Jay Blakesberg has plenty to be excited about these days. Over the summer the photographer landed a major gig as the exclusive shooter for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well five-show run. Sure, there were one or two other people shooting, but it was Blakesberg’s work that was plastered on every piece of press. It was through his eyes and camera lens that those who couldn’t make it to the sold out shows or fork over the money for the streams would perceive these historic concerts. But the Fare Thee Well gig didn’t come easy; it was a culmination of over 35 years as one of the hardest working and most creative photographers in not just the jam band and Grateful Dead scene, but in the music industry as a whole. If you’ve ever seen Jay Blakesberg at a show, chances are you’ve seen him lurking curiously somewhere on the stage and raising his camera only at the crucial action point in a band’s performance. This is his natural habitat, and the excitement of the music still gets him off enough to thrive on each moment and allow the creative flow of the performers to channel into his own work.
Shooting moe. in New Orleans 2014 (Photo: Arthur VanRooy)
Occasionally, Blakesberg turns his lens from the stage to the crowd to capture the same magical moments of being caught in the music, only from the perspective of those taking it all in. This is essentially the subject of his new coffee table book Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender, which hit shelves October 1, 2015 via Rock Out Books. If the title didn’t give it away, the book features 445 images of beautiful women basking in the aura of live music and having what often looks to be the time of their lives. The book features a foreword by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and an afterword by Grace Potter, and the images in between speak for themselves. As he prepared for the release of Hippie Chick, Blakesberg took the time to answer some questions about this book, his life as a photographer, and his experience shooting the Fare Thee Well shows. We also picked out a handful of photos and had Jay tell the story behind them. Oh, and for those who are wondering, he is also planning to release a Fare Thee Well coffee table book on December 1 with a forward by ultimate Deadhead Bill Walton.
How do you get permission to use people’s images?
You don’t need to. Freedom of the Press (which books – among other things – fall under) is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. If I were using the photos to advertise a “product” then there are privacy issues that come in to play, but since a book is editorial in nature, I can include people without permission.
09.06.1980 – Lewiston, Maine. Grateful Dead. This was the last show of summer tour 1980. That was an epic year for the band musically and for myself as a Deadhead. I saw the band from Maine to Florida, San Diego to Alaska and everywhere in between in 1980. This show and the photos I took there really resonated with me as being special. I didn’t know it completely then, but this was the beginning of me as a “visual anthropologist”.
05.03.1987 – Frost Amphitheatre. Grateful Dead. Outdoor daylight shows were great places to capture peak moments like these. The natives in their natural habitats surrendering to the moment…nothing to think about but being in that moment!
06.22.1986 – Greek Theatre – Grateful Dead. Another magical outdoor venue that was a favorite of the band and the fans. By Sunday, the shows started at 3PM, and it was a hot mess “front left” with Deadheads in the groove, and a great scene to capture!
Based on the intimacy of many of the photos, it seems like you actually know a good amount of the girls in the book. Is it easier to capture these moments when you know the subjects or do you work better off randomness?
It works both ways. Many of the “older” photos from Dead Tour were people I knew well. It was a very different time, and EVERYONE did NOT have a camera in their pocket. My friends, and immediate Deadhead family, were very comfortable with me and my camera. There was a complete trust between us. On the other hand, there were many people who did not know me, and because there was a fair amount of people doing things that were maybe “questionable”, they avoided cameras or perhaps did not trust me even though I had long hair and was dancing and tripping. I’m pretty sure there was a good amount of paranoia built into those people’s lives that was brought on by themselves. It’s funny because I now get messages from people all the time saying they wish that I had photographed them back in the day, but they always ran from my camera for the very reasons I described. Nowadays, in the land of EVERYONE having a camera and being accustomed to social media and their lives being fully documented, there is almost too much “posing”. My old friends certainly mug for the camera if they see me as opposed to being in their “zone”. I think many of my newer friends from shows over the last decade are less likely to get “posey” with me, and are more likely to stay in their groove. For younger women at festivals that don’t know me it can go either way. My goal with Hippie Chick was to show people in their groove, whether’s dancing, hooping, socializing, etc, as opposed to a posed image. There are some of those in there…but not many!
12.31.1980 – New Year’s Eve in Oakland. The hallways were electrified. Bill Graham by this point had put speakers in the halls to give the whirling dervishes space to move. It was a sexy place to be, to dance to connect with your family and to photograph!
Do hula hoopers make better photo subjects?
Sometimes. Just like dancers, there are many factors including angle, light, body language…but hoopers at shows didn’t exist really when the Grateful Dead still toured, so it is a beautiful art, and one I love to photograph.
05.22.2014 – Summer Camp Music Festival. I saw this woman dressed as a cat hooping next to the stage. She was incredibly talented. The sun was starting to set and about 100 feet behind the stage was a cornfield! I asked her to come with me to make some photographs. So even though this does not look like a music festival image, it certainly is! It was difficult to narrow it down to just one image from this series for the book!
In your opinion, is the sex appeal of this book a selling point?
Absolutely! If you are part of the jam scene – man or woman, I would think that you would look at these photos and think that these women are sexy, vibrant, and beautiful! They are part of the community, they are “The Muse”, and they chase “The Muse”.
08.01.2014 – Gathering Of The Vibes – Garcia’s Birthday. This was during the Disco Biscuits with Billy and Mickey (Rhythm Devils). An honest and real moment from a woman finding her groove, and taking it to the next level. “Dance like no one is watching” .
