynn Goldsmith, a prominent photographer and recording artist.
“It’s been lovely to feel like the gallery is alive again,” says Walker. “It kind of makes me feel a bit more alive as well.”