Capitol Theatre Special Edition
(March 2023) Interview:
(March 2023) Interview:
Written by Jon Caruso
"A picture is worth a thousand words"
This old adage is resoundingly true and speaks to the power of photography. Photographs capture fleeting moments in time that recall a profound variety of memories and emotions, unique to every individual – and photographers, in a lot of ways, are visual historians. They observe and document our world and without them, special moments in history (or even small moments of personal significance) would be lost forever. Like other visual forms of art, photos can transcend language barriers and connect us in ways other mediums can’t.
Rock and roll photographers, in particular, have played an important role chronicling different eras of music, spontaneous moments and epic collaborations between generations of musicians. Concert photography is about capturing the art of the performance and the overall vibe of any given show.
It can be extraordinarily difficult, as the quality of concert photos largely depend on conditions out of their control. For example, changing light conditions from lighting rigs can affect camera exposure, while the overall movement and unpredictability of live performances keep photographers on their toes to ensure they have focus and good composition.
Great music photography can bring people back to a particular moment in time and make them feel like they’re a part of the audience – even if they weren’t there. No one knows this better than Jay Blakesberg, legendary rock-and-roll photographer, filmmaker and public speaker. His iconic live photos and portraiture have been featured in print for magazines, books and record companies countless times and he has worked with many legendary artists, including the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Phish, Radiohead, Soundgarden and many other well-known, critically acclaimed musicians.
Beginning in 1987, he shot over 300 assignments for Rolling Stone magazine and his first solo museum exhibition at the Morris Museum - New Jersey’s only Smithsonian-affiliate; closed February, 2023. Jay has published 16 coffee table books: including his newest; RetroBlakesberg – Volume One: The Film Archives, a 312-page hardcover coffee table book curated by his daughter Ricki and out now.
The el Goose Times had the opportunity to speak with Jay about his background and what attracts him to the medium. As we reflect on his legendary career, we also talk about why The Capitol Theatre is a special venue to so many people, his thoughts about Goose and more.
For our readers who might not be familiar with your work, how did you get into photography?
I started taking pictures as a teenager in the late 1970s. I took photographs at concerts and pictures of my friends - trying to figure out what my place in the script was: Who was I? What did I do? Where did I fit in? Where was I going? And I dug it…I liked taking pictures at concerts, because when I developed the film in the basement at my mother’s house, I could make prints and thumbtack them to my bedroom wall. I was creating my own memorabilia and it felt good! Essentially that’s where I started, for fun – I was just fucking around with a camera, figuring it all out – how to expose film properly and hopefully capturing what was going on in front of me in an honest way.
Were your parents big photographers?
My Father is an Accountant, a CPA by trade – more or less retired now, he’s 85 – and my Father was a very, very serious hobbyist shutterbug. There’s a lot of photographs of us as young kids and he loved to take pictures…he had a good eye and I have some of those old photos. He still takes pictures to this day – not so much with a digital camera anymore – which he did for a long time, but now mostly on his phone. All through his entire adult life, he always took pictures on film cameras and then eventually digital cameras. He always liked it and I definitely think that I got that bug from him and some of that DNA was passed down, because even in the 1960s he had a good eye for composition and knew how to properly expose film.
My parents were encouraging - certainly my father was encouraging. He loaned me his camera when I was 16 years old to bring to a Grateful Dead concert. That was the first time I shot the band, sixteen years old on Labor Day Weekend 1978. Life changing moment!!
That’s amazing! What attracts you to the medium?
Well, its changed over time. In the early days, I was shooting for fun, I was shooting for pleasure…I was shooting for me. As I became a professional photographer, I started shooting for other people who were paying me money to shoot for them - and that was a different playbook, a different goal, a different endgame.
What attracts me to the medium, I think, is through all of those decades, the end result has always really turned me on. Looking at my developed photos and now what comes out of my camera on the computer screen – really, really still turns me on!! I’m also inspired by looking at other people’s photographs and now with Instagram and things like that.
I get to see what my friends are doing: people like Dylan Langille, who is the Greensky Bluegrass photographer, or Jesse Faatz, Billy Strings photographer, Adam Berta, who is the Goose photographer and Nuch (Michael Nuchereno - also Goose Photog), who blows my mind every fuckin’ time he takes a picture – I mean the guy is inspiring! And that’s just a handful of the great shooters out there...Tara Gracer, Josh Skolnik, Aaron Bradley, Josh Timmermans, Andrew Blackstein, Steph Port, Jay Strausser...the list goes on and on with these photographers creating amazing music photos/documentation. I still dig what I create, so that is a good thing - but I’m also turned on by what other people create and by photographs made forty or fifty or sixty years ago. And so, that’s what attracts me to the medium - it still inspires me and I’m still passionate about it.
Back then, we had to wait two or three days until you got back to your lab to drop your film off and wait for it to be processed. Now, when I shoot photos, I can look on the back of my camera and I’m pretty sure I got it - or its close enough where I can manipulate it in Photoshop or Lightroom to make it perfect. But, when I import those photos into my computer and I start editing them; it still inspires me and there’s still passion behind it. Those are the key ingredients for living our lives as creative people: passion and inspiration. Because without them, what do you have? Nothing. Sorry for the long answer!
No apologies necessary, that’s a great answer. It's amazing what story a single photo can really tell or what it can really bring out of a person: whether it's a certain memory or feelings of joy to sadness.
