Jay Blakesberg Travels Between the Dark and the Light
In 1977 Jay Blakesberg was initiated into the world of the Grateful Dead at his first show at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey. Like thousands of others he never left that happy place, attending approximately 250 Dead shows as well as band members' side projects, the Other Ones and the Dead.
But, he's taken that interest as a stepping stone towards a career as an in-demand photographer. His work hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's permanent collection, has been published in numerous magazines and used as publicity photos and in cd packages.
He edited more than 20,000 frames of film and slides to produce "Between the Dark and Light: The Grateful Dead Photography of Jay Blakesberg." The coffee table book features concert shots of the Dead plus portrait sessions and backstage glimpses of the band members goofing around in front of the camera lens.
What gives additional strength to his portfolio is that, besides the Dead, Blakesberg's worked with a diverse group of artists including Phish, Neil Young, Santana, Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Soundgarden, Tom Waits, Jon Mitchell, Tom Petty, Josh Groban, Green Day and many many more.
We spoke shortly before he gave a presentation at the Rock Hall in early March. It showed his photos of the Dead and others along as he provided the engrossing behind-the-scenes reminiscences of how he captured them. The pages of "Between the Dark and Light" present the same mix of visuals and informative text.
Above all, Blakesberg is a music fan, and his enthusiasm for all types of music infuses the artistry of his work.
JPG: I was looking at your website (www.blakesberg.com) before I called and was surprised by the diversity of your work. Since you released the book, Between the Dark and Light: The Grateful Dead Photography of Jay Blakesberg, I mainly thought of you as a photographer who focussed on the Dead and its offshoot projects.
JB: Right. I do have a diverse career besides just shooting The Grateful Dead. I think that there's a lot of people out there, especially now because of my book that have seen my work. But I think there's a lot of people out there before that have seen my work for many, many years whether they knew that or not. Whether it be an article in Relix or in Rolling Stone or The Golden Road or looking at cd packages, they've been looking at my photographs for many years. Some people read photo credits and some people don't.
JPG: I know you took your first shots of the Grateful Dead in 1978. Before that were you even remotely into photography? Did you want to be a photographer or was it because of that it helped you on your way to becoming a professional photographer?
JB: In 1978 when I shot my first Grateful Dead concert, I was 16 years old. I was getting ready to go into my senior year in high school. At that point, in the late 70s, to date myself here, I don't think that career aspirations were high on the priority list. Little hippie Deadhead from New Jersey, I was more concerned with how I could scam my parents into letting me drive to Philadelphia or whatever to see the next show.
So did I want to be a photographer? I didn't know what that meant. I was just a high school kid who was bringing a camera to a Grateful Dead concert because I wanted to take pictures to hang on my bedroom wall, develop them in the basement of my mother's house, create my own memorabilia. That was the original plan, the original idea behind me shooting.
And I was shooting some other stuff previous to that. I think I started borrowing my brother's camera about 1977, bringing it to some other shows. Marshall Tucker Band I think I shot and some other stuff like that. My first Dead show was in '77, which was at English Town. I was 15. Exactly a year later, Labor Day 78, I got to shoot the Giants Stadium show and that's the beginning of my Grateful Dead archive.
JPG: At what point did you start taking things seriously? Did you just learn along the way?
JB: I learned along the way. All my early shots were just for fun. I was getting published in Relix a little bit in the late 70s, early 80s. Then, I went off to college in Olympia, Washington. Wasn't going to as many shows from about 82-85 until I moved down to the Bay area. I was studying film and video and photography in college, but not necessarily with a focus on music until I moved to the Bay Area. In 85, 86 is when I started to tap into wanting to shoot concerts and shoot shows. Shoot more Grateful Dead. Shoot whatever I could because I thought at that point, I'd like to possibly pursue a career as a photographer.' I didn't quite know what that entailed and what that meant, but certainly that was in my mind at that point.
JPG: Were you taking anything besides the Grateful Dead?
