Career and Sessions Essay | David Gahr, American Photographer | Iconic Images of the Folk, Jazz, Blues, Songwriters, Artists, and Writers of the Second Half of the 20th Century

Career and Sessions Essay

Deep in the 1930’s, I lived on Galena Street in the Black Breughal 6th Ward of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My family shared one of the four working class flats with three colored families.

Mrs. Smith, one of our downstairs neighbors, was left alone on occasional nights by her husband and would often ask my parents to send me down to sleep the night in her flat and deter what evils a ten-year-old boy could encounter. Why not–with five kids around, they sure could spare one.

But there in Mrs. Smith’s living room was where I first heard THE music. Race records played almost all thru the night on a great crank-up phonograph machine. Couldn’t believe my ears, for it had nothing to do with the pop seeping and simpering thru the radio we owned. The country blues, jazz, the black heart music I heard took seed in me forever.

I started with Folkways Records and Moses Asch–my first assignment for him was with Big Bill Broonzy. After doing at least a hundred covers for them–the SeegersBrownie and Sonny, Memphis SlimWillie DixonPeter La Farge, etc.–the Newport Folk Festivals arrived.

That marvelous mensch, Mississippi John Hurt liked everyone, or if he didn’t, was too kind to let on. His face had forty depths in its skin alone. By chance I took random photographs, really a snapshot of a 16-year-old young man who looked like an immigrant right off the boat standing next to him. Ten years later I realized it was Taj Mahal. John Hurt is long gone now. Missed.

Skip James had the voice and bearing of an aristocrat. His singing, falsetto and all, one afternoon in Peabody Park, Newport, Rhode Island, was the single greatest musical performance I have ever heard. Passed on some years ago.

Elizabeth Cotten evoked in her singing of Freight Train all the loneliness and beauty of a Theodore Dreiser heroine looking nightly across the tracks toward a lover who had forgotten her. If Libby appears within a hundred miles of your town, rent a car, hitch a ride, go to hear and see her.

Johnny Cash was our hero in Newport of 1964. He looked the perfect stud, a great card dealing cowboy with the face of a river boat gambler, flipping his guitar back and forth with sure nonchalance. It was a face ravaged by strong living and we screamed in the pits like wild ones. Later I photographed him backstage in the dark for a few moments with Dylan and the Stanley Brothers. Unfortunately, the low and contrasty light ruined what documentary history the negatives might have had.

Sara Carter of the legendary Carter Family had me in awe all the way. I photographed her on tiptoes, hardly saying a word. May that Holbein face live forever.

Charles Mingus once told me Miles Davis was the most beautiful man in the whole world. He was right.

Janis Joplin would like you or hate you on sight or insight. And was rarely wrong. She shrieked when I told her my assignment was for Time Magazine. “Damn, now my old man will know I’ve done something, I am someone! He always reads Time. Damn, damn. Good!” We miss you, Joplin, wherever you are.

Laura Nyro had cancelled an appointment to be interviewed but my magazine forgot to inform me, so I stood in her vestibule for like an hour urging and arguing with her to keep the photographic part of the appointment. Hell, I needed the job. She relented long enough to let me in and turned on her new record, Eli’s Coming. I didn’t believe what I heard and shouted, “Laura, Laura, God must have sent me to photograph you!” Laura, a deeply religious girl, believed me and in 15 minutes I took better photographs of her then ever again. The cover of her New York Tendaberry is some of the evidence. Perhaps God WAS there.

1963 at Newport was a seminal year–not quite with the impact-schism of the 1965 Dylan scene, but still an event for it was the original gathering of the clan to pledge their music to a freedom movement.

Bob Rolentz of Atlantic Records knew I was going to London in the summer of 1969 (knew hell, I told him twice a day) and assigned me to photograph some their rock and pop groups: The MarblesThe Bee GeesYesThe Magic Lanterns (THE MAGIC LANTERNS: They drove all night, 350 miles in a broken panel truck to be photographed in London, loaded with all their equipment in case a gig came thru, and it rained all day. Hell, I photographed them in Hyde Park in the rain, in the streets in the rain, the rail road depots in the rain. Anyone who went to that much trouble deserved every bit of my skill. Where are your lights now, Magic Lanterns?), SamanthaTin Tin, and Blind Faith.

“Listen” said Rolentz, “Blind Faith is the key group and don’t come back without them.” I saved Blind Faith for last and I tracked them down for days and nights until I cornered them together near Olympic Studios in Hammersmith. After three minutes of photographing the group–I was just warming up–their roadie or someone like that urged them to come inside and start mixing their tapes; but good, dear Ginger Baker barked at the supernumary, “Leave the man alone, don’t you see he’s working?” Baker, Baker, may you sleep in peace, whatever continent you’re drumming in, and may your Jensen run smoothly forever.

