Arts Culture Music

Jay Blakesberg on his life in music photography, shooting the world’s biggest acts and his new exhibit at Morris Museum

Blakesberg, who grew up in Clark, shares his photography at the museum (opening Oct. 14) and in a new book, which features hundreds of shots of the culture and prominent artists over the decades, from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young to Green Day, Fiona Apple and Pearl Jam, and tells the story of a lifetime.

When you’re strumming a guitar, just noodling around, you might play a couple chords that sound pretty together. You can keep it simple—three chords’ll do—and play for hours. But chances are, you’ll want to add some flavor to the progression. So you walk up the low note in between chords, or you add in a little melody. Maybe you change the chords themselves, dropping off the fourth note, or adding in the ninth. You keep working at it until you transform your simple song into something unique, harmonious and completely of that moment.

It’s the reward of creating in one medium for a while to make these transformations. To start simple, and to have enough knowhow backlogged to feel and capture what’s right in these spontaneous moments.

I got a similar feeling looking at music photographer Jay Blakesberg’s black-and-white photo of Jerry Garcia, in his latest book, RetroBlakesberg Volume One: The Film Archives. There’s Jerry, an icon, in multitudes. In one glance, he’s defiant, his eyes, shaded by dark glasses, questioning what you’re doing, his hand over his mouth, a cigarette tucked between his index and middle fingers and into his mouth, saying (though not), ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’ In another glance, baggy eyelids seem to sag over small pupils that look smaller because of the large rims—does he see the world through those small eyes or through the big lenses? Shadows deepen his furrowed brow, his shoulders slumped downward, his hand barely reaching his mouth. Is Jerry tired, sad, pissed off, content? Some combination of it all?

“Jerry was one of those people that hated getting photographed. He just wanted to go have a turkey sandwich and go eat lunch,” Blakesberg says. “I had done some [photos] with Jerry where he was sitting and he said to me, ‘Is it OK if I smoke?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ because I know it actually creates the opportunity for that magical moment to catch something a little more off guard and not something that’s just Jerry Garcia sitting in a chair.” 

It also kept Garcia photographable. Blakesberg was shooting Garcia and Dave Grisman while they were jamming in a living room for the cover of Acoustic Guitar Magazine. Garcia’s zeal for music put Blakesberg in a unique position.

“Garcia kept singing while they were jamming and I kept telling him not to sing because his mouth would look weird on the cover of a magazine,” Blakesberg says. “So I’m the only guy who ever told Jerry to stop singing.”

Jerry Garcia, Photographed in Marin, CA, September 2, 1993. ©Jay Blakesberg/RetroBlakesberg: Volume 1

Once he got the cover shot, Blakesberg sat Garcia down for some portraits. He knew time was limited. Enter the cigarette.

“I learned with Garcia, if you give him a guitar and let him play, he’ll stay for half an hour, but if he’s just sitting there posing for you, his attention disappears really quickly,” Blakesberg says. “Letting him smoke gave me the opportunity to keep his attention because he was doing something that pleased him. Whether or not it was good for him was another story. I call that photograph ‘The Smoker,’ and it’s a really engaging photograph and it really says a lot about who Jerry Garcia was… somebody who chain-smoked cigarettes.”

It is indeed both a simple photo of Garcia and a submersible into that person at that moment in time. It asks you to put yourself into it, to find something using the compass of your own experience in there, but doesn’t demand it—you can simply walk on by and say, “Damn, that dude liked to smoke.” It lets you in, but gives you an out.

You get that sense flipping through RetroBlakesberg Volume One, and likely will while perusing the 125 images from Blakesberg’s career in film photography, vibrantly cast on metal sheets on display at the Morris Museum Oct. 14 to Feb. 5. Blakesberg’s shot so many recognizable musicians over the years—from Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Fiona Apple, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish and Green Day—that it’s special to see them captured in his unique style, on film, often in times of live candor or in early-career staged shots. Blakesberg also captured scenes from the layman’s culture of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s—folks drinking pop-tab Budweiser in a hotel, or dancing at a festival, or doing drugs—inspiring both a sense of nostalgia (even if we didn’t live it) and a connection for those of us under 40 to a previous generation that, somehow, looks an awful lot like us. 

In Blakesberg’s photography, people are just people, and maybe it’s a sign of the times, but it’s a trip to see it today.

