Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
Jay Blakesberg's photos have appeared in Rolling Stone, Time magazine, Vanity Fair magazine and Guitar Player to name just a few. He's photographed everybody from The Grateful Dead to Metallica. And now, he's talking to us!
Q - You're closely identified with The Grateful Dead. What is it about that group that so interested you?
A - My interest in The Grateful Dead goes back almost forty years as a teenager growing up in suburban New Jersey. You get turned on to music by your older siblings or your friends. Things like that. I got turned on to The Grateful Dead and it resonated with me. Within a couple of years of seeing my first Grateful Dead concert I was starting to follow that band around, driving many, many hours to see shows. It kept going from there. I was just very interested in and intrigued by their music, but I was also interested and intrigued by the scene that surrounded the music, the Dead Heads and people who were traveling to see the band, the friendships that were forged at that time in my life with those people.
Q - When you photographed The Dead at The Medowlands in 1978, you didn't just walk in and start snapping pictures, did you? Did you need The Dead's permission to do that, specifically their management?
A - No. Not back then. Back in the '70s you could bring a camera into any concert you wanted to without credentials or photo passes or anything like that. Another fact, with The Grateful Dead, even throughout their entire career, you were allowed to always bring a camera in to shoot The Grateful Dead. They never put those restrictions on anybody. You couldn't necessarily shoot from the photo pit in front of the stage unless you had the proper credentials, but you could be anywhere in the audience and shoot the band. And so as a sixteen year old teenager in New Jersey, I didn't know how to get a photo pass or credentials to shoot The Grateful Dead, let alone contact their management, so I just borrowed my father's camera, brought it to the concert and took some pictures from the audience.
Q - And what did you do with those pictures?
A - Pretty much at that point I developed some of 'em in my basement at my mother's house in a darkroom I had built. Some of 'em I tacked to my bedroom wall like any good sixteen year old kid.
Q - They never made it into a school newspaper?
A - Not those first photos. About a year later I shot a show in Rochester, New York. It was September, 1979. So it was really exactly a year later. In '77, '78, '79 and '80 The Grateful Dead did a big East Coast, Labor Day Weekend music concert. The first was the Meadowlands in '78. The second was Rochester. The first one was actually in '77 in English Town, New Jersey and that was my first Grateful Dead concert. I did not shoot it. The second one was Meadowlands in '78 that I did shoot. The third one was in Rochester and the fourth one was in Lewiston, Main. These were all the big Labor Day Weekend shows. So, the third one in Rochester, New York in '79, I had met a writer somewhere at a show and he told me he was writing a review of that show for the Aquarium Weekly, which was one of the free weekly newspapers that you see all over the place, like the Village Voice. So, I submitted two photos from that show in Rochester with his story and they got published and they were my very first photos that I ever got paid for. I got $7.50 per photo, so I got a total of $15 for my first paid photo gig in 1979. I was seventeen years old.
Q - And you were off and running!
A - Exactly!
Q - The Grateful Dead performed at the Onondaga County War Memorial in 1978. They also performed at the Carrier Dome, maybe 1980, 1981.
A - I feel like I saw The Grateful Dead in Syracuse in 1981, so that sounds about right. They had a very strong following in Upstate New York, Syracuse, Ithaca, Utica, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo. They did a lot of big Upstate New York shows.
Q - How young were you when you first thought of taking Rock concert photos?
A - Fifteen, sixteen I believe. I shot a couple of concerts before that Grateful Dead concert. I would say I was probably sixteen. I don't remember if I shot anything in '77 with a professional camera, so I'm thinking 1978 sounds about right.
Q - You studied photography at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. What could college teach you that you couldn't learn on your own?
A - Well, there's a lot to learn. There was an enormous amount of technical knowledge to acquire in school. I did study photography in school and I dropped out and I moved to the West Coast and I went back to school and I did study photography and video. But really my professional career started when I moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1980s. I think it was about 1985, 1986 when I started to think I really wanted to make a career out of it, but I didn't really know what that meant and I taught myself how to do portraiture because I knew you couldn't just shoot 'live' concerts if you wanted to make a living. I was looking at magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin magazine, Musician magazine and Guitar Player magazine. I knew that if I wanted to shoot covers for those magazines or feature stories or anything like that, I had to learn how to do portrait work. I bought some simple lighting equipment and learned how to do light and studio portraiture and environmental location portraiture. That's really when my career started. In the mid-80s I was still shooting a lot of 'live' concerts. By '87, '88, I was doing a little bit of portraiture and learning how to do that. By '89 I was definitely doing a lot more portraiture with professional lighting. But, I am self taught with all of that stuff. Trial and error.
Q - Did you in your travels ever happen to photograph Nirvana and Kurt Cobain?
A - Yeah, absolutely. I photographed Nirvana performing 'live' I believe three times. At one time I shot them at a record store on Haight Street in San Francisco. They were supposed to come to my studio. Actually it was a warehouse that a friend of mine lived in, to do some portraits after that. That must've been 1990. It was before Dave Grohl was in the band and they got lost and never found the studio and had to go to Sacramento for a gig and just kept driving and never came by. I was all set up to do portraits. I never got to do portraits of Kurt or the band, unfortunately.