1967 was a vintage year for the singer-songwriter. Newport gave first birth to Leonard Cohen, the beautiful Joni Mitchell, and Arlo Guthrie. Two Canadians and a Coney Island rebel. Arlo, gawky, modest but already a first-rate professional songwriter, quickly captured the attention and temper of the audience. Before the year was out he learned to disengage and finally fled to the Massachusetts woods to marry in an open meadow, have a child, and live some of the good life. Fame doesn’t always maim.

Bob Dylan is the Gertrude Stein of our time. He writes what he means, but the light changes and we see and hear and feel what we want. May his rose never fade.

While photographing the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert in early 1968, I and most of the audience were struck by the fantastic music Dylan converted from the structures of Guthrie’s Grand Coolee Dam and Mrs. Roosevelt. It was sheer electric pleasure, sturdy and simple as an Aalto chair. Dylan kept turning to one after the other of his band to sing with, and damn if they weren’t his knife-striding equals. They were The Band, five highly diverse but straight cats who could come together even in a photograph to create a rock-like matrix of music. Levon, Garth, Rick, Robbie and Richard, are you safe in the hills while those read-wearing trucks rumble by?

Recording sessions are the scene of some of the most difficult problems in photography. The light is awful; mikes and booms, sound boxes and apparatus marring the eye everywhere; and tenseness endemic. The photographer is simply a too visible noise machine.

It takes tact and humility to stay alive during a rough twenty-take song taping, and sharp reflexes to bring a camera to swift focus when the right images appear.

The sessions covering Willie Nelson, in contrast, were an undiluted pleasure due to Willie’s gentleness, warmth and patience. For five days and nights I wandered in and out of the studio, expending a mile of film on the way, but in the end, only one truly significant photograph came to be on the last night. The face of a weary musician, Shotgun Willie Nelson, one of the greatest country singers and writers of the two decades.

Phil Spector was one of my first good assignments for Time Magazine in 1964. Even then he was exciting, unique and unusual to photograph. His working apartment was a bit small and dull so I urged him to come outside for a few moments by his limousine.

Bob Dylan: One winters day I called Bobby and asked him if he would like to go photographing with me in the Village. It was 1971 and damn cold but I put a camera with a wide-angle lens in his hands and we ended up on the Lower East Side where he took photos, which revealed his mischievous talent. The Lower East Side habitué lifted a marvelous eyebrow just as I touched the release shutter.

John Lennon: In 1974 the fine film director and photographer Basil Pao and I anxiously kept our appointment to do John Lennon. It was drizzling all afternoon, but John said “Fawk it, I’m always done in the sun, Let’s do it in the rain.” As in the Dylan photo, the common, long-lived New Yorker had the edge in style.

I asked John why the night before he was grumpy and difficult but this afternoon he was all happiness. He answered “ Dave, Dave, Yoko is letting me come back to her this weekend.” He sure loved her.

Willie Dixon, Big Joe Williamson, and Memphis Slim: I had just photographed Willie, Big Joe and Memphis Slim in Mo Asch’s recording studio for Folkways Records in 1961, but this shot on 46th Street in NYC was the juiciest. The guy ambling along on the left of the photograph is straight out of the Thirties.

When Eric Clapton saw it in a book I worked on he almost convulsed in laughter and couldn’t wait to show it to the other members of Blind Faith who I was doing at the time.

Bruce Springsteen: It was a hot beautiful day in 1973 when I photographed Bruce and The E Street Band for their record cover. We were all aware that Springsteen was an enormous talent, the most important since Tim Buckley and Dylan.

While sitting in a pizza parlor having a slice, I mentioned that his friend, Paul Nelson, the writer and A&R man’s recent production of the New York Dolls had sold over 60,000 records in a few weeks. Bruce’s response was a low whistle and the exclamation: “60 Thou!”

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Howling Wolf: The night before this photograph at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, Howling Wolf in workman’s overalls started sweeping the stage with a broom during the band’s performance. I laughed so hard at the political antic and the bewildered folkie audience, I forgot to photograph the event. So the image is merely a second best.

Patti Smith and Sam Shepard: I stopped in on the poet Patti Smith in 1971 in the old Chelsea Hotel to bring her some proofsheets of her, Eric Anderson and Viva. Sam Shepard was there–Patti was in a play of his at the time–and asked them out on the balcony where I took their image. God, they looked good together!