JB: Yeah, there was a bunch of small clubs where you were still allowed to bring cameras in and I was shooting bands like the Butthole Surfers, 10,000 Maniacs, Screaming Blue Messiahs, the Pixies and Living Colour. Later on, Soundgarden, the Replacements, Jane's Addiction, just some early shows in some small clubs.
I was leading this dual life of shooting a lot of Grateful Dead stuff but also shooting all this cool new exciting music that was happening that later was called Alternative Rock. Throughout the entire 90s, I shot a ton of that and had a blast. I shot all the Lollapaloozas. Just a ton of different, great incredible, vibrant rock and roll.
JPG: Are you into everything that you’ve shot?
JB: It's interesting. There've been very, very, very few artists that I've shot that I don't have any interest in. I could probably count em on one hand, a couple of metal bands back in the late 80s here and there that have since disappeared.
Pretty much everybody that I shoot like this last month, to give you an idea, I shot a bunch of great punk rock bands for different record companies. I shot NOFX. I shot a group called Lagwagon, which is on Fat Wreck Chords. They got a new CD coming up in about a month. I shot the package for that. I just shot a band called the Alkaline Trio that are on Vagrant, the Dashboard Confessional label. At the same time, same month, I also went to Vegas twice — once to shoot Santana, once to shoot Phish. Tomorrow I'm doing a cd package for a local group that was on Nettwerk Records til about 20 minutes ago when they got dropped. But we're still going to do the shoot. They're going to put it out themselves. Then the next day I'm going to shoot another punk rock band called Me First and the Gimmee Gimmees for Fat Wreck Chords, which is made up of guys from the Foo Fighters and NOFX and Lagwagon and another punk rock band from here in San Francisco. Then on Saturday, I'm shooting the Doobie Brothers for a new publicity photo. Plus, I did The Dead at The Warfield, that Valentine's Day show. (It ran in "Rolling Stone.") So, that's kind of what I've been up to in the last couple weeks.
JPG: Speaking of the Dead, I’m curious what did you think of Terrapin Station and The Other Ones and then the name change to the Dead…
JB: I loved Terrapin Station. I had a blast. It was to kind of reconnect and have that experience and go to Alpine. I haven't been to Alpine in twenty-something years. I saw the Dead there in 80. It was fun. Good to see the energy build up again. Get the family back together.
The name change? That's their call. I wish they had just become the Dead when Jerry died and not the Other Ones, and not had to make a big deal about changing it to the Dead. The Other Ones, when it is Phil and Mickey and Billy and Bob, there is a lot of Grateful Dead energy in there. They are as equally the Grateful Dead as Jerry Garcia was. They have every right to call themselves the Dead and I think it is a good compromise. I think it still respects the legacy of Jerry being in the band but recognizes that they still are a powerful force as musicians themselves and it's valid.
JPG: Speaking of Terrapin Station, in your book you have a studio shots of the Other Ones but you didn’t include any from the Terrapin Station shows last August…
JB: The book was already at the printers. That last portrait in the book of the Other Ones, we sent the book to the printers three, four, five days after that. Literally, it was down to the wire. IT WAS DOWN TO THE WIRE. If I didn't get the call to do that shoot that wouldn't have been in there. We couldn't wait til August. We had deadlines to meet.
JPG: Just having the portrait of the Other Ones, now the Dead made a nice closing to the book, completed the circle in a way.
JB: Yeah. Thought so.
JPG: You put out this book. Do you have plans to put out a book that shows the diversity of your work, that shows all the others shows you’re attended?
JB: I don't think there's enough material to do a punk rock book or a blues book or a jam band book. I want to do just another book that's like my Grateful Dead book. My Grateful Dead book has 900 photos in it. Have you ever seen a photo book with that many pictures in it? Go look at any photography book, it's one big photo per page. I wanted my book to be more illustrative. I wanted it to tell more of a story. I wanted you to see the killer shot in the magazine that ran on the cover and then those shots that ran inside, but I wanted to show you the other 10 shots that didn't run because it's a magazine and they only run three or four pictures in a story.