Q - Did you talk to Kurt at any time?
A - I talked to Kurt briefly at the record store. I think that was the only time I met him. His booking agent at the time was a woman who was also the agent for The Flaming Lips and a manager for The Flaming Lips back then. She was a friend of mine. She had turned me onto The Flaming Lips and said, "You've got to check out this band Nirvana. You've got to shoot this band." She made the introduction and made me go talk to them and say, "Hey, Michelle said I should go photograph you guys." So, that's how that all went down. But there was really no big conversation with Kurt. At the birth of the whole Alternative Rock movement in the early '90s with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Jane's Addiction, I was shooting all of that. Even though I was still very much a Dead Head and shooting a lot of Grateful Dead stuff, I was still shooting bands like that, The Butt Hole Surfers, because that's what the magazines wanted and so I was shooting all of that stuff. I was shooting The Grateful Dead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and all of those other bands that I mentioned.
Q - Were you based out of Seattle at the time?
A - No. I was based out of San Francisco.
Q - Did you ever heave the chance to check out the Grunge scene in Seattle?
A - No. I actually want to college in Olympia, Washington which is sixty miles South of Seattle and I left Olympia in '85 I believe it was and moved to the Bay Area. I think that scene started to really bubble up and explode within a couple of years of that. '86, '87 was really the beginning of that Seattle scene. One of my college room mates was the original sound guy for Soundgarden, so I remember shooting them in a small club. They were the opening act for another band in San Francisco. So, I got turned on to some of that Seattle stuff fairly early and because I was actually shooting in the nightclubs and kind of honing my skills as a 'live' shooter. Every time a band like that came through town I was definitely there to shoot them. I had some good opportunities.
Q - I noticed you photograph a lot of entertainment at festivals like Lollapalloza and moe.down. I thought festivals were a thing of the past, but they seem to be growing in popularity. How do you explain that? Aren't people packed in like sardines?
A - The festival scene has grown exponentially over the last ten years I want to say. Some of the bigger festivals like Bonaroo and there's one called Summer Camp Music Festivals and moe.down like you mentioned, these started over ten years ago. I think Summer Camp, which is in Illinois, just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. Gathering Of Vibes, which I'm going to tomorrow in Connecticut, is celebrating twenty years. Some of the early festivals were kind of the hippie, jam band festivals and eventually this idea really spread. Lollapalloza was at first a traveling festival. Now it's just one weekend a year in Chicago. Coachella, Austin City Limits, there's a lot of big festivals. You're right, the number of festivals in the United States has grown enormously. Packed in like sardines and not being able to move? Not so much. Sure, some of these festivals are very full. Some of these festivals got fifty thousand and sixty thousand people. Sometimes more. Most of the festivals I work at, I like to stick in the somewhat smaller size festivals. I'm happy up to twenty-five thousand people. You start getting more people than that and more stages; I like to concentrate. The biggest festival I shoot right now is probably the Locke Festival, but that has two stages side by side so you're not really missing anything. Music just flip-flops. Mountain Jam does the same thing and that's anywhere from fifteen to eighteen thousand people. Summer Camp has five stages, but it's not a large footprint. Some of these festivals you have to walk for thirty minutes to get from one main stage to the next. I want to spend my time shooting a band, not walking around trying to get from stage to stage so I can shoot one or two songs or each artist. I'd rather shoot everything of all the artists instead of a little bit here and a little bit there. But the festival scene is great. It's a cool opportunity. I have a new book that just came out called Guitars That Jam, and you can order that book at any bookstore, Amazon on-line and from my website directly for signed copies at www.RockOutBooks.com. A lot of the photos in that book are taken at festivals. My previous book before that was called Jam, and a lot of that was shot at music festivals. Later this year I have another book coming out called Hippie Chick, which is all about women at music festivals and concerts over the last thirty-five years. So, festivals provide a very rich backdrop of photographic opportunities. For me, I like it. It's fun and it's not a crazy, crazy thing. It's pretty sane and organized if it's good festival.
Q - Hippie Chick is going to be about "groupies"? Or just women who are attending festivals?
A - Those are women who have 'live' music as a big, important part of their lives. They go see 'live' music frequently and they're inspired by 'live' music. They might follow a band like Phish around or they might follow different incarnations of The Grateful Dead around or they might go to a lot of festivals. But those are places where they connect with people in music and their friends and family. They can recharge their batteries. Grace Slick wrote the foreword for that book. Grace Potter wrote the afterward for that book. There's a bunch of really great essays written by a woman named Edith Johnson. Edith really hits the nail on the head when she talks about what it means. There's three sections of the book. It's called Hippie Chick. A Tale Of Love, Devotion And Surrender. So there's three sections, Love, Devotion and Surrender. She wrote an essay for each one. I think the term and vibe of "groupies" is an outdated '60s and '70s probably kind of a situation. I think women are more in control and embrace it in a very different way than being a "groupie" to a bunch of different musicians.