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Jay Blakesberg Reflects on 30 Years of Dead Photography with Eyes of the World

With dozens of books on or related to the Grateful Dead published, it would seem that just about every anecdote has already been printed and angle covered. However Josh Baron and veteran Dead photographer Jay Blakesberg, have successfully challenged that notion with Eyes of the World: Grateful Dead Photography 1965 – 1995, a hardcover coffee table book that collects shots from numerous photographers and focuses, for the first time, on the band’s entire 30 year career.

It’s available at www.eyesoftheworldbook.com and most book retailers.

“What we realized in assessing this book project,” said Baron, “is that even for those images that fans had seen before, the vast majority had only seen them on a computer screen. Most people—including Jay and I —had never seen the majority of these images printed in large format.”

Over six months, Baron and Blakesberg scoured the internet for shots famous and never-before-seen. Together, they used their personal connections, amassed over the years, to reach out to more than 100 photographers or their representatives to submit images for review. Blakesberg also presented photos from his 27 years of Dead concerts and portrait sessions.

Besides his seven years as editor-in-chief at Relix, Baron co-authored Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped with Jambands.com founder/Relix editor Dean Budnick. The book explored the evolution of ticketing and its impact on the modern concert industry and Baron went on to work for CrowdSurge and Songkick.

It’s highly likely that you’ve seen the work of Blakesberg. The San Francisco-based photographer and filmmaker regularly contributes to Relix, Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and other magazines and has been included in more than 200 CD packages. He’s focused his lens on countless artists including the Grateful Dead, Phish, Primus, moe., Dave Matthew Band, Nirvana, Tom Waits, Neil Young and Carlos Santana among others. Besides, Eyes of the World, his Rock Out Books publishing has issued collections of his work including Fare Thee Well—Celebrating 50 years of the Grateful Dead, Guitars That Jam, Hippie Chick—A Tale of Love, Devotion and Surrender, To Defy the Laws of Tradition : A Photographic Archive of Primus & Les Claypool and Between the Dark and Light. For more on his decades of work, visit www.blakesberg.com.

Like Bob Weir’s often-used onstage remark when technical problems were addressed, getting the project “just exactly perfect” would have meant 600 pages and a skyrocketing price point. In an effort to do the band’s history and the images justice, while making EOTW affordable, Barron and Blakesberg were faced with an even more difficult task — editing down from the thousands of potential shots they viewed. The process went through 32 versions before arriving at the eventual layout.

The final result presents 220 images captured by 61 photographers including Blakesberg, Annie Leibovitz, Jim Marshall, Mark Seliger, Herb Greene, Michael Putland, Peter Simon, Baron Wolman and Robbi Cohn across 272 pages that span the early days on Haight-Ashbury through the first visit to New York, playing in Egypt, portrait session outtakes and the final concert on July 9, 1995. Since the photos were originally shot on film, many of them have been reproduced for the first time via high-resolution scan. Baron writes the Introduction and musician and photographer Graham Nash writes the book’s Foreword.

JPG: Let’s start with the origins of the book. I know Josh contacted you about doing it. I’m surprised that among the dozens of books on the band that have been published this hasn’t already happened.

JB: I’ve had that conversation with publishers many times. The people that published my Guitars That Jam, Insight Editions, the guy who does acquisitions there, he’s a good friend of mine, he’s a big Deadhead and we had this conversation many many times.

The big overriding roadblock was the licensing fees of dealing with 50, 60, 70 photographers. When Josh called me I told him the same thing. I actually got on a conference call with my buddy, Steve Jones at Insight Editions, and Steve explained to him that it’s a tough thing to negotiate, certainly, coming from a publisher. We were able to negotiate a little bit easier because it was coming from me. I’m a colleague. I’m a peer of all these people. So, there’s a different trust factor.

The other thing is I’m a small independent book publisher. I do have a publishing company, Rock Out Books. So, I do think people are willing to work with people like me and a company like that versus a bigger company they don’t have a relationship with.

JPG: Actually, that was going to be my next question. How you worked around it?

JB: Relationships. Friendships. Communication. Photographer to photographer. Also, Josh had a relationship with a lot of people from his days at Relix as well.

JPG: The goal was to represent every year of the band’s existence. Were there others and did you achieve them?

JB: The only goal to achieve was to include together more than 400 incredible photographs that we would have loved to have put in (slight laugh) but that was impossible. Nobody would buy a $250 book. Maybe they would. You never know.
There was too much great material was the problem. Otherwise, I feel like we really put a pretty solid book together that represents this band. We scratched the surface of what was available from ’65 to ’70 by Baron Wolman, Jim Marshall, Herb Greene. There’s so much more stuff that could be included. Herb Greene alone! You really could do an entire 150 pages just on ’65 to ’70 with Herb.

JPG: I know that the book hasn’t been out that long but is there any consideration of a sequel and using the photos that were left out this time around?

JB: Well…we’ve been half-joking, half-serious about doing the same thing but just about Garcia.

