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


David Gahr was born in 1922 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After serving with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, he studied at the University of Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill. Recommended for a prestigious scholarship in the master’s program in economics at Columbia University, he moved to New York. Chafing at Columbia’s conservative faculty, Gahr left the school and supported a new family as a stock boy at Sam Goody’s record store in midtown Manhattan, working directly with Sam Goody. Gahr’s camera hobby led him to photographing the stars, musicians and music industry suits who came in the store, often directly from the jazz clubs on West 52nd Street.

He became a professional photographer in 1958, when his unique skill in portraiture was recognized by Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, and put to use on the album jackets of the label’s seminal roster of traditional and contemporary recording artists, including Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Cisco Houston, The Weavers, Pete Seeger, and other musicians who inspired the folk music revival of the 1960s and would influence the direction of American popular music and culture for the next 40 years.

With a distinguished and informed sensibility of art history and a deceptively candid style, David Gahr’s photography captured the essential poetry and soul of the artists and their music. His images formed the perception of the music of the 1960s and 70s for a growing popular audience, and retained a dignified authenticity that appealed to the integrity of a new generation of performers and singer-songwriters who were bucking showbusiness commercialism. Gahr became one of the most sought-after photographers in the music industry.

David Gahr’s images are the definitive portraits of the most important music makers of the second half of the twentieth century and a defining record of the arc of major careers. He was with Bob Dylan in his first years in Greenwich Village and his 1963 Newport Folk Festival debut, and there at Dylan’s infamous introduction of rock’s raucus rhythms into his repertoire at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He showed us Janis Joplin’s sweat-drenched debut at the1968 Newport Folk Festival and again in full feathered regalia at the Chelsea Hotel before a show at the Fillmore East. He captured a tender Bruce Springsteen, not even 23, in Asbury Park, New Jersey on the eve of a career breakthrough and again in portraits and onstage as the most popular performer in American music. He preserved Emmylou Harris’s humble beginnings on the folk scene in 1968 and again throughout the 70’s and 80’s as country rock’s reigning queen, and documented Dolly Parton in New York City in 1976 where her country charms burnish the gruff city streets in some of the most iconic images of her career. Gahr’s profile of Miles Davis in a 1970 performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts is the most famous image of the iconic American artist, appearing on the cover of Davis’ Jack Johnson album, and has been reproduced over many years in dozens of magazine and newspaper features on the jazz master.

Some of his most important, indelible images are of the legendary pioneers of American blues, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt, all as they rode the crest of renewed recognition and popularity with a young and enthusiastic American audience.

David Gahr’s iconic images of American folk, pop, blues and jazz artists appeared consistently in every major publication for over four decades, including Life, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and People Magazine, as well as smaller publications with big cultural import, such as Sing Out! and the legendary Little Sandy Review fanzine.

David Gahr was also the arts and culture photographer of choice for art critic and writer Robert Hughes at Time Magazine for over a decade. Beginning in the early 1960s, Gahr documented New York City’s white-hot arts scene from studio to gallery, turning his lens on luminaries Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenberg, Tony Smith, and Andy Warhol, among others.

A recognizable influence in American photography, David Gahr is acknowledged as a visual master, and his work has been cited by major rock photographers Annie Leibovitz, Anton Corbijn, and the late Jim Marshall, as well as a younger generation of image-makers like DannyClinch and Josh Cheuse, as essential in any consideration of popular music photography.

For almost 50 years, David Gahr’s camera eye was always present at the nexus of American originality, following its currents in 35 millimeter, black and white, full frame poetry that is the truthful record of our shared cultural history.