05.25.2014 – Summer Camp Music Festival. This was during the Trey Band set. Right place, right time, right angle! When I posted this on Instagram, and she saw it, she was very excited that it was documented! Steal your Face, right off your head!
09.03.14 – Lockn’. This was the day before the first day of music. The LOVE sculpture was a new addition to the festival grounds. I took some amazing sunset shots of the sculpture, but remembered a photo I had taken a few years earlier at NATEVA (a one year only festival in Maine) of their giant festival sign with 5 nude women. I thought the LOVE sculpture would be perfect for a similar shot. I ran in to the woman on the left – Keara, who was working as a vendor, and asked her if she and her 2 friends would pose topless at sunset. They agreed and as we were setting up the shot, another woman joined in. It shows how comfortable women can be in a festival environment. I feel it is a powerful shot with deep roots in Hippie Culture…and of course they are all incredibly sexy young women!
Your name got perhaps the most notoriety it’s ever gotten this past summer when you had the privilege of being the official photographer for the Fare Thee Well shows. This is a gig most photographers would kill for. Who approached you about this opportunity originally and why do you think they trusted you to capture these historic shows?
Pete Shapiro was the first to ask me to hold the dates. I have a longstanding relationship with the band as a photographer. I’ve done almost all of the post-Jerry official band publicity shots – The Other Ones, Phil Lesh and Friends, solo Bob Weir portraits, 7 Walkers with Billy, 2003, 2004, 2009 The Dead, Furthur, and now Fare Thee Well. I think Pete knew I was the right choice. Trust is of course a big issue. I have been in their rehearsal spaces, their dressing rooms, and onstage with all of them over and over, so I think trust is probably the first and foremost thing. I also think they knew I was a pretty good photographer who could shoot portraits, shoot candids, and of course get great live images, so one-stop shopping?
Can you say you were more nervous about being spot on for these shows than any other gig in your past?
I wasn’t nervous, I really don’t get nervous shooting anyone anymore. Maybe a bit of anxiety, but I think that’s because I knew about this in December 2014, and those 6-7 months until the shows seemed to take forever! So much anticipation from every corner. There was the ticket issues, the demand, the buzz everywhere in Deadheadland was deafening!
What presented the biggest challenge for you? Was it the vastness of the stadium? The amount of band members on stage to capture? The size of the stage? The energy from the crowd?
All of the above, because I can only be in one place at a time. At smaller venues, backstage is all right next to each other, and that is close to the stage. This was spread out. I had a great core team of John Margaretten in California and Chad Smith in Chicago. Their jobs were to get the “big picture” while I was there to get in tight and be on stage. I wish I could have shot more crowd and fans. The vastness of the stadium made for some great images. It was all BIG, but the band was still on a fairly normal sized stage, and not too spread out. Adding some Plexiglas panels to separate sound on stage made things a bit challenging in Chicago. The stage managers and production managers for the band knew this was a very special circumstance and they gave me a bit more leeway then normal, but again, even that comes with many years of working with these guys and earning that trust and respect. It took me a show or so to really find the nooks and crannies that would allow for some unique images, and I probably pushed my boundaries a tad more then I normally would, but in the end the results I think were some of my very best work. I am very proud of what I did photographically. I believe I made many VERY iconic images that will define these shows and this celebration for many years. The energy from the crowd absolutely added to it all…I think it made everyone feel really great! Mickey and Billy allowing me on to their drum risers while they were playing made for some spectacular images.
I’m sure there were thousands of photos taken but we’ve seen little of the backstage photos and the practices. Are there photos being held back for future publication?
Not really. The band was working really hard at rehearsal and they decided it would be closed to me and Justin Kreutzmann, who directed a bunch of the video. Normally we would have been there. I understand that they wanted this to be as perfect as possible and that meant as little distraction as possible. And we are a distraction. I did do the band portrait at one of the rehearsals in San Rafael a week before the shows. They also decided to not have a rehearsal room at these shows. They would work out some stuff in a band huddle before each set, but they were ready, so there was no real photo op, and again, I think they needed to have their space.
What are your thoughts on Dead & Co touring?
Exciting! As long as these guys keep playing music and keep re-interpreting the Grateful Dead songbook, I think that is a good thing! All of them are on fire right now. Billy and The Kids are so, so good! Phil is surrounded by incredible players from everywhere all the time! Bobby is in tip-top shape, and Mickey has been doing things the last few years that are, in my opinion, some of his strongest work! John Mayer is doing his homework, and Jeff [Chimenti] is the secret weapon with Oteil [Burbridge] being the monster that he is, I would expect this to be REALLY, REALLY good!!
As editors of an online music magazine, we get more requests than we can handle from people wanting to photograph concerts – way more so than journalists despite the fact that more gear is required. What is it that everyone wants to be doing this for? Is it to have that access in the pit and be right in front of the artist or is there an artistic challenge?
The bar for entry in photography is so low right now…I think social media comes in to play with what you are asking. You can take a mediocre or even a terrible photo of a famous person singing into a microphone and get hundreds of likes! Most people don’t know the difference between brilliant photography and mediocre photography. So when you get that much attention on social media it gives you all sorts of rushes, and then you crave that attention for me likes, and more attention. Getting into the pit is cool, it’s exciting to be that close to the flame, to try and capture lightning in a bottle, and there are many people who are doing a great job, and there are many people who are not! Some people for sure are looking at it as an artistic challenge. I think a lot of photographers would like to make a living shooting rock and roll…not so easy!