Jam photographer Jay Blakesberg: "I consider myself to be a visual anthropologist"
For someone who's been shooting concerts since the '70s, you'd think Jay Blakesberg would be burned out on music. Not so much, it turns out. On the heels of releasing his latest book, JAM, Blakesberg is still striving to capture the feverish energy that explodes from the stages when the greatest jam musicians trade notes. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar Player, Relix and Acoustic Guitar, and he's photographed everyone from the Grateful Dead and Phish to the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty. We recently spoke with the legendary photographer about how he decides which photos make the cut.
Westword: You've got a book coming out called JAM. Let's talk about how this is different than your previous book, Traveling on a High Frequency: Jay Blakesberg - Photographs 1978-2008.
Jay Blakesberg: My new book is all live concert photography. My last book, Traveling, is more of a thirty year retrospective and had more portrait work in it than live stuff. After I did that book, I had a real need and desire to do a book of my live stuff, especially over the last couple years, I've been shooting a lot of festivals, and I've been really psyched about what I've been getting, and so have people, especially on social media, which is where we get recognition these days.
So, we started this book a couple years ago, and then we back-burnered it a little bit. And then a year ago, I did a Kickstarter campaign -- it's expensive to publish a book on your own. So I started the Kickstarter campaign, and in four weeks, I raised about 80 percent of what I needed to publish a book.
I immediately started looking through tens of thousands of photographs, trying to come with what I thought were photos that rep what i was looking for. I wasn't looking for a famous guy on stage singing into a microphone. I was looking for something that was really ecstatic on stage that was creating a buzz and energy and magic on stage, and I was trying to capture that with my photos.
Several people have said that they've never seen so much movement in so many still photos. That's a huge compliment. It's about body language. It's about intensity. It's about capturing those moments on stage.
In putting the book together, were there certain shows, or photos, that you knew would be included based on your own memory?
I did have specific shots in mind right from the beginning. Like anything like that, it continues to evolve and change very quickly. We shipped the book to the printer on July 1, and I shot moe. at Red Rocks on July 4, and there were pictures of moe. from July 4 in that book. We were changing a week after we shipped the book.
We changed the Phish spread. There's a shot of Page McConnell cropped. It didn't work. You needed to see that whole picture. There is another shot that is a sunset shot that is a magical photograph from Red Rocks. So many people are looking down on the stage and rarely get to look up, so to see the big rocks and the sunset and the crowd... it was a gorgeous photograph. We jigged the Phish spread to really make those photographs shine.
For instance, Michael Franti and Spearhead, one of my favorite bands to shoot, as I've been shooting them since the late '80s, I had the opening spread with Michael with his arm out -- that stayed and never changed. But the next spread, there was this picture of Jay Bowman, who is his guitar player, and then Michael on the other page, that were taken at a festival called Mountain Jam, which is a festival in Upstate New York, near Woodstock, and they were taken two summers ago.
I love the photos, and they have this great energy. I went to Mountain Jam this year the first weekend in June -- three weeks before the book was shipping off to be printed -- and I got incredible photographs. I replaced those with the new ones. Things like that were happening. A lot of what was driven to be in the book was driven by the interviews that I did. The artists all provided text for the book.
There is a picture of Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana from the late '80s, and I specifically wanted that photo in the book because it epitomizes some serious history of people jamming together; jam means so much more. It means jam bands. It means jamming with people on stage that you wouldn't normally play with. It means improvisational music. It also means Dave Navarro from Janes Addiction, which is not a jam band, but Navarro sure knows how to jam. It has all those meanings. It's hardcore energy coming from the stage.
With that picture of Garcia and Carlos, we specifically asked him to talk about playing with Jerry because I knew I wanted that photo in there. There is a photo of Carlos jamming with The Allman Brothers two summers ago at a show, and we said, "Tell us what it was like playing with Warren and Derrick." They are these incredible players that don't have the same history but are still incredible players. He stepped up and talked about that.
With nearly forty years shooting concerts, can you talk about your transition from film to DSLR -- aside from the obvious that you save money on printing?
Well, digital isn't cheaper than film. Yes, you aren't spending money on film, but you have hard drives and gear that you have to replace every three years. I could shoot a job today on a film camera that I bought thirty years ago, but I can't shoot on a digital camera that I bought six years ago.
Do you see with DJs and producers taking over the music, would you ever gravitate towards this new scene?
I'm definitely more of a rock guy. I love some of the stuff that people like Bassnectar does. I'm not a big EDM fan. Some of those artists play at some these festivals that I do shoot; Summer Camp Music Festival, for instance, has all those artists at it. I'm 52 years old. I gravitate towards what you call the organic instruments. That's what I like.
I'm not a big hip-hop fan. I'm not a big EDM fan. I do appreciate that stuff -- like in my last book, I have Snoop and Dre and LL Cool J -- but it's not really my main thing, in terms of what I do and what I love. I am intrigued by these pop culture people like Snoop, and I would take any opportunity to shoot him on stage or off stage... same thing with Dre.
In terms of DSLR, my last book had about 1,200 photos in it, and I think there were under fifty that were shot on digital. Five years later, when JAM comes out, I think there are approximately 300 photos in it, and I think there are under ten that are shot on film. I embraced the digital transition early on, in terms of how I do my commercial work, but I delivered all my images to my clients digitally.
It took me a little bit longer to shooting fully digital because I didn't like the look and feel of the early digital cameras. It looked too much like bad old video. I didn't like that. The camera manufacturers were like, "Look at how sharp this looks! Look at the pixels!" and that's what I didn't like.
Its sort of like artists recording in a studio, and they want to use old tube amps because of the warmth and tones you can get that you don't get out of digital reproduction. It's the same in photography. As the cameras got better and the sensors got better, I started to like it. A lot of my digital images look like they were shot on film because that was the look I was going for.
We process my images the same way musicians process their records. We go in and manipulate our photos. We work in Photoshop and Lightroom. I want my photos to have that warmth of film. They have a unique look that people find exciting. I wasn't the first, but people are influenced by the work I'm putting out there.
How has your mission changed in terms of documenting this in the beginning to what it is now?
In a big way. In the beginning, I took pictures to as a teenager because I wanted to create my own memorabilia, so to speak. I would shoot photos at concert, and I had little darkroom in my mom's basement, and I'd print pictures and give them to my friends and tack them on my wall -- basically, your typical 1970s rock and roll stoner teenager.
As I got older and I thought that I might like to try and make a living as a photographer, I started approaching it like a professional and getting jobs for magazines, and eventually record companies, and eventually bands. I kind of moved in that direction of taking it more seriously, and building a name for myself through the '80s and '90s.
I have shot CD packages for every major record company that exists and doesn't exist anymore. That was sort of phase one of going from fan to professional by jumping over the barricade into the pit. I think these artists like my work. I got invited further inside to backstage, dressing rooms, aritsts' homes, and my relationship changed with artists. It became less about working with record companies and more about working with artists.
Again, I think based on my work and who I am, in terms of my personality, I was accepted into that next level. I have proved myself being capable of doing really good work. That is important. I also feel like what I've done in the past thirty years is document a pretty important part of pop culture history. I consider myself to be a visual anthropologist, ya know?
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