I wanted to tell a story that way and I wanted to do the same thing with all the artists that I shot. I want there to be B.B. King on one page, John Lee Hooker on the next and NOFX on the next. Kind of span from Green Day to The Grateful Dead and everybody in between. Do a book like that with a lot of photos in it. Again, telling that story, Here's a session I did with Green Day. Here are the two shots the magazine ran. Here are 40 other shots. They're just so cool, you've got to see em.' I'm working in that direction, talking to my publisher. We're working on sample pages to get an idea of how it would look and what artists would be included. Hopefully, that book will come out in two years. Not this Christmas, but the following Christmas.
JPG: Now you mentioned about how you wanted the Grateful Dead Book to work to tell a story and how you’d like this next one to be. Did you have any idea even consciously or subconsciously about wanting to do that when you were taking shots of the scene, of the dancers…
JB: No. I really didn't. It was definitely long after Jerry was dead that I really started to think, Oh I should do a book. I looked at 20,000 photos of The Grateful Dead. Narrowed it down to 2,000 and from 2000 there's 900 in the book. At one point there was about 12 hundred in the book. We took 300 out. (laughs) My editors they came in with the big knife. It's understandable and I think it made it for a better book. No, but I've always shot very narratively. I'm not a one shot kind of guy.
Jim Marshall is a San Francisco photographer, shot 600 album covers in the 60's (i.e. "Live Dead," Allman Brothers' "Fillmore East"). You've seen his work thousands of times. All the old shots of The Dead on Haight Street. Millions and millions of shots (i.e. Woodstock, Monterey Pop Festival). Jim, he's like an old school guy. I was at his house about a week here or two ago. I was giving him a copy of my book cause he wrote a little blurb on the back of my book. He had a whole bunch of proof sheets lying on his floor of Jimi Hendrix from the 60s. And you look at each one of these proof sheets, there's typically one shot that he had circled, as he calls it the hero shot.' And I'm looking at this proof sheet of Jimi Hendrix in San Francisco doing an outdoor free concert and I'm like, Oh my God, There's 20 amazing shots in here!' And there's only one that he calls the hero shot.'
I think exactly opposite I get my proof sheets back. Here's a roll of 35mm film, it's got 35 pictures on it.Here's 2 good ones, here's 10 good ones, here's 20. Every one on the roll is great. I edit a lot looser than he does. I don't know what he sees in his work. I just have a different viewpoint. I just feel like because I shoot a lot of film that I shoot to try and tell a story and to illustrate that vibe and try and tell what was happening. I try and get more than just the one shot.
[At this point we discuss an exhibit I was putting together of my concert photos and how I used to edit like Marshall. Now, that opinion of my work has changed.]
JPG: As I’ve been going through the photos, I’ve been picking more and more to put in the photo album cause even if it’s not in crisp focus, there’s a lot of…
JB: ...energy to it. Absolutely.
JPG: That’s the keyword. You’ll catch the energy of the body moving because the shutter speed was too slow or something like that.
JPG: So, I still like it, what it represents.
JB: Those are valid images and I think they help really tell the story.
JPG: At what point did you have enough of a portfolio that you started doing studio shots with The Dead and/or other artists?
JB: That's really what you work on. I started off shooting concerts like you, but I realized that if I was going to make the next step… Look at cd packaging, it's not just a bunch of concert photos. You're going to make the next step, look at magazines, if you're going to get your picture on the cover of a magazine, you've got to learn how to do a portrait. You need to learn how to light. You need to learn how to use a larger format camera. So you start experimenting with those things. Whether you're shooting your friends' bands or anybody you can get access to. Any band that wanted me to take their picture was a way for me to experiment and come up with a new look, a new style, something different that wasn't a stage shot because that's what you want to put in your portfolio.
You can say, Look, I've done all this but now look at my portfolio. I can do this.' Then, you get the next big job and you put that in your portfolio. It keeps building from there. It was the late 80s, early 90s that I started to realize that I wanted to pursue portraiture and have that one on one connection with artists aside from just being onstage.
A lot of my early shots are backstage shots. Anything I could get. Anything I could get access to. Anybody I could shoot, I was there to shoot it because it made a difference and building the body of work and being able to show it to people to convince them that you could do the next thing.
