February 10, 2009 by A.C. Rhodes
Jay Blakesberg is not one of the original classic rock photographers. He was too young for that wave, but perhaps that is what contributes to his distinction; casting him as a sort of Cam Crowe of photography. Starting out as an unabashed Deadhead in Northern California, he departed only in that his musical tastes were more eclectic.
As a teen there was his typical basement den involved in a typical ’70s daydream, with hippies milling about, and as for the club and theater music scene he took advantage of everything that vital part of America had to offer in those pivotal times. It wasn’t soon after that his hobby of taking concert snaps grew into a career with more personal alliances, taking stills of artists like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal to Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits.
This past December, Blakesberg celebrated 30 years of photography by releasing a book (his third from Rock House Books) of his chosen photos and memories, Traveling on a High Frequency: Jay Blakesberg – Photographs 1978–2008. His photographs have appeared in all the usual periodical suspects; Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and Harp Magazines and have also been printed onto canvas with poster artist Richard Biffle painting them onto the canvases. The biggest seller? Jerry Garcia.
AR: What got you interested in photography? Who were some of your favorite photographers?
JB: I started bringing a camera to concerts in late 1977. I used my dad’s camera. I would develop the film in my mom’s basement where I had a small darkroom. At the time, I was aware of Jim Marshall, a San Francisco photographer from the ’60s. He did a lot of jazz in NY, but by the early ’60 was back in San Francisco. He did shots of all the SF bands and at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Herbie Greene was another photographer. These were the shots I was seeing in some magazines and books.
AR: It’s clear that you loved music, but interesting that you chose something visual over literary.
JB: I think I have always been drawn to the visual. It was an easier way for me to communicate and make sense of what was around me. I saw Trouser Press and Creem, but I wasn’t a regular subscriber. If you’re a writer, you need to find a more tangible place to for that kind of work. Photos could be just for me and my friends. They did not have to be published to be shared.
AR: Did you recognize your strengths right away or were they a little more hard won?
JB: No, I did not. I think if you’re that young, you don’t immediately recognize things like that. It’s not really part of the thought process at 16 or 17. If you like what you do, that’s enough to go on. I mean, a lot of what I did looked okay, and I guess that was inspiring enough to keep trying.
AR: Did you start out with only concerts or some stills?
JB: Mostly shows at first. I grew up in New Jersey so it was mostly indoor shows, but there were some outdoor free concerts at some local colleges. There was no access to bands for posed shots, so it was just live concerts.
AR: What was your first concert? Did you have a camera along?
JB: My very first concert was the Doobie Brothers, Outlaws and Poco in ’75 at Madison Square Garden – no camera just bad weed. Like I said, I never took cameras to concerts until late ’77.
AR: What was your first big job?
JB: That would be U2 in ’87. There were rumors of a free concert in San Fran. I heard on the radio that it was happening. I was right about to leave and go and got a call from Rolling Stone Magazine. If I had left 20 minutes before I wouldn’t have gotten the call (no cell phones). Jodi Peckman from the magazine said, “we need you to shoot the free U2 concert in downtown San Francisco. Go and find the press contact for Bill Graham Presents and he will hook you up. That was my first assignment for the magazine. I have gone on to shoot over 250 assignments for Rolling Stone in the last 21 years. My first magazine cover was Camper Van Beethoven for BAM Magazine in ’89.
AR: How do you work with bands that may not be as photogenic as others to make their image more pronounced?
JB: Some of that comes with experience. It could be choosing a great location, or interesting lighting, or lens choices, angles. Directing them to stand or sit a certain way.
AR: Your images are rich with an almost sanguine quality – almost like still-life portraits. Can you trace that to any art movement influence?
JB: It’s funny because I like my photos to have tension and drama. So if they seem sanguine, it is maybe because the subject is just comfortable. I prefer my images to be more surreal, and tweaked.
AR: Many have that dreamlike, almost Lynchian quality to them. I wondered if you had developed that vision over time.
JB: I like that. I love David Lynch’s work, and he is certainly an influence, so I like the Lynchian comparison. For me, there is a warped psychedelic influence. And yes, style and vibe comes with taking chances and understanding that style and creativity comes from taking these chances. We didn’t have the computer technology that exists now, but our choices of film and lenses and lighting gave me tools to create photos that have a more surreal vibe.
AR: Your color photos stand out, but you do have some black and white, also. Do you have a preference for a certain type of artist or mood?
JB: With Film, I almost always shot both B&W and color when shooting an artist. It was still a magical moment in the lab when I went to pick up my film… there were always surprises. I love the look of both color and B&W. They both create a mood a feeling, a unique image.