Blakesberg grew up in Clark in the 1970s, spinning vinyl in his room and going to local shows when they came around. In 1977, he and a friend went to see the Jerry Garcia Band in Asbury Park, and passed around a camera. They got maybe two usable shots, and once they got the film back, developed them in a friend’s basement darkroom. They extracted two 5×7 prints, and a “magical spell” was cast over Blakesberg in an instant.

So he started bringing a camera to shows, first one he borrowed from his dad, then a 35 mm his pops gave him. He went to shows within 50 miles of his house—Capitol Theatre in Passaic, Rutgers, New York, The Morris Stage, etc.—to shoot his favorite artists: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, David Bromberg, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Muddy Waters, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. Can you imagine?

Early on, Blakesberg recognized both his creative potential (although there was plenty of learning by error) and how this pursuit could be personally fulfilling.

“When you’re teenagers, you’re trying to figure out your place in the world,” Blakesberg says. “I think that for me, having a camera sort of gave me some kind of identity, made me fit in in a way that I felt like I fit in. I think it started very, very simply and it eventually changed in terms of the need to create.” 

©Jay Blakesberg/RetroBlakesberg: Volume 1

He got better. In the book, Blakesberg recalls following Jorma Kaukonen to his hotel room. When he and his buds caught up with him, Blakesberg asked Kaukonen for a smile, and boy did he deliver. The shot of Kaukonen brandishing a wide, toothy grin, eyes bulging, was stellar, and he sent it into Relix magazine. They published it, Blakesberg’s first credit. He was 16.

While he cultivated his photography at shows and with friends, it was the music that carried Blakesberg. He fell in love with the Grateful Dead—and the Dead experience—and soon followed the band around wherever he could. 

“I was not going to those Dead shows to take pictures, I was going to those Dead shows because I was becoming addicted to the Grateful Dead experience,” Blakesberg says. “Jerry Garcia once said following the Grateful Dead is the great American adventure, and it truly was.” 

It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the way Blakesberg describes bouncing around Dead shows. He’d go to a show in Philly, meet some people and carpool with them to Maryland the next day. Then maybe hop on an eight-hour ride to Pittsburgh, pick up tickets at the hardwood store on the corner, see the show, and then drive eight hours back home. All for the love of the music.

“We were traveling because we wanted to be on the road and have an adventure and we wanted those experiences,” Blakesberg says. “And those experiences enlightened us, turned us on and made us feel good. We were of the generation of people who wanted to have fun. We didn’t want to subscribe to the birth-school-work-death prescription that was given to Americans in the 1950s. Two-point-five children, two-car-garage, that didn’t interest me. What interested me was getting together with a bunch of like-minded freaks and weirdos and following the Grateful Dead and having the blissful, ecstatic experiences that fulfilled us spiritually and in every other way that you could possibly be fulfilled.

“It just became a thing for me because I just loved the music so much and I was taking psychedelics and I was being inspired by the music, the lyrics, the psychedelic drugs and then eventually it just made it easier to travel when we became drug dealers, you know?” 

John Lee Hooker and Keith Richards photographed in San Francisco, CA. April 11, 1991. ©Jay Blakesberg/RetroBlakesberg: Volume 1

Record scratch. At a Dead show in 1980—where John Belushi famously made appearances, cartwheeling on stage and singing “U.S. Blues”—a guy named Brother Tom gave Blakesberg a half-sheet of acid. Blakesberg dosed his friends, they had a great time, and Brother Tom started supplying him with a few thousand hits of LSD to sell to his high school friends.

The money he made selling acid allowed Blakesberg to follow the Dead from Florida to Alaska and everywhere in between that summer. But all good things must end, and in April 1981, two plainclothes cops slammed Blakesberg against his Chevy Nova in Edison and arrested him. Believe it or not, he didn’t see it coming.

“We believed in what we were doing. We believed that LSD was going to make the planet a better place. We were young, we were naive. We felt like having these experiences was making us better people on a better planet,” Blakesberg says. “And, you know, I still believe that for certain people [psychedelics] can do that, some people not so much. There’s a lot of issues on our planet with people.” 

As the courts decided what to do with him, Blakesberg moved to Washington with a plan to enroll in Evergreen State College and show them he’s on his way to being a productive member of society. They didn’t buy it, and ultimately he came back to Jersey and served an eight-month sentence in Middlesex County Jail. 

His time there could be told in another book, or several, but he says, “I feel very, very fortunate that I walked out of there a whole person and I was not raped physically, mentally or spiritually.”

In the book, and in our conversation, Blakesberg is clear that if he were arrested at another time, or if he were a different person, his life would’ve played out very differently. 

