Jay Blakesberg: Waiting For That Moment

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Words by: Dennis Cook | All images by: Jay Blakesberg

Jerry Garcia
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.”

Neil Young
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.

Les Claypool
“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.”

Continue reading for more on Jay Blakesberg…

 
If you read Bill Bentley’s introduction in the book, he talks about people like Jerry Garcia being in on the secret of the universe. You catch that with these people sometimes. That’s where the title of the book comes from. They’re the ones traveling on this high frequency. Look at the people in this book, look at the music and art that they’ve made, and it’s changed people’s lives around the world. It’s because THEY travel on this high frequency.

Jay Blakesberg

 
Photo of Tom Waits

This dynamic – Blakesberg’s ability to see the bounteous power of music and musicians AND the true humanity within both – is reflected poignantly in his portraits.

Snoop Dogg
“Early on in my career I was doing a portrait of somebody for Rolling Stone and I remember the Photo Editor Jodi Peckman telling me you can’t always come up with a great shot. At that time they were still doing a lot of concept photography, Annie Lebowitz style stuff with big scenes, big sets, big environments. That wasn’t necessarily my thing, and I remember Jodi telling me, ‘If you’re not in a great location, if you’re in a crappy location backstage or something, then go in and check out their face. Go in tight on their face because a lot of these people just have great facial expressions.’ I’ve taken that to heart. I’ve always found the face to be so fascinating,” says Blakesberg. “The eyes are important, too. There’s a lot of photographers who don’t want people looking at the camera, but I can go either way. Sometimes I want that intense eye contact because I think there’s something about that contact that’s revealing about who they are and what they’re thinking.”

“I brought this print of Dave Matthews to someone who works at Another Planet recently. It’s a shot of Dave standing next to the drum kit, looking out at the audience, and he was looking right down my camera and smiling at me, and there’s just this intensity of him at that moment with 9,000 people behind him,” continues Blakesberg. “If you read Bill Bentley‘s introduction in the book, he talks about people like Jerry Garcia being in on the secret of the universe. You catch that with these people sometimes. That’s where the title of the book comes from. They’re the ones traveling on this high frequency. Look at the people in this book, look at the music and art that they’ve made, and it’s changed people’s lives around the world. It’s because THEY travel on this high frequency. Now, because of them, I’ve gotten to travel on that frequency here and there. I get to jump onboard and be part of their bandwagon and creative process with my own creative process, and together we create something.”

Phish
One of the bands Blakesberg captured terrifically summarizing images of is Phish. Blakesberg snares their playful trickster energies into still images that aren’t actually all that still. His shots of Trey, Gordon, Fishman and Page are a visual handshake and as fine an introduction to Phish as almost any song. To say so much about another artist without the stone tool of language to help one along is a great achievement, and one Blakesberg accomplishes so often in his work that it’s easy to understand why Trey, Claypool, Tom Waits and many others regard him as their go-to guy.

“I did a lot of work for Phish, and out of all the bands I worked with Phish got it the best. They understood that it was okay to be documenting backstage, onstage, offstage, whatever. They’re a HUGE part of pop music culture. Even if whole segments of people discount them and what they do, they’re huge and we know that,” says Blakesberg. “They always encouraged me to shoot from onstage because that’s an angle you don’t always get. Jason Colton was always going, ‘Get out there! Go, go, go!’ I found this spot between the drum kit and Page’s keyboard. Right there was an amp, Trey’s amp, and he had it facing backwards. The sound you heard right in that spot – I wasn’t hearing a lot of Mike – but I was hearing Fishman, Page and a LOT of Trey coming right at me from half a foot away. I can’t explain how incredibly intense that energy was right there, and I got to experience that a bunch of times. It was indescribable how amazing and how magical it was to be in that space.”

