Words by: Dennis Cook | All images by: Jay Blakesberg
Photographers, particularly music photographers, aren't often viewed as artists by a fair number of people. The influx of inexpensive digital gear and the too-easy proliferation of images on the Internet have contributed to this artistic slide, or at least helped fuel the perception that any asshole with a camera can be a photographer. Jay Blakesberg knows different. A veteran of more than three decades in the pit, he has shot legends and unknowns, heroes and the under-sung, freezing in time indelible moments that speak to the inner nature of his subjects. His award-winning work has a pervasive intimacy and openness that speak to an almost unerring knack for knowing when to click. His kinetic live shots and often tender, revealing portrait work offer us further understanding of the people behind the music we love. His eye opens our own, something abundantly clear as one thumbs through his brand new career retrospective, Traveling On A High Frequency – Photography 1978-2008, which follows his other well regarded tomes, Between the Dark and Light - The Grateful Dead Photography of Jay Blakesberg and To Defy the Laws of Tradition, a photographic archive of Primus and Les Claypool.
"Like any creative field, there's good graphic designers and bad graphic designers, there's great painters and bad painters. It's interesting, especially in this day and age where the digital camera is so prolific, that I really do believe that so much creativity, especially in the field of music photography, is being lost," says Blakesberg. "Listen, there will always be really creative people who break out and do really brilliant work, both on and offstage, but in order to get the jobs I used to get all the time, and this sounds weird, but we were required to be brilliant assignment after assignment. You were expected to produce great art again and again. Sure, every once in a while we'd flounder for whatever reason – an uncooperative subject, unforeseen circumstances, a bad creative day – but hopefully you still got a buy on that one. The bottom line is I've done over 250 Rolling Stone assignments, dozens and dozens of covers for Guitar Player; I shot like 80 covers for BAM magazine. The reason you get those assignments to shoot the cover of a magazine or a CD package, which I've done several hundred of, is you bring a certain level of creativity to the table."
"I go to a show [now] and see these kids that stick their camera above their head and point and shoot without looking through the viewfinder. I like to call those 'auto-exposure,' 'auto-shoot,' 'auto-creativity,'" continues Blakesberg. "When you see me at a show my eye is glued to the viewfinder waiting for that brilliant moment. If it's a live show, I'm waiting for that peak moment where the light, the energy, the music and the film, now digital, are all colliding together. Sure, I'm snapping a lot of other pictures in between those moments but I'm not just hanging out, spacing out, sticking my camera over my head."
That kind of work ethic, the view of photography as a real craft, a skill set to be constantly honed and refined, has been lost for many calling themselves photographers, particularly in the music field. Jay Blakesberg is a lensman of the first order who's chosen to focus on the music world. The seriousness he brings to an arena not always known for its seriousness is profound. Yet, even with his intensity and determination, Blakesberg retains some of the grinning joy of a fan, cradling the spark that first sent him out with a camera borrowed from his dad to shoot Grateful Dead shows in the '70s. Blakesberg, and his photography, retain a sense of wonder about music and musicians, which in turn fuels our own love affair with these people and their creations.
"Anybody can get published online these days. You don't need to be a great photographer or writer anymore. But often there's nothing great about the work. It's just a document of a guy standing onstage in front of a mic," observes Blakesberg. "If you look at my concert pictures in [Traveling On A High Frequency] almost every one has some sort of intense energy going on. You need to be a fan of the music and a fan of your own creativity, and you need to combine the two in a split second. There's a lot of bands that are boring onstage visually and a lot of bands that are brilliant onstage visually, but ultimately, no matter who the band is, somewhere in there lay these moments. It might be somebody screaming into a microphone and it has that raw emotion from their gut because they're giving it their all and you're capturing that. A lot of people shoot their three songs at the beginning, go have a beer, shoot a few more shots, go get stoned with their friends, whatever. They're missing what I like to call 'the magical musical moment.' I think of the first shot of Neil Young in my book in the Bridge School section. Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard are standing behind him and he's got this acoustic guitar and he's just ripping it up. That's a moment you wait for and you're ready for it. You can feel it coming and the hair is standing up on the back of your neck and you click it. The light and the energy and the focus are right and it's all right there. In my book, over and over again in the live shots, it's people jumping into the air, pouring their hearts and souls out of their veins onstage."
These "magical musical moments," as captured by a pro like Blakesberg, offer us as much insight as any well-crafted sentence, illuminating the music and the makers of it in ways that transcend language.
"Sometimes it is as simple as a smile or a hand gesture. As I shoot someone like Neil, who I've shot so much live, they get older. They wear hats, their faces are covered and because of the lighting it becomes about body language," says Blakesberg. "Sometimes when you look at a photo it seems pretty straightforward but if you really look at it there's this body language and you just know what's coming out of the guitar. Like when Warren Haynes crooks his neck back a little bit, his chin is up a little bit and his hand is at the bottom of that guitar neck and he's working the slide, you just know that what's coming out of that guitar right then is making your hair stand up! Hopefully that comes across in the photograph."
Part of Blakesberg's appeal is his thoroughly non-catholic tastes, where he's able to see the value and artistry in figures as divergent as Les Claypool and Jerry Garcia, often producing iconic portraits that tap into something these men might not be able to express about themselves but rides in their flesh and bones, a truth lingering below the surface sussed out by Blakesberg's lens. That he also rode the rail in tiny Bay Area clubs like the I-Beam for the earliest days of Jane's Addiction, The Pixies, The Swans, The Chills and Soul Asylum while still taking the Dead's long, strange trip says volumes about his expansive view of music. Each situation presented challenges and opportunities, and Blakesberg has taken advantage of these varied possibilities in a way that keeps his photos fresh, immediate and very much alive.
"In '87 when Jerry came back from his coma, I was still a big Dead Head but I couldn't go to the I-Beam and talk about the Grateful Dead or, with the exception of a few people, talk to Dead fans about say the Butthole Surfers. In general it just didn't cross over. I couldn't say, 'Yeah man, I'm a hippie and I love Dead music," because the people at the I-Beam couldn't give a shit about Jerry Garcia," recalls Blakesberg. "But, for me, there was such intensity and raw energy at the stage there. It was so stark and black & white; you had to use a flash because there were no stage lights. It was bands like the Meat Puppets and just this crazy, crazy shit going down. Then, I'd go to Laguna Seca and hang out with all my hippie friends [laughs]."
"The thing that's interesting about [Traveling On A High Frequency] is that with pretty much every single artist in there I like their music," says Blakesberg. "I know other photographers whose careers were just hair bands in the '80s or just metal, but I've shot very, very few assignments for artists I don't like. I've done diverse assignments like Diana Krall before anyone ever heard of her, and thought it was cool. I'm able to enjoy something like that as well going and rocking out to Throwing Muses or fIREHOSE after D. Boon of the Minutemen died. I do love the live music experience, without a doubt. It still sends chills down my spine. So, at 47-years-old, I still love being in the pit, being in the front row and feeling that energy coming from the stage. Sure, I'm a fan and over the years I've had some amazing conversations with everybody from Trey to Jerry Garcia to John Lee Hooker to just recently Elvis Costello and Robert Plant. But, I'm not going to gush like a fan, like 'Oh Robert, you're so amazing!' My conversation with Robert Plant was about Moby Grape. You're a fan but you can't really let that come across. These guys are also regular people, too. So, I'm not going to bow to them like some deity."
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