“I know people that got arrested two or three years after me for less LSD than I got caught with and those people spent 15-20 years in jail. If that happened to me, we would not be having this conversation, I would not have created the body of work that I created, I would not be who I am, I would not be having a museum exhibit, I would not be publishing my 15th coffee table book of my photography, and you know, it would’ve been a completely different scenario for what I’ve created.”

And reflecting on that time in U.S. history, Blakesberg is aware that he was lucky to escape America’s war on drugs, no matter how unjust it was.

​​”The War on Drugs has failed. It’s proven that Reagan was wrong, and Nancy was wrong and Ronnie was wrong, and it really robbed a lot of people of their lives. And I’ve met a lot of people that have spent long periods of time in jail,” Blakesberg says. “It scares me and freaks me out when I see me and say, ‘Holy shit, I had no idea.’ We had no idea that that was even happening and that was even a thing. We were just doing what we were doing and living our lives and trying not to hurt anybody and a lot of people got hurt really bad.” 

Blakesberg moved back to Washington after his release from jail, and set about turning photography into a career. He took a corporate video and photography job to pay the bills, and went to smaller venues to hone the craft of shooting live music. He took some “shitty jobs” just to keep photographing, like going backstage to shoot Keith Richards—shitty is relative.

But even in his corporate gig, Blakebserg was shooting, and he was making time to shoot what he was passionate about. He’s thankful to have been able to stay in his craft throughout all stages of his career, though he says he was “the definition of a starving artist.”

“​I​t kept me from having to get a real job. I always say that my career was based on fear. Fear is of course a terrible thing to base anything on, but it was basically the fear of having to get a real job.”

©Jay Blakesberg/RetroBlakesberg: Volume 1

By 1987, Blakesberg was able to quit his day job and set out to make it as a freelancer. By the mid-’90s, he was getting big, regular assignments, notably hundreds for Rolling Stone. He was not only becoming a master of live and portrait photography, but also updating his technology and skillset, and becoming better at directing photo shoots.

As with Garcia, many established artists have little time for photoshoots, so Blakesberg had to refine his process to get bigger acts in and out, while also getting the high-quality shots that magazines demanded.

“If you’re hiring me to do a photo or a portrait for a story you’re writing, if I don’t come back with an interesting or engaging photograph, why would you hire me again? Even if I only have 5 or 10 minutes, I need to come back with the goods, because if I don’t, that’s it. I’m done,” he says. “It pays to do your research and set up and get in and out and keep the social interaction professional and almost like they don’t even realize they’re being photographed, so it doesn’t feel like they’re in the dentist’s chair getting teeth pulled.”

Greener bands are happy to sit and do as they’re told for a half-hour; Carlos Santana and Neil Young don’t typically abide. Blakesberg’s been doing it long enough that he’s seen bands transition from amenable, malleable photo subjects to those that are just looking to get in and get out.

“You get a band like The Flaming Lips who I started working with in 1989. … You get a band like that in ’89 who had only been in their career for five years, they’re not over the photoshoot yet, so they’re a little bit more willing to take direction and spend an hour or an hour and a half.

Now, though, “The Lips have been around for 35 years, a little bit more, and now they’re those people, like they don’t want to sit for more than five minutes for a photoshoot.” 

Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne writes the preface to RetroBlakesberg, (which, by the way, is loaded with wild, entertaining stories beyond what you read here and hundreds of photographs) and describes what it was like working with Blakesberg, especially as a young band that was trying to look cool.

©Jay Blakesberg/RetroBlakesberg: Volume 1

“It was never very fun having anyone photograph us, and with Jay, it didn’t need to be. Not that it was arduous or unpleasant (it wasn’t), just that he was deep in his craft,” Coyne writes. “Once the lights and lenses were up and running, Jay would become intensely focused. He knew what he was after. He would rarely say, ‘That looks great.’ He would mostly say, ‘Um . . . No, don’t stand that way,’ or ‘Put a hand in a pocket.’ Nothing phony, just matter-of-fact. He knew that if you (the subject) were nervous and trying to look cool, well, that’s how you’d look in the photo—nervous and trying to look cool. So Jay’s method was strangely reassuring. By him not wanting you to do anything, it made you feel like you were doing something right and that he thought you already looked cool.”

With his career humming, the shadow of a monumental shift in the photography world (and, well, the world) was approaching. In the 2000s, Blakesberg and his fellow photographers noticed fewer assignments coming in. Technology was changing the industry rapidly—print magazines were going online, there was a big recession coming, and technology made it easier to capture usable pictures with cheap digital cameras. 