JPG: As far as the Grateful Dead, you started off as a fan and then because you found a press pass at a No Nukes rally in Washington D.C. and ended up taking shots of Bobby and Brent you were kind of on the other side.
JB: In 1979 when I found that press pass, there was no scam involved. Any scamming that I did came later on when it certainly was intentional to get backstage or to get better access or to get a photograph, but in 1979, when that shot was taken, I was still a senior in high school. Convinced my mother to let me drive down to D.C. area to go to a couple of shows over a weekend and found out about this rally. A bunch of people were going to it.
I had no idea Weir was going to be there. I just found this press pass. I was backstage cause Graham Nash was playing and Joni Mitchell was playing and a couple different people and it's really funny cause I look at those negatives from that show now and I have two or three shots of Graham Nash and two or three shots of Joni Mitchell. If I was shooting a show like that now or an event like that now, I'd have 10 or 15 rolls of film. I would have had all sorts of different stuff of Weir and Brent or I would have asked them, Hey let's go get a shot of you guys with Graham Nash. Let's go get Joni Mitchell over here.'
I was just a fan. I talked to Brent a little bit, kind of connected with Brent. I was just a kid. Had my camera and just took some snapshots. Hey here's bob Weir and Brent Midland from The Grateful Dead standing five feet away from me so I'm going to take some pictures of em.'
JPG: Do you think once you started selling to magazines that you turned from fan into a professional photographer?
JB: Yeah, but not early on. I definitely felt like I wanted to create images…once people started publishing me, sure. I felt a professional responsibility to those people like the Rochester show in '79, which was the first time people paid me for photographs, "The Aquarian Weekly." I got paid $15 for two shots, Seven-fifty a piece. I treated that as a professional thing. I drove to Rochester, New York, eight or nine hours to go to a concert and I made sure I got the shot and I developed em and I made my prints and I submitted them to the newspaper on time and I got my fifteen dollars. (laughs)
I only lost a hundred dollars on that one. Again, I was 17-years old and didn't quite get it. Certainly took it seriously enough at that point that I knew I needed to pull through.
JPG: With the photos in the book, did you always shoot in black and white and in color or is that the way they were printed in the book?
JB: Everything that's a black and white in the book is a black and white shot with black and white film. Everything color is color. I shot a lot of black and white early on because I couldn't afford color film. I bought 100-foot rolls of Tri-X and bulk loaded it in the basement, and shot a lot of black and white cause I wanted to shoot film and I knew I could buy it. At that time, you're talking 50, 75 cents a roll of film, if that. This is 20-something years ago. You could develop it yourself in your basement. So, your expenses were minimal. If you were buying color film, it was $5 or $6 to get it processed from Kodak. For a high school kid a hundred dollars is a lot of money. If you're bulk loading your film and you've got a hundred feet of it, it'll last you awhile. You can shoot to your heart's content. It'll cost you $10 or $15. So, it was really a matter of economics.
JPG: What about now? Are you still a fan of print or are you part of the digital age?
JB: I shoot all film. I don't shoot any digital, but we scan everything that we shoot. Not everything. We scan what we like, our edits. That's how we deliver our finals to our client. High risk scans. The whole book was scanned in studio at my place, all from slides and negs.
JPG: You said that you cut out hundreds, even thousands of photos, will there be a sequel to Between The Dark and Light?
JB: Not another Grateful Dead book. I just don't think there's enough material. There's 900 photos in there, I think I really laid it all out right there. We're talking about a particular show or a particular session where there, maybe, was two, three or four more shots on a page that got taken out. Other images were made bigger and stuff like that. Just don't think that it would fly.
JPG: You were born and raised in New Jersey. And you’ve been based in San Francisco for over a decade. Was it the Grateful Dead that drew you to San Francisco because the Dead did a lot of shows in New York and on the east coast as well?
JB; I would say the San Francisco musical experience as part of my reason for coming to the Bay Area. It's in my DNA. At the time there was no jam band scene, but definitely, The Grateful Dead was part of it.