Alive with the Dead: A Fly on the Wall with a Camera, a compendium of Grateful Dead photos and stories from Susana Millman was recently released. This spectacular book represents 25 years of Millman’s work with the Grateful Dead. In conjunction with Glide, Millman has provided her thoughts on some of her favorite photos from the book. Enjoy them below, as they are integrated amongst Doug Collette’s narrative take on the collection.
Owners of the limited printings of Alive With The Dead, its cloth-bound slipcover with silver embossed skull and roses logo enclosing the 12”x9” hardcover, will no doubt find it all too tempting to merely admire the book from a distance. But once Susana Millman’s photographic collection of Grateful Dead lore opens, the urge to whimsically jump around back and forth within its two-hundred sixty pages offers an experience as satisfying in its own way as the conventional approach of reading it cover to cover.
With A Fly on the Wall with a Camera ( a suitably incongruous image given its subject), the de facto official photographer for the Grateful Dead in its final decade from 1985-1995 focuses less on the obvious aspects of the Dead milieu for that period of time (plus post-Garcia years right up through Dead & Co) than ancillary events. Benefits on behalf of political/social causes, most conspicuously the rain forests and environmentalism in general, as well as individual interests like percussionist Micky Hart’s endeavors with the Gyuto monks of Tibet, all get their rightful due, with the author’s own backstories further accentuated by Dead biographer and the band’s former publicist, Millman’s spouse, Dennis McNally.
The result is far fewer iconic shots of the band, as populated Bob Minkin’s Live Dead, but Millman isn’t out to romanticize the Dead. Rather, the fundamental distinction of her work here is the offering of unusual (and unusually illuminating) perspectives on the band as a collective, its members on their own terms as well as the community surrounding them. And she does it with a healthy sense of detachment, not to mention a fitting sense of humor: who wouldn’t want to absorb the content of the truncated chapter titled “WTF Bobby?” Or, for that matter, the proportionately longer segment devoted to archivists Dick Latvala and his successor David Lemieux?
As such. Alive with the Dead—its title appropriate as Millman contends her photographic skills came to fruition during this period of her career–may carry its greatest value as a gateway for the casual admirer to explore this fabled unit, while at the same time, presenting an altogether novel angle for the avowed Deadhead to view that panoramic culture-scape. For the former, their curiosity has to be piqued by photos of the sound-system (and its operators including Dan Healy) tested for outdoor use in the wine country of Sonoma, California. For the latter, it may be shots of some of the band’s favorite venues, such as the Boston Garden, or cinema verite capturing somewhat unsung figures nevertheless integral to the inner workings of the group, such as lyricist John Perry Barlow or crew members like Steve Parish.
And for those in the middle-ground between those demographics, there’s a certain satisfaction putting names with faces. Millman extends enough insight, via text and photos, to further enlighten that office linchpin Eileen Law, videographer Len Dell’Amico and manager Jon McIntire became, in these later years, almost as indispensable to the Grateful Dead dynamic as the fans themselves, with many of the latter pictured throughout the book almost as regularly as the band itself in performance. Speaking of which, the spectacle of a latter-day Dead show took many breathtaking forms, but none so much as the site/sight of the UNLV outdoor show spread across two of these landscape format pages.
In the ultimate expression of photographic skill, Millman brings her own eye to Alive With The Dead, thereby solidifying the latter-day legacy of the iconic group. As suggested in more than one aside in the author’s notes, while the onslaught of scenesters in the latter years of touring may have affected operations somewhat adversely, those complications did not impinge on the bond that had been forged over decades with the group’s loyal fanbase. And documentation of the Grateful Dead’s own acceptance of accolades such as the hometown Bammy Awards and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors signified the pride that ultimately kept the band going in the face of some daunting obstacles just prior to the passing of their titular leader.
Whether capturing the effort Jerry Garcia extended playing solo acoustic or the peculiarly detached air of he and his comrades with platinum records for In the Dark (home of “Touch of Grey”), Millman brings alive all these moments in which she herself was immersed. Having her camera always at the ready has injected into Alive With The Dead an air of infectious spontaneity not all that dissimilar to the sensation arising from observing a great band in the midst of a memorable improvisation.