An organizing project during the early days of the pandemic took on several forms as renowned photographer Jay Blakesberg’s personal photos and images from his noteworthy career became the basis of an Instagram page, @RetroBlakesberg, and then a hardcover coffee table book, RetroBlakesberg – Volume One: The Film Archives.
A visual autobiography of his life documenting pop culture history, RetroBlakesberg presents photos from his high school days in the late ‘70s up to 2008 when he switched from film to digitally capturing musicians during portrait work and onstage as well as the exuberant crowds attending the shows. Each of the book’s decade-by-decade chapters begins with an original essay by him where he recounts the development of his life, profession and the evolution of music world during that period.
RetroBlakesberg also contains a Foreword by Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips and an Introduction by Michael Franti. For over 30 years both musicians have been his photographic subjects.
The Instagram page and the book’s origins developed from Blakesberg’s daughter, Ricki, who remained at home after losing social media jobs for music festivals and bands when COVID hit and the concert industry stopped. As she helped organize his vast catalog of work, she started the Instagram account, which consists exclusively of photographs shot only on film. Using new media to display older images of artists including Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, Alanis Morissette and many others brought a new generation of interest in his body of work.
She not only curates @RetroBlakesberg but also did the same for the accompanying book. Both Blakesbergs then collaborated on the next phase of the RetroBlakesberg concept when an exhibit of his film archives will be exhibited from Oct. 14 through Feb. 5, 2023, at the Smithsonian-affiliated Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. The public opening on Oct. 16 will include a slideshow presentation by Blakesberg, followed by a signing.
Additional presentations and signings are slated for the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York City on October 11 at 6 p.m., as well as the Haight St. Art Center in San Francisco on November 1 and the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Los Angeles on December 3.
Prior to our conversation, Jay appeared on an upcoming episode of “The Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast,” the official podcast of the Grateful Dead, to offer his firsthand accounts of shows at the World’s Most Famous Arena that coincide with the release of the Dead’s 17-CD boxed set, “In And Out Of The Garden: Madison Square Garden ’81, ’82, ’83.”
While he’s spent a great deal of time looking back, Blakesberg continues to add to his immense photo archives. Besides chronicling Dead & Company’s Citi Field dates and Phish’s appearances at Jones Beach last July, he recently had an exhibit and took photos at Sacred Rose festival last month and will be doing the same at the upcoming Borderland Festival on Sept. 17 and 18. Michael Franti will sign copies of RetroBlakesberg at 4 p.m. Saturday, while Wayne Coyne will be signing on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Jay Blakesberg Photography Gallery on the Borderland festival site.
“I’m also going to do a slideshow while I’m [at Borderland] there on the history of Bay Area rock palaces called “Into the Mystic: A History of Bill Graham’s Bay Area Rock Palaces,” he said. “I did this as a pop-up photo exhibit in San Francisco and I’m turning it into a slideshow that I’m going to do with the VIP gathering at Borderland.”
I got the two Blakesbergs on a Zoom call during a family vacation to discuss all matters involving RetroBlakesberg. As we start our conversation, Ricki is making her way back to their New York beach community home. Later, Jay’s son, Sam, a professional video editor, enters the room to work on a project.
JPG: Out of all the photos that are inside the book, why did you choose that particular shot at the 1982 Rainbow Gathering in Idaho for the cover?
JB: We didn’t want to put a music photo on the cover.
Ricki curated the book. She really chose 99.5% of the photos. I argued for a couple of photos that I really wanted in because I felt they were important for me to tell my story. But, she essentially was the one who curated and edited what is in the book.
As far as the cover photo goes, we both talked about it. [He picks up a copy of the book and shows how the front image extends from the front cover to the spine and back cover.]
When you’re looking for a cover photo, you’re looking for space for text and what works. Then, we started talking about doing this wrap idea and it works with this photo. A lot of other photos it didn’t work, like if we had put a vertical shot of Jerry [Garcia] or Keith Richards or Mick Jagger or anybody, it doesn’t really quite work the same way as having a nice horizontal with that kind of dead space to wrap around. We were both in agreement on it, and we’re both really thrilled that it’s the cover photo. The photo is also in the book, uncropped.
This woman here [on the cover] is someone who’s a friend of mine and has been for 40 years. I saw her a couple weeks ago. When we chose the photo, I contacted her and said, “I’m thinking about doing this” and I sent her a mock-up and she was like, “I’m honored.”
JPG: Tell me about the origins of RetroBlakesberg – Volume One: The Film Archives. I know the timeline started in April 2020, during COVID but what specficially led you launch the @RetroBlakesberg Instagram page and eventually this book?