Blakesberg’s facility at developing special intimacy with musicians has meant the collaborative part of his work has grown over the years, increasing the depth available on both sides of the lens. It offers fans a shifting series of time elapsed moments that’s akin to the rows of self-portraits in the Van Gogh Museum, an artist transforming before our eyes, the years collapsed into artfully constructed chapters through Blakesberg’s instincts and a technical acumen that thoroughly comprehends the bells & whistles of lenses, lights and other crucial factors in obtaining just the right image. There’s a great sense of unforced but still quite present composition in his portraits.

Radiohead
“Look at my photos of Les Claypool. Les is not a bystander; Les is a participant. The more I get people to participate – and sometimes they’re participating in a very subtle way – the more they get that we are creating art and they are part of that art. I succeed when the shots I take represent who they are and what they are, when it reveals something about their life or their music,” says Blakesberg. “With Les, his public life is different from his private life. Les is like Peter Gabriel was when he was onstage with Genesis and wore costumes and makeup. It’s that same kind of vibe. Some people think ‘Ewww, KISS,’ when you say costumes and makeup but it’s theatre and performance, and I love that about Les!”

“I try to come into a session with creative ideas, which can come in a variety of ways – a location, a background, a style of lighting, a style of film, a different camera, a lens. Those are the types of things I can bring to the table,” says Blakesberg. “So, if I have five minutes or five hours with an artist I still have to have a plan. But everybody’s different. I try to make people feel comfortable. I just shot Little Feat‘s new record here in the Bay Area. I put on some music I thought they’d like, an old Stax CD, and could relate to that. Right there, with the right music, you’re setting the scene. Then, I told them about shooting Lowell George two nights before he died. I was in high school when that happened. And Fred Tackett, who’s in Little Feat now, was in Lowell’s band that night. Fred remembered it was a strip club that used to do live music a few nights a week. I saw Todd Rundgren and Johnny Winter at this same club. I was 16-years-old and it was about an hour and a half drive from my house in South Jersey. I had a fake ID and that’s how I got in. And I brought my camera. So, this kind of things starts a dialog with the band. Before you know it, a band is comfortable with you.”

A real smile is hard to capture. To slip past artifice, to bypass the cartoon grin or bemused sneer many offer the camera, is a tough trick. Getting someone to peel away their outer armor, to let the lens in – even if only a millimeter or two – is a real skill but one Jay Blakesberg possesses in spades. Perhaps it is his own genuineness, his own abundant passion for the task at hand and the music floating behind it, that warms his subjects and lets him work his magic.

“Hopefully I’m disarming these guys,” says Blakesberg. “There’s those portraits of Trey where he’s got his fingers out. Those were taken in Boston before the 20th anniversary show just before it all ended for a while there. And Trey had this solo thing coming out and Jason Colton flew me into Boston to get a great portrait of Trey for this new record. We were gonna hire an assistant and get some lighting and do it at the hotel. But, it never happened at the hotel because there was so much energy swirling around those shows. Backstage Trey kept feeling bad that he didn’t have time to do it earlier. So, he grabbed me and said, ‘Jay, Jay let’s just do some quick shots!’ and started doing all this funny stuff with his fingers. It was very spontaneous and very quick and very fun. He knew I needed to get something done, it was expected, but at the same time he was being super playful. Hopefully, there’s a level of comfort that artists have with me. They see me around a lot, they’ve worked with me and they’ve never seen photos of them picking their nose end up in the tabloids [laughs]. There is a trust factor. There is magic involved, and hopefully none of these people ever feel like they’re being manipulated. I’m always just trying to get an interesting, creative photograph. People like Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and Neil Young have been photographed for 45 years non-stop. When I get asked to shoot them I want it to be a brilliant, brilliant portrait. My job is to get an engaging, interesting photograph of them. That’s it.”

Jay Blakesberg will be hosting release parties where he will be signing books. The first party is Tuesday, November 11 at The Independent in San Francisco at 6:30 p.m. There will be an East Coast party in New York on Monday, November 17 at the Time Warner Center in New York from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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