“I give The Stones about another two years.” Mick Jagger deserves credit for a lot of things, but prescience is not one of them, as evidenced by this declaration made in 1963, the year after the ensemble’s debut performance at the Marquee Club in London on July 12, 1962. If he were right, the British rock legends would have long been relegated to the bowels of the global musical archive, dust gathering thickly on their shelved record sleeves; Keith Richards (guitar, vocals) wouldn’t be revered for his rhythms and riffs or the fact that his outwardly prehistoric figure hasn’t crumbled into ash; and Jagger (vocals) wouldn’t be strutting around stage in flamboyant outfits with seemingly inexhaustible energy. However, five decades after The Rolling Stones first took the stage, the influential musicians are still selling out arenas and (unsurprisingly) hold the record for longevity as a rock ‘n’ roll band, not only proving the troupe’s front man incorrect, but making his statement seem almost more absurd, in retrospect, than John Lennon’s when he said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

New York City’s Paley Center for Media, in celebration of this 50th-anniversary milestone, is offering the public a unique glimpse of the group’s half-century through the Rolling Stones: 50 photography exhibition, a collection of over 70 rare prints capturing The Stones’ career from infancy to maturity, culminating in shots of their electrifying Super Bowl XL halftime performance in 2006. The exhibit, first seen at the Somerset House, an arts and cultural center in London, and never before seen in the U.S., consists of “highlights from the publication The Rolling Stones 50 [authored by Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts (drums) and Ronnie Wood (guitar)], and many of them have never been seen before,” describes Ron Simon, the Paley Center’s television and radio curator. A video compilation documenting television and concert appearances from the last 50 years, fashioned by the Paley Center from its musical collection, complements the snapshots.

Displayed in a single, modestly sized room, the exhibition is fairly minimalist in presentation, with framed black-and-white and color photographs of various size and proportion adorning the four walls, interspersed with printed quotations from band members. “The material is arranged thematically into sections meant to convey: Stones on the Road, ‘Bad Boys,’ Television and Recording Studios, and On Stage,” according to Simon. “On Stage is the only section that is roughly chronological.” An eight-page pamphlet at the entryway, containing descriptions that outline the location, date and context of each photograph, helps guide visitors in a clockwise rotation around the room from grouping to grouping. Contrived poses like the first official photos of the band from May 1963 mix in with candid shots, although geared heavily toward the latter. Some of the more striking examples served up in this visual platter are: an exhausted-looking Richards lazily playing guitar while reclining in the seat of an empty concert hall (November 1965); Wood holding a large print of Richards’ head during a press conference in London — the group apparently didn’t want Keith, who was at a clinic in America, to miss out (September 1977); and the set of the Rock and Roll Circus production, with the ridiculously clad Stones surrounded by equally comically dressed musical greats Pete Townshend and John Lennon, among others (December 1968). Arguably, the funniest comes from the Gore Hotel in December 1968, when a party for the launch of the group’s new album Beggar’s Banquet morphed into a “custard pie throwing frenzy, led by the band,” according to the exhibition pamphlet. Predominantly black-and-white snapshots at the start of this promenade through musical history give way to more and more color photographs, exuding a greater vibrancy and reinforcing that the band is still rockin’ and very much a branch of the contemporary musical artery.

A flat-screen color television placed in the corner sits before four short rows of chairs — undoubtedly the worst turnout the Brits have ever had — and airs 10 live acts throughout The Stones’ tenure in a 46-minute continuous loop, setting the mood for the exhibition by providing a soundtrack of the band’s classic blues-rock melodies and sexually charged lyrics. Beginning with their American debut on television variety show Hollywood Palace in June 1964, the compilation includes “Shattered” from Saturday Night Live in 1978, as well as the notorious performance of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1967, in which host Ed Sullivan, wanting to disguise the overtly risqué nature of the song, asked Jagger to replace the eponymous line with “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” — strange considering The Stones played “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the same show a year earlier without any lyrical denunciations.

Overall, Rolling Stones: 50, though small in scale, is a delightful tribute to the band that came to redefine the popular music of their generation and those following, and a worthwhile destination for Rolling Stones and general music fans alike. After all, it’s not often that the public is granted access to a visual exposé spanning the entirety of the musical superstars’ illustrious career. It almost begs the question of why the pictures are rarely shown to public audiences, but then again, like a fine wine, maybe appreciation comes with bottling them up for years. Supplemental items such as band memorabilia — maybe a few of the more outrageous wardrobe items worn in concert or The Stones’ musical instruments — would have given the exhibition a more complete feel; certainly a more entertaining one.

But the focus of the Paley Center for Media is — you guessed it — media. The Rolling Stones were so much more than just a distinctive sound; their image was equally as powerful. Both contrasted starkly with poppy Merseybeat groups of the British Invasion era such as The Beatles, who with their neat appearance and clean, doo-wop harmonies were the more parent-friendly alternative to the edgier Stones, whose unkempt hair and grittier, driving sound exuded sex and danger. (One exhibition photo even displays the group with an Old English Sheep dog at a press conference, as journalists “seemed intent on comparing the ‘disgusting’ long hair of the band with that of the dog,” according to the Paley Center pamphlet.) Media helped promulgate this persona on a giant scale and earn The Stones their distinguishing counter-image to many other bands out of the early ’60s. But The Stones also used media to develop their talent, claims the Paley Center’s Simon. “Each show they added a new dimension of style and performance. Mick Jagger in particular grew as an entertainer by studying his performance and others [like James Brown and Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev].” The exhibition is as much a celebration of this transformative power of media as the band’s landmark 50-year birthday. Even though this could be assumed, the message isn’t vaunted distastefully or loudly — the Paley Center lets visitors draw the conclusion. The photographs and videos alone speak volumes — although old press releases, newspaper clippings and concert posters would have enhanced the presentation without detracting from the media-centric theme.

The final image in the series, one of The Stones bathed in light, with backs to the camera while preparing to give a bow to the audience after a 2005 concert, bestows the notion of near immortality on the rockers. And the visual statement may well be true, from a musical standpoint. Jagger forecast a two-year life span for the British outfit, but the ripple he and his troupe have made since 1962 continues to grow even after a half-century. Immortal? Maybe not. Indelible? You bet.

“The Rolling Stones: 50” exhibition is open to the public from November 9, 2012 through February 3, 2013. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, with $10 admission for Adults, $8 for Students and Senior citizens, and $5 for Children (under 14). Free for Paley Center members. The Paley Center for Media is located at 25 West 52 Street, New York, NY. For more information visit http://www.paleycenter.org/ or call 212.621.6600.

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