Ricki Blakesberg: I was going into his office that’s attached to our house. So, every morning I would go into his office for about four hours and go through various forms of his archives, whether it was concert passes or some of his photos, reorganizing film binders and stuff like that. That’s probably what ultimately inspired it but, really, I was lying in bed one night during the pandemic and I was like, “I really want to get more involved with my dad’s work.” He has thousands and thousands of images that I’ve never seen and specifically images that are so targeted to my demographic — people that are in their 20, early 30s — that would love to see. And that’s such a booming thing on Instagram. So, getting the gears turning. The next morning, I was really nervous to ask him. I said, “This is the idea that I have. I think that we should call it RetroBlakesburg. It’s all gonna be film. We’re gonna showcase so many of your images that you don’t really see. You don’t have a say in it. I get to pick the photos.
At the beginning it was me and him discussing a lot of the stories behind the photos.Now, I feel like that’s also really healthy for his archive, and it’s allowed me to become more independent in picking Grateful Dead photos or Phish photos or Red Hot Chili Peppers. I brought it to him and he was, “Let’s do it. I think this is a great idea.”
Right from the start, it got a lot of good traction and people were into it. Me and Jay loved working together and doing it together, and the first three months of it we were in person together doing it.
JB: Also, there’s a lot of people that follow RetroBlakesberg on Instagram that actually don’t follow Jay Blakesberg or didn’t know about me and she cultivated this new group of people that came from her own Instagram page and her followers.
Pre-pandemic, her job was doing social media for some music festivals and all of that evaporated, She was doing WinterWonderGrass and a couple of things she had, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong festival on the books and Greensky Bluegrass festival… She had all these jobs lined up and it all disappeared. All of a sudden, she had no job because she’s a freelancer, and as we know, there were no concerts. That’s still part of her business today.
RB: I run various social media accounts for different bands and a record company.
I’ve always thought my dad’s work could also be reviewed as fine art, something that could be put into galleries and sold to different places than what the target audience is. That’s something really important about RetroBlakesberg. We’re creating this different side of the archive that isn’t just about concert photography or rock and roll but looking at it as a form of fine art.
JPG: I am always excited to see your alternative rock shots because at that time of my life, I’d travel to see the Grateful Dead but then I was also going to see Red Hot Chili Peppers or Soundgarden or Iggy Pop or Primus…
RB: I love those shots.
JB: When I shot a lot of that stuff, those people were 22, 23, 24, 25 years old — the Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, Beck — they’re 55 years old now. They’re adults. They’re empty nesters. They’re coming back and reliving that experience of 30 years ago of Lollapalooza with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers.
RB: That’s also a huge thing too with RetroBlakesberg. I feel that right now we’re in this huge era of nostalgia. People are constantly trying to relive the past. Whether it’s coming out with another Jurassic Park or something like that, people are bringing back a lot of things that once happened. That’s what’s so great about RetroBlakesberg is that it is also doing that.
People want to go back to the ‘90s, whether it’s in fashion or music or art. That’s something that’s really trendy right now.
JB: And that always happens when old becomes new again.
JPG: I see so many people wearing Doc Martens now. I had a pair or I used to wear boots if I was going to be in the mosh pit.
RB: That’s me. You did, too. (nods to Jay)
JB: In ’92 that’s all I wore were Doc Martens. They were comfortable. And that’s part of Ricki’s angle also. Looking at these photos from 30 years ago of these bands is the fashion side of it all. What was Bjork wearing? What was Anthony [Kiedis] wearing? What was Chris Cornell wearing? What was a Deadhead wearing?
RB: These styles are totally back in.
JPG: What is also nice about the book is it incorporates your personal world in the ‘70s and ‘80s with your photography world.
JB: I was just a kid with a camera, trying to figure out how to use it and documenting what I saw and taking those photos.
JPG: By the ‘90s and the 2000s, the narrative shifts and the images focus much more on the professional side of your life.
RB: That what he really became.
JB: That’s what I was. At that point I was a professional commercial photographer, and I was on assignments.
RB: In addition to that, RetroBlakesberg — Volume One, Jay has thousands and thousands of images that didn’t end up in this book. He has so much street photography from the 2000s from when we traveled to Paris or Japan that one day they could ideally be in Volume Two. So, we narrowed in on what made sense for this book. It’s the first step of how Jay became who he is
JB: I’m calling this book, Volume One, my visual autobiography. It’s the continuity of the decades. People have asked me to tell my story and I didn’t want to write a book because I feel like my photos tell my story, but each one of those essays is a couple thousand words. Then, all those extended captions in the back of the book, which tells those stories, which I really felt like in a lot of ways tells my stories.
JPG: I always enjoy your stories because even though the photos do tell a story there’s still something interesting about what happened to get that photo. Last time we talked about the infamous Jerry Garcia photo and how you just happened to be there at the right time when some crew member on the video shoot gave him that blank sign and you got the shot. Now, speaking of getting the images. RetroBlakesberg features your work on film. Like you, I enjoy shooting digital for that immediate result and ability to see what needs to be changed. But after doing this, do you want to use film again?
