Although he has created imaginative images of many era-defining musical acts over the years, including megastars like U2 and Madonna, rock photographer Jay Blakesberg has become somewhat synonymous with the jam band scene, perhaps best known for his distinctive work with the Grateful Dead. It is his long, strange history with the Dead, in fact, that brings Blakesberg to the Pour House this week for a dynamic slideshow and storytelling event in celebration of his new book, Jerry Garcia: Secret Space of Dreams. In preparation for that presentation, we recently caught up with the artist by phone for a quick Q&A.
City Paper: How did you fall into what would become your life's work?
Jay Blakesberg: I went to my very first Dead show in 1977 in Englishtown, New Jersey and by the next year when they played at the Meadowlands, over Labor Day weekend, I had my camera with me. I was still a teenager then, but eventually, as I became an adult and had to get a job and pay rent and put gas in my car, I found that I was able to make use of my camera to bring more money in. So, I just kept pursuing that kind of work over and over again until I arrived at this point where I've been contributing to Rolling Stone as a freelancer now for over 30 years and I've been published thousands of times in various magazines and books and documentary films, and I've shot over 250 CD packages. I have always felt like what I do constitutes a sort of visual anthropology because I am studying a segment of humankind through my lens. And this rock 'n' roll world that I inhabit contains a unique and special tribe of people, that's for sure.
CP: From your vantage point, how has the concert experience changed over these last five decades?
JB: People who love live music understand that these experiences continue to soothe our soul and make us who we are, but back in the early days of my journey it was a pure, organic experience that, sadly, will never happen again. When you look at my older photographs of Deadheads dancing, for example, there are no cell phones, and no one has any technology whatsoever. So, you know, while people are still having extraordinary moments with bands and connecting with like-minded people at shows, the difference is that now, everyone is halfway expecting that someone is going to post a clip of them on social media the next day.
CP: Would you say that your equipment and techniques have also evolved over time?
JB: Yeah, I mean, when we shot film we could use all sorts of different flavors of film, and you had many different lenses to choose from, and you could process it different ways for different effects. Technology has been the great disruptor of that art. So, I've had to learn new ways of reinventing myself in the digital age. I will say that I've continuously been a Nikon user throughout all the changes that have come along.
CP: What was the impetus behind your latest book, Secret Space of Dreams?
JB: I put this book together because I wanted to celebrate Jerry [Garcia] in a meaningful way. The idea came to me around what would have been his 75th birthday, which was a few years back, but I wanted there to be some real thought and depth to it, so I took my time assembling the photographs. Then I asked John Mayer to write the foreword, which could be considered a controversial move in certain circles, but I did so because I happen to think that what John is currently doing with what is left of the band is a wonderful extension of the original spirit of the Grateful Dead.
CP: Can you tell us about your upcoming presentation at the Pour House?
JB: Well, I guess I'm the opening act. Ahead of [local Grateful Dead tribute band] Reckoning's first set of the evening, I'm going to be doing 70 minutes of storytelling with a slideshow that is primarily about the ways in which I've been working with the Grateful Dead and the jam band scene since 1978. It will be a fast-moving and engaging presentation, and besides my talk there will be a small exhibit featuring some of my framed pieces, and I'll also be signing books and hanging out for the duration of the night.