‘Visual anthropologist’ Jay Blakesberg documents the rock ’n’ roll tribe

For the past four decades, the “visual anthropologist” captured the history of a rock ’n’ roll tribe in ways intended to transport dedicated music fans back to blissful moments.

A self-proclaimed hippie, Jay Blakesberg, 55, is a San Francisco-based rock ’n’ roll photographer who began shooting artists as a teenager in New Jersey and whose interest in the Grateful Dead inspired him to relocate to the Bay Area in 1985.

For the first time, Blakesberg has put together a photo exhibit — and on no small scale. The works span from 1978, with his first published photo of Jorma Kaukonen in New York City, to this past Labor Day weekend, when he photographed Van Morrison during the recording of a new album in Sausalito.

In total, more than 130 Blakesberg photographs, largely from the Bay Area music scene, will be on display at the Harvey Milk Photo Center beginning Nov. 9.

“Of course, there is a whole wall dedicated to the Grateful Dead because that is sort of where I got my start,” Blakesberg told the San Francisco Examiner during a recent interview.

Dave Christensen, director and curator of Recreational and Park Department’s Harvey Milk Photo Center, helped select the works.

“Jay’s brilliant collection of work is simply iconic, beautiful and timeless,” Christensen said. “His work captures these incredible artists and musicians for all of us to enjoy.”

The genesis of the exhibit dates back a year ago, when Dwayne Newton, a photographer and retired San Francisco Fire Department lieutenant, was asked to curate an Art of Fire exhibit. He came across not the music photos of Blakesberg, but an “insane series of photos of a massive fire” that Blakesberg had taken of a San Francisco home burning just a few doors from Blakesberg’s own home. Newton introduced Blakesberg to Christensen, and they discussed doing his own show. They gave themselves one year to pull it off.

Newton said he “was stunned at the rock ’n’ roll spectrum he’s covered.”

“He’s captured the essence of his subjects, soulful portraits that cut to the chase of who they were: James Brown, the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, John Lee Hooker, BB King, Johnny Cash,” Newton said.

Newton added, “Jay’s got a good eye for what legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment.’”

Photographer Jay Blakesberg flips through prints of his life’s work, including a portrait of the late Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Blakesberg’s introduction into photography began as a teenager back in New Jersey. But in his 20s, coming to the Bay Area, he began searching for his big break as he eked out a living on small assignments.

That big break came when Rolling Stone’s Jodi Peckman, who has since become the magazine’s creative director, asked Blakesberg to photograph a free U2 concert at Justin Herman Plaza, his first assignment for the magazine. (The Recreation and Park Commission will vote later this month whether to remove Justin Herman’s name from the plaza.)

With that, he would go on to shoot 300 assignments for Rolling Stone. The cover of the Rolling Stone’s tribute issue for Tom Petty, who died at age 66 on Oct. 2, is a photo Blakesberg took of the rock star on stage at the 2014 Lockn’ Festival.

But the road wasn’t easy.

“Even an assignment like that for Rolling Stone at the time only paid $250. It’s not like you were loaded,” Blakesberg recalled. “I lived in a house in Oakland with six roommates, and my rent was probably $150 a month. You could live on a couple of small jobs a month. It’s not like that here anymore.”

Ever determined, he walked into the offices of BAM magazine (Bay Area Music), which closed down in 1999, asking to shoot covers. He had never shot a cover before.

Blakesberg kept evolving. “I didn’t really know how to shoot portraits, but I taught myself. I went out and bought a small little lighting kit and found a used Hasselblad from the classified section of the newspaper. I knew that I couldn’t make a living just shooting live concerts,” he said.

Six months later, in 1987, he got a call to shoot Camper Van Beethoven in Santa Cruz for a BAM cover. That photo, which is in the exhibit, led to some 50 to 60 additional cover assignments.

Blakesberg embedded himself in the local music scene. In those days, there was the I-Beam in the Haight, which every Monday night offered live alternative rock music, with acts like The Cure, Soundgarden, Butthole Surfers and the Pixies.

“I became the de-facto house photographer. Every Monday night, I’d drive into The City from Oakland, where I was living, and I’d shoot at the I-Beam,” Blakesberg said. “I felt like I wanted to be part of this. It was just an incredible rich time in pop culture music history, and I loved every minute of it. I loved being in front of the stage and getting crushed against the stage.”