AR: Over time how did you develop your collages?
JB: For me the collages came about because one picture didn’t tell a story, but a group of images told the story a bit better. I like sequences.
AR: Obviously, you’re sort of for hire, but what would make you want to seek out a subject or musician?
JB: I love music, and when I love an artist, I feel a draw to wanting to shoot them. Sometimes if they are local that can be easy. If they are from out of town it depends on the relationship I have with them, or the label, or their management. Many of these people are the artists that form our pop culture history, and I always have a draw to document that history.
AR: So no weddings or Bar Mitzvahs?
AR: Have you known your professional, artistic relationships to become more fluid over time… like the more you photograph someone?
JB: Absolutely, I like photographing artists over and over again because I learn their body language, their movements, what is comfortable, and what can create an engaging image. Jackie Greene, a fairly new artist, is someone I want to shoot over and over again because I know he’ll have a long career and I am drawn to how talented he is and I want to document that. Long term single artist projects are very appealing to me. I did a book on 15 years of Primus and Les Claypool, and another book on the Flaming Lips, and my first book was just on the Grateful Dead.
AR: Who is among the most beautiful women you have ever photographed?
JB: Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Siouxsie Sioux, Tracy Chapman, Vanessa Carlton, Kathleen Edwards, Alanis Morisette, Linda Perry, Elisa… she’s the biggest pop star in Italy and is really down to earth and amazing to photograph. I am sure I am leaving many out. I did the first magazine covers for Alanis and Sheryl; both for BAM.
AR: After photographing some of the most beautiful and unique figures, do regular people you meet every day disappoint you?
JB: Certainly not. People are so fascinating to me! Look at my photos of deadheads, or punks, or people dancing at shows. Shooting the fans is super interesting to me.
AR: How did you choose the photos for the book? Which are among your personal standouts if even for the experience behind it?
JB: I just started looking at everything which was such an overwhelming task. I wanted portraits that were engaging; performance shots that were intense. Not just someone standing there on stage because they were a famous musician. So many are my favorites… it would be impossible to choose, but Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, EmmyLou, Dave Matthews… the list goes on and on.
AR: At what stage did you get to The Meat Puppets and Nirvana?
JB: I got turned on about ’86 to the Meat Puppets and loved shooting them. They were a psychedelic indie punk band… It was an early manager for the Flaming Lips who turned me on to Nirvana. She was their booking agent. She set up a shoot for me with Nirvana and they got lost trying to find my studio and the shoot never happened. This was pre-Dave Grohl.
AC: The Harp cover with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck was a standout. How did that idea come about?
JB: Scott Crawford, the editor, asked if they could bring their axes… so they did along with big bushy beards. Scott Crawford meant guitars, they brought AXES to chop down trees! Scott and Peter had both grown long beards, so the axes fit the persona.
AR: Has anyone ever acted like a little shit? Make it a blind item if you must.
JB: There have been some with big egos… mostly managers. Yeah, they’re big rock stars but you can still be a nice person. But in general, I have gotten lucky. So no need to name names.
AR: Did you in fact take photos of subjects from The Church of Satan? If so, did they try to draft you?
JB: Yes, I photographed the founder Anton LaVey – a very fascinating shoot, great stories for that one. The Church of Satan was created to shock but also to get guys laid… what better way to get naked women. They did not try and recruit me… but I would have loved to hang with them a bit more just to observe. It was amazing to get them before he died a few years later.
AR: Do your kids think you’re cool or are they too cool to care?
JB: Sometimes they think I am and sometimes they think I am a dork! I’m sure all kids feel this way about their parents no matter how cool they are. If their friends say something positive about me, then they’ll step back and think, “Well, yeah, he is.” I try to remind them to be engaged and to experience life. Don’t go through life un-noticed!
Traveling on a High Frequency: Jay Blakesberg – Photographs 1978–2008 (Rock Out Books) is a 30-year retrospective with 304 pages of over 1,200 photos from the archive of Jay Blakesberg. The book features a foreword by Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies) and introduction by writer and music cultural figure, Bill Bentley.
In lieu of Fun Facts the ten questionnaire concept, originated by Bernard Pivot, after the Proust Questionnaire was presented and like the stars who answer he responded in kind haste.
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
I love words… why would I have a least favorite?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Life and how amazing it is.
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Mean people – the really mean ones!
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What is your favorite curse word?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Superhero, neurosurgeon, rock star (all combined) – oh wait, didn’t Buckaroo Bonzai already do that?
What profession would you not like to do?
Cleaning porta johns.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Welcome, Have fun!