From iconic portraiture to stirring photojournalism, music photographer and VANGUARD photo partner Jacob Blickenstaff’s pictures capture the dynamic spirit of his soulful subjects.
Jacob’s clients include Lincoln Center, The Ponderosa Stomp Foundation and Daptone Records. His work has appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, The Grammy Magazine, Oprah Magazine and the Fretboard Journal.
This past November Jacob opened his first solo exhibition, “Still Life in Soul,” at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tenn., which has been extended until July 31. Recently, Jacob has written a series of guest posts on the music photography business for photo blog site The Photoletariat. He was also kind enough to share some of his thought on his work and that subject in depth here.
How did you get into music photography?
It really came out of being a musician combined with being a curious and observant person. I came to New York in 1997 to be in the music program and study bass at NYU. It was a great experience for the first couple of years, but having a somewhat romantic notion of college, I was frustrated that I couldn’t study things like literature and art history, so I eventually switched into an interdisciplinary program. I went to Prague for a semester and took an intro photo course with a great teacher who knew Josef Sudek. Long story short, after several years bouncing around in odd jobs in both music (record store clerk, DJ, nightclub box office) and photography (b&w printer, assistant) I finally realized I loved shooting music and went about trying to make a living at it.
A lot of your work features soul and blues musicians, young and old, posing or performing. How did you get into this “old” style of music and what keeps you inspired by it?
I was working in a record store for a while, nothing but vinyl, and the owner had a deep interest and knowledge of music. He was a mentor of sorts to me and exposed me to all sorts of amazing music. I had been collecting records for a little while prior to that, but I learned a ton by just hanging out in the shop and working there myself on Sundays. I was DJ-ing a bit during that time, and a DJ friend of mine told me about this festival called the Ponderosa Stomp. I checked out the lineup, and it was filled with names of musicians whose records I had been collecting. I decided I needed to go, and on a whim I contacted a magazine called No Depression to see if they wanted to cover it. It was my first ‘pitch’ and, incredibly, the editor there liked my work and said to go ahead and send some pictures and he would assign a writer, I even got paid for it. When I got to the Stomp, I had an incredible time seeing these artists perform, it wasn’t an ‘oldies’ show, they very much had a vitality and singular uniqueness that I was attracted to. Ever since then, I’ve been pushing myself to make better and better pictures of these people and have gotten to know quite a few of them. I’m hoping I can create a book out of it.
Stax Museum – Still Life In Soul – Images by Jacob Blickenstaff
You do a lot of work for Daptone Records and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (including their new album cover). How did you get hooked up with Daptone and Sharon?
I gradually grew a relationship with the people who ran the label, first by shooting a few live shows, then suggested the idea that I document some of their recording sessions for the heck of it and to pitch as a photo essay to a magazine. (the photos eventually ran on NPR Music) I always made sure I edited and showed them the work so they could see what I was making meaningful pictures.
From being around at the sessions, one day I was asked, rather nonchalantly, if I could take a picture of everyone in the backyard. The excited photographer inside my brain was thinking, ‘What!? You mean the cover?’ but I stayed low key and worked with them to get them exactly what they needed. It came out great. I think overall, because we shared so much musical common ground with our love of soul music and traditional production techniques, we were a good match. It just took a good amount of relationship building to get there but I’m very proud to be part of the “Daptone Family.”
Could you talk a little about the difference between covering a live gig and setting up a portrait and how you prepare for and approach each?
A live gig presents a very limited set of variables: stage light, venue, you are more an observer than a participant. I try to travel light while having the appropriate lenses to deal with the situation. In certain places, I will plan on lighting the stage with a speed-light mounted remotely and triggered by a Pocket Wizard. I like to remain spontaneous; concerts for me are 30 percent planning and 70 percent improvisation.
Portraits are the other way around; you can conceivably do anything you want, there are no limits. But I’ve found that I like working simply with not a lot of ‘production’ and taking a minimum of gear in most situations. There is a lot more mental planning and visualization about what you want to accomplish. Portraits for me are 70 percent planning and 30percent improvisation.
What is your typical set-up for a shoot?
Usually super simple, sometimes just nice natural light and my Hasselblad with B&W film. I’m usually on location or back stage, so less means more mobility and flexibility. If I need lighting, my go-to set up is just a Nikon Speedlight on a stand with a big umbrella, triggered remotely by a Pocket Wizard. I’m not a big fan of dramatic back lighting or rim lighting; I like the natural look of one light source.
How did your exhibit at The Stax Museum come about? What was that experience like?
This was another example of good relationships and good timing. I had met the communications director of the museum, Tim Sampson, on a previous trip to Memphis. He was very generous and helpful in setting up some portraits with Stax alumni. We had kept in touch with emails and through my email newsletter, which he always reacted positively to. The Museum needed a new exhibit, and he pitched the idea of the show to the museum board. It was all him, I supported his effort by organizing my work and refining the idea for the show together.
The show opening was a wonderful experience. The title of the show was up on the iconic Stax marquee. Twenty family and friends chartered a bus from St. Louis to come down. Stax had a member party on the opening night with performances by the Stax Academy and some of the people I had photographed. Al Bell, Harvey Scales, Teenie Hodges, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Bettye Crutcher and Deannie Parker were there, and I was truly warmed and humbled that they came. Harvey buddied up with my 90-year old grandmother; it was an incredibly affirming and connecting experience.
What VANGUARD accessories do you use and what do you like about them?
Right now I’m using a couple of Vanguard products to fill in some basic gear needs. I’m using the Tracker 3 tripod with the included head for my Hasselblad and sometimes DSLR. The quality is excellent, very solid build and it’s a ridiculously good value. I believe in buying gear right the first time and buying quality over the cheap solution. The Tracker series is affordable AND pro quality, which is great for serious photographers in this economy.
I also use the Supreme 40D hard case and insert for storing and shipping my Hasselblad. Nice construction, nice materials, good value. I trust it.
How much effect has record industry implosion and shrinking print budgets had on your career?
I basically came along during a time where I learned not to depend on the traditional business models of either the music business or editorial photography. This is crazy, but in five years, I’ve really only been “assigned” one or two articles. Courting photo editors is so much work that I’d rather go and do my own projects and work directly with bands I’m interested in. It’s the quality of my work that gets me in the door. Probably 95 percent of my published credits are things that the band or publicist got placed. I don’t need to be on assignment to create killer work — it’s actually freeing, I’m shooting most things for my own reasons and that comes through in the pictures.
Any advice for aspiring music photographers they won’t find in a class, book or website?
Just about everything you need to know is not in a class, book or website.
I just wrote an article for The Photoletariat that seemed to strike a nerve called “Everything You Know About Concert Photography is Wrong.”
A few parting words of advice:
Develop your historical perspective of both photography and music. Everything happening in music, photography and music photography owes a tremendous debt to what came before it.
See the value in your work; don’t just give it away without some payment, returned help or promotion. The music industry/music media cycle is purely driven by promotion, and it’s very easy to get used.
BUT, there will always be room for incredible music and incredible music photography — even if every economic force seems to be running against it.
For more of Jacob’s work and words, visit his website and blog.