As the reality of this shift set in, Blakesberg lived off an advance from his first photography book, but the writing was on the wall: Embrace the shift to digital or perish. So he did. He shot everything on film and digitally, and helped pioneer the art of taking film prints and turning them into digital photos.

“Looking back on my final few years of shooting film, I’m reminded not only of how fortunate I was to be a professional shooter during the analog era, but also how cool it was to be blazing a trail in the new frontier of converting rich film negatives and transparencies into beautiful, high resolution digital files,” he writes in the book.

Still, the world, in general, has changed with technology. For instance, Blakesberg notes in the book he was able to pick up a press pass from the ground while Jane Fonda was speaking at the No Nukes rally in 1979. He could bring a camera into a Bob Dylan show. He could follow Jorma Kaukonen to his hotel room. Can he do any of that today? 

Is there a market for well-shot photography when everyone has a decent camera in their pocket at all times?

And can someone be a struggling artist, like Blakesberg was, in a culturally rich city like San Francisco or New York with cost of living prices what they are?

Yes to all of that, Blakesberg says, but you must be willing to adapt.

“Can you be a successful photographer today? Absolutely. It’s just a different way,” Blakesberg says. “Photos are used and consumed differently. Obviously social media being the biggest shift in the last 15 or 20 years … ​​but, in general, people are creating content to consume and almost dispose of. That’s another reason why I really love making books, because it’s not disposable. It’s tactile. It’s tangible. You can hold it in your hands.”

And looking through Blakesberg’s work, it’s obvious that when an artist has a camera in their hands, the art is better than when a drunk concertgoer has an iPhone in the back of an arena. At the risk of sounding didactic, let the artists handle the photography, you just enjoy the show.

“There are professional photographers at every single concert and [photos are] posted online and it’s easy to see and experience. You don’t need a picture from the back of the venue that’s overexposed and out of focus and you post it on your social media and everyone goes, ‘That’s incredible.’ No, it’s not incredible,” Blakesberg says. “If you look in the book and you look at all the photos of the fans in there. There’s Dead Heads and stage divers and mosh pits and different things like that; there isn’t cell phone technology. So all of those people who are doing those things, dancing to a song or crowd surfing or whatever it might be that they’re doing, they’re doing it because they’re in that moment organically and originally, and not doing it so they can be on Instagram or TikTok or Snapchat or whatever it is the next day. So you’re 100% in the moment to be in the moment, and that’s the big thing about phones is that we’re no longer in the moment to be in the moment. We’re in the moment to document it.”

Blakesberg has provided a unique document of time and cultural/musical history in his career. RetroBlakesberg and the Morris Museum exhibit serve as valuable, tangible holders for those documents, while presenting them in a way that appeals to a younger generation.

Blakesberg’s also further embraced the intersection of film photography and digital culture through his @retroblakesberg Instagram account. His daughter, Ricki, curates the account (as well as the recent book and exhibit), using her intuition about what bands, fashions and lifestyle moments from her father’s catalog might appeal to today’s audience.

“She wanted to reach this other demographic of people that love the Chili Peppers and love Green Day and Soundgarden and love blah, blah, blah, and were not aware of my work,” Blakesberg says. “And when they see these photos, the 22-year-old kids today, the 20-year-olds, the 17-year-old kids, they are the same as we were except they have the internet now. They’re trying to figure out where they fit in, what drugs they should try, what drugs they shouldn’t try, what concerts they want to go to, what music to listen to, what they should wear, what the fashion was. So a lot of these photos bring back the nostalgia of that time period and again influence and inspire a young generation.”

©Jay Blakesberg/RetroBlakesberg: Volume 1

The Morris Museum exhibit, too, takes care of Blakesberg’s art by virtue of featuring them on metal manufactured by ChromaLuxe and printed by Magna Chrome. The photos are vibrant, and they endure like the photos themselves.

“As photographers, as artists, it’s important the way of presenting our work is archival,” Blakesberg says. “That it’ll last for decades and decades and decades, maybe even more; a 100-year-run or 150 years. Because we don’t want that to disappear, especially if it’s hanging in a museum or someone’s buying this work. We want them to be able to appreciate it for generations to come.” 

RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film: 1978-2008 opens Oct. 14 and runs through Feb. 5 at the Morris Museum. More info here. Blakesberg will visit the museum on Sunday, Oct. 16, and deliver a lecture at 2 p.m., which will be free to the public with museum admission. 

For Blakesberg’s latest book, go here. And to see more on social, go here.