JB: I haven’t shot any film since 2008 and I don’t see me doing it. Ricki shoots film on a regular basis. It’s just doesn’t work for my workflow and because I still am in a professional workflow mode. I still shoot for festivals and bands, Dead & Co. I need that quick turnaround.
I could see if …IF I ever were to retire and stop shooting commercially, I could see, maybe, going back and shooting film, just for the sake of shooting film. There’s a whole mindset that is involved in shooting film that is a completely different mindset from shooting digital in terms of how you expose your images, how you compose your images, the number of images that you’re shooting. There are all these different things that would have to be relearned and re-understood for me to go back and break out my Hasselblad or break out of a 35-millimeter film camera. A lot of these cameras have been sitting around and they’re drying up. The oils are. We’ll see, but, as of right now, the answer is, “No. I’m a digital guy.”
JPG: You mentioned mindset and taking photos of Dead & Company. I looked at your photos on Facebook from the band’s Citi Field shows and Phish at Jones Beach and the Oregon Country Fair and what’s nice about it and relates to this book is that you don’t just post shots of the band but you also provide numerous crowd shots including the audience members dancing. How do you approach matters with the band versus when you’re in the crowd?
JB: With Dead & Co a lot of it is intuition and knowing the music inside and out and being in the right place at the right time and putting myself in the right place at the right time because I know where the music might be goingto capture those peak moments.
With the fans, it’s the same thing but a lot of times, the peak moment onstage is what’s creating the peak moment in the audience, like the crescendo of “Terrapin Station.” TERR-A-PIN!! That’s when everybody in the audience has got their arms up in the air and they’re screaming at the top of their lungs.
But, it’s also when the band has got their arms up in the air and screaming at the top of their lungs. Which direction do you point your camera because you can only take a crowd shot when the lights are on the crowd, and the lights on the crowd at peak moments? You gotta figure it out and plan a little bit.
With Dead & Co I have all access and shoot the whole set whereas other bands, like Phish, I’m usually in the pit for just the beginning of the show and then I’m off on my own. So, I might want to shoot some wide shots with the lighting because I love what [lighting designer Chris] Kuroda’s doing or I might look for some fans dancing. On the fan side of things, at any concert, if you’re not in the first 20 feet, 30 feet, the lights don’t hit you.
There were some comments on social media from the Phish concert, they’re like, “Why don’t you come up and shoot on the lawn at Jones Beach?” The answer is that it’s pitch black up on the lawn. The lights don’t reach the lawn, and if they do, they’re super, super dim. They’re just skimming across the crowd. Those lights that are turned around from the stage. They’re not strong enough to give you enough light to shoot when you’re all the way up on the lawn.
So, it’s a matter of…you’re a photographer. What do you need to make a good picture? You need light. That’s the number one ingredient. No light. No picture. So, I can’t go to the dark edges and the crevices of any concert at night and expect to get a photograph because you need light.
JPG: I don’t recall every single one of your Dead & Company at Citi Field crowd shots but the majority that I saw of people dancing, you’re on the floor and it’s the first set where you have sunlight. So, you shot the band mostly during the second set or at least when it was darker and the stage lighting was in effect?
JB: The other thing you have to remember is that the beginning of the set when it’s still dusk out and you’ve got this soft ambient light with the stage lights is a great moment to be shooting the band. It’s the best light because the ambient daylight is still filling in some of the shadows. You’re not just relying on stage lights.
So, I want to capture some of that, and then, before it gets too dark, go over to the audience for a song or two and concentrate on that because I feel like I can’t be away for that long. The band doesn’t hire me to sit there and shoot pictures of hippies twirling. I have to go and shoot both. Also, at a big stadium gig, I’ve got to go up and shoot from up high, and that’s another thing you want to do at dusk. Try and get the sunset.
I’m trying to get the last shots of the band with the daylight. I’m trying to get the last shots of fans during the daylight. I’m trying to get the last shot of the stadium at sunset. All of those things before it gets dark. It’s a balancing act.
JPG: What I liked about those recent posts is that the photos have a similar approach to the new book, which shows that you’ve been chronicling the bands and fans since the beginning of your photography career. Other than the changes in technology to capture images, would you say your approach has changed over the years or been consistent?
JB: It evolves. It has to evolve. It’s changed over the years because of technology. I’ve had no choice. Obviously, technology’s a great disruptor and I had to make that whole shift with learning that technology — camera, software, sensors, file size — and understanding all of that stuff.
Back when we shot film, even if you had two bodies and one had color film and one had black and white film, if you put the roll of color film in early in the day, it might be ISO/ASA100. You can’t shoot a band onstage with stage lights with 100 speed film whereas with your digital camera you could be messing with both ISO and color balance all within the same five shots. “Let me bump up my ISO. I need more light. I don’t want to open my aperture but I want a little bit more light, something to go from 320 ISO to 640. Bump it up a stop. You can make all of these decisions and those also dictate you having to make changes in your approach.