Among the memorable photos from the club is of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who died in May, “stage diving off the I-Beam stage and swimming across the crowd.”

Blakesberg’s focus wasn’t just on music icons. He often turned the camera on the fans at Grateful Dead shows to capture images of “people dancing in that moment of bliss and ecstasy.”

“There was so much raw energy, raw desire, so much sexual energy happening with these people,” he said.

Blakesberg considers himself a documentarian of the decades-old movement of the hippie tribe, which he said began 1965 in the Haight-Ashbury. But it was 15 years later when he began to capture it with his own camera.

“It’s this visual anthropology — anthropology being defined as the study of humankind,” Blakesberg said. “The drive has been always that I feel like I am chasing the documentation of this pop-cultural history.”

Blakesberg took four portraits of the late Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995.

He recalled that he had a 30-minute plan for his first Garcia portrait assignment for a Grateful Dead fan zine called Golden Road at the Grateful Dead offices in San Rafael on Jan. 31, 1991.

But he only had three minutes for the shoot before Garcia was ushered away by the band’s publicist.

Despite that short window — when he took “a roll and a half of black-and-white on 35mm with a motor drive and a half a roll of color” — he came away with gold.

“It’s perhaps my most iconic photo that I’ve taken and what I’m mostly known for,” Blakesberg said.

Blakesberg said his little league baseball coach gave him the best advice, it later turned out, for photography. That is, to “anticipate the play.” Some of it is knowing the music, some of it is intuition and at Grateful Dead shows, he said, the secret was using psychedelics.

One of those intuitive moments came at a 1979 Grateful Dead show during the song Wharf Rat.

“Phil [Lesh] got down on one knee and did a big bass bomb and he’s got a great face and his hand is up in the air cause he just hit the note,” Blakesberg said, trying to remember how he got that shot, which is part of the exhibit. “All I can think is that I could feel it coming because how else could you get that shot that happens in a split second?”

Blakesberg has in mind what he wants people to get out of the exhibit.

“I want people to see this body of work of a single person, me, over a 40-year period, and what I’ve been able to do and how I’ve been able to develop as an artist, and as a documentarian, and a visual anthropologist and a photographer and see the styles that I’ve done.”

Among those styles is the unmistakable “blue period,” when he shot outdoors using indoor film to give the images a blue hue. Examples at the exhibit include portraits of Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell.

When it comes to his photos, Blakesberg has the viewer’s own experiences at heart.

“What I want my photos to do — it can work in a portrait or a live shot — is I want it to bring people back to a place and a time and a moment in their lives that worked for them,” he said. “It releases those chemicals in your brain that make you feel good.”

That may be the time, for example, someone met their significant other at a particular rock concert.

Rolling Stone used Blakesberg’s photo on the cover of its tribute edition to Tom Petty after he passed away on Oct. 2. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Blakesberg can only shake his head at the proliferation of the rock ’n’ roll world images with digital photography, cellphone cameras and the internet, saturating the online world and shared rapidly via social media.

Blakesberg warns this is leading to a cultural stagnation.

“Unfortunately, the internet has created a world of mediocrity when it comes to the visual medium,” Blakesberg said. “If we continue to live in a world of mediocrity, what is there to inspire people to do brilliant work?”

He adds, “Good art inspires the planet to be better.”

Blakesberg remains active in the world of rock ’n’ roll anticipating the play, thousands of images and 13 photography books later.

His most recent book venture, titled “Eyes of the World: Grateful Dead Photography 1965-1995,” was released last month. The photo history of the Grateful Dead includes 50 of his own photos, which date back to 1987, along with other works of renowned photographers like Jim Marshall, Herb Greene and Annie Lebowitz.

“Even at 56 years old, I still feel like I am only as good as my last photograph,” he said.

He turns 56 in December.

IF YOU GO: Dark + Light – The Rock and Roll Photography of Jay Blakesberg
When: On display Nov. 9 – Jan. 6, 2018
Where: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St., S.F.
Info: (415) 554-9522, www.harveymilkphotocenter.org

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