One of our goals with this book was to not make it a book about Jerry Garcia, which would have been very easy to do. So, we were very, very careful to include everybody equally; certainly at least, Jerry, Bob, Phil, Mickey, Billy. We really wanted to represent those guys because they’re equally as important. Although, of course, there’s a lot of attention put on Jerry and a lot of attention put on Bob as the de facto frontmen of the band, so to speak.

Of course, we include Donna and Vince, TC and Pigpen, Keith and Brent…Bruce Hornsby. Everybody that’s been a member of the Grateful Dead 1965 to 1995 is in the book. That’s what this book is. This book ends at Soldier’s Field, Jerry Garcia’s last concert, the Grateful Dead’s last concert, not The Dead, not Dead & Company…it ends at that moment.

We have talked very briefly, because there’s so much great material on Jerry, that it could be really fun to do a book on Jerry, and I think people would dig it. But, we’ll see.

JPG: Was there a consideration to include pre-1965 photos from The Warlocks or Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions or elsewhere or did that go out due to page constraints?

JB: We wanted it to be Grateful Dead. It’s possible that the first couple photos in the book are still The Warlocks. I believe that the first shot in the book — not the pre-chapter photos — but the first 1965-1974 Chapter, I believe that shot they still were called The Warlocks when that was taken.

We didn’t want to include pictures of Hunter and Garcia and Mother McCree’s because it wasn’t the Grateful Dead. (There is a shot of Hunter and Garcia from 1991 in the book but it was during the Dead’s existence.)

JPG: Elaborate on the editing process because Josh wrote that there were 32 versions of the layout until you finally ended up with 220 images captured by 61 photographers. Was it a matter of debating between the two of you the merits of one photo over another?

JB: There were very few arguments. There were definitely some conversations. I’m a photographer and I have a very different eye than Josh does. So, there’s certain things that bother me about photographs – microphones blocking faces, things like that – that may not bother Josh the way they bother me. There was very little horse trading, in general, over photos.

Josh did a lot of the initial research. He did a deep, deep dive down the rabbit hole of the internet and he found a lot of people that, maybe, Deadheads had never heard of because they shot one or two concerts when they were 20 years old or 17 years old, but there were some good shots in there.

Specifically, a guy named James Lee Katz, who’s an attorney in Maryland now, and he shot three, four or five shows in ’74 as a college kid. We found some pictures that he recently scanned and put on the internet. We contacted him and he was very kind to send me his original slides, and I edited them and scanned six to eight shots and we ended up using two of his pictures in the book. He’s thrilled to death. They’re great pictures. They’re Wall of Sound photos. They’ve been seen on the internet if you dig deep enough but they’ve never been published before.

So, we were able to find some real little nuggets like that that we were able to put in. We culled in photos from over 100 photographers initially. We asked people to keep it to their top 25 or 30 because we didn’t want to look at thousands and thousands and thousands of photos. I have thousands of my own photos to look through.

For instance, Ed Perlstein, San Francisco-based photographer, did a lot of work in ’75, ’76, ’77. He shot past that as well but a little more sporadically. He has great stuff from the ’75, ’76, ’77 era. His best stuff is probably ’77. He sent us his top 25 and most of ‘em were from ’77. But, as we were editing the book we were like, “We have a real hole here in ’76.” So, I reached back out to Ed and he said, “Well, you told me to give you my top 25. So, I didn’t include…” He went back in and dug a little deeper and we have a Garcia shot of his from ’76 and a Keith of his from ’76.

Once we started seeing holes that we wanted to fill we could reach back out to specific people and say, “Let me see a few more things from this timeframe.” That’s how it went.

In terms of doing 35 different versions of the book we handed 400 photos to our art director, Signe Higgins. She designed my Fare Thee Well book and a couple of Lockn’ books for me. I’ve worked with Signe a lot and I really love her aesthetic and I love her style and I love her treatment and how she lays stuff out for us to see and play around with initial designs. She was a photo editor as much as we were because, “Here’s 400 photos. Make us a book.” And, she’s like, “Okay, here’s your book.” And it’s 380 pages and we’re like, “Okay, that’s great but we need to be at 256.” We ended up at 272. So, we went in and said, “Let’s get rid of this, this and this. Let’s move this to here…”
We had done all the intense research. Is this shot taken in December of ’67 or this shot taken in January of ’67? We wanted the book to flow chronologically as close as possible. Now, there were some things that we couldn’t put in chronologically just because they were double page photos and they wouldn’t fit…So, you might see an April ’78 shot come after a June ’78 shot; that kind of thing. But, all the chapters are pretty solid. So, it goes ’65 to ’74, ’75 to ’84, ’85 to ’95. She was laying photos out visually at first, and then we started moving things around. But, we started killing photos and saying, “This photo is better than that photo. Let’s take that one out and let’s add this one in.”

We kept going back and forth in that regard by moving things around and taking stuff out and adding stuff in and finding things that worked better. Then, some last-minute people that either agreed to let us use their photos or found stuff that they didn’t show at first. “We want that!”

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