Absolutely, it can really move you. It’s interesting – back in the day, when we shot for print publications, I might go and shoot a show and shoot 10 or 15 rolls of film. So, 36 exposures on a roll, I might shoot 300-700 photos over the course of a concert and the magazine would run one or two photos – or maybe if it was a cover story, I’d get a cover and then an inside and a third image.
Nowadays we have this infinite thing called the Internet... there’s no limitations, right? We can tell stories in long form or short form: here’s one photo and that’s going to tell the story or here’s ten photos or here’s five hundred photos…We tell stories differently with our photos today.
Based on your experience, what are some of the elements that make up a great concert or pop culture photo?
A great photo can be anything that moves and inspires somebody. It can be great for one person or great for a million people…you just don’t know. There’s a lot of historic photos, right? You might be a photographer and you’re getting three songs in the pit when Trey and Goose are on stage and you get a decent shot – it’s not a brilliant shot, but that’s a great photo for you because it’s a historic moment that may or may not ever happen again. Who knows? I have plenty of photographs that I consider great photographs, because they’re historically important - but they’re shitty photographs: this musician sitting in with that musician or this musician playing and they’re no longer with us - and that’s the only photograph that you have of them.
What makes a great live concert photograph is something that’s got energy and captures the moment of what’s happening and translates that story visually to the person consuming it. When people go and they consume your photographs on Instagram or Facebook or wherever it might be, if you make a print or whatever…a week, a month, years later, if it can bring them back to that moment, which was hopefully a magical moment for the viewer - then that’s a successful photograph. It feels good to be brought back to those moments, those experiences– it’s like music. I don’t know about you, but there’s moments when you’re driving in a car and a song might come on the radio and it might bring you back to when you were 8 or 10 or 14 or 20 or your first girlfriend or your first boyfriend or your future ex-wife or your future ex-husband or whatever it might be. It triggers something.
Photographs can do the same thing. They can trigger something to bring you back to that moment that was super special for you – and that’s what I’m hoping to do with my photographs. I’m trying to create these images that when people revisit these photographs, they’re like, “Aahh, that makes me feel really good” (sigh of relief, warmth) – like I’m hugging myself or it brings me back to that incredible moment with that special person or that group of special people or connection you had to that band.
As you grow older and that band grows older, your relationship to that music changes and your relationship to those photographs changes over time as well. I want the relationship to the photograph to be the bridge to those memories, those feelings. That is a big ask of a static image, but if the image is good - it happens!
Beautifully said. Roughly how many artists/bands have you photographed in total?
Impossible to say…for artists, I do have a database and every artist in that database has their own four digit code…and I believe we are in the high two thousands or low three thousands. Now, some of that is misleading, because, it might be Keller Williams and Keller’s Grateful Gospel - or there could be some codes in there that we assigned to some things that were shot by other photographers that we manage their archives with, because we manage some other photo archives as well. So, I’m going to say 2,500 different artists over the years. I feel very fortunate that I have that body of work.
I have a new book out called RetroBlakesberg – Volume One: The Film Archives, which is only photographs that I shot on film from 1978 to 2008 and all of those bands you just mentioned are in there – Kurt Cobain was gone long before we shot digital, so the only photographs of Nirvana are on film. Radiohead I’ve shot both digitally and on film. I was lucky enough to photograph Radiohead for the first time in…1993, same year I shot Phish for the first time.
Wow. That’s incredible!
I used to pursue portraiture way more than live shots - because to me, it was a more intimate way of telling the story of who that artists is.
It was a different kind of connection to the photographs I was making. I still love shooting portraits - I did some quick portraits of Goose in Mexico. I did a really fun portrait shot of Orebolo in Mexico which I think will show up somewhere along the way when they do some shows.
The first time I did a portrait of Goose, they were opening for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall, which held 600 people…they were the opening act. They’re managed by the same people - Goose and Pigeons – Pigeons was hiring me to do a photo shoot with them, because they needed some new publicity photos.
This was literally weeks before the pandemic, none of us had any idea…and Goose came along for the ride to the photo shoot and I did a portrait of them as well. My first band portrait was with just the four of them, before Jeff was in the band.
The nature of this changes - in terms of what we shoot, why we shoot it, how we shoot it and what we shoot it for. It is part of the overall documentation of an artist, it is ‘Visual Anthropology”. In 25 years, we’ll look back on these pictures and these guys are going to be in their mid-late 50’s and they’ll be like, “God, look at us when we were 30 years old” - historical moments, frozen in time! It’s amazing to look back on. Photos are moments in time that are immortalized!
I did my first Phish portrait in 1993. I did my first candid Bob Weir portrait in ’79, when I was a teenager and then I just did a new portrait of Weir right after New Years in 2023…It’s an ongoing swirl that hopefully never ends! The first time
was in 1978, so that was forty four plus years ago…and I’m still photographing Bob Weir, so there’s this arc. There’s this anthropological arc, this rock and roll arc…it’s an amazing adventure!
Pictured Above: Playing in the Sand 2020
Pictured Below: Playing in the Sand 2023
"The nature of this changes - in terms of what we shoot, why we shoot it, how we shoot it and what we shoot it for. It is part of the overall documentation of an artist, it is ‘Visual Anthropology.'"
- Jay Blakesberg
With this body of work that you have, was this one of the reasons why you started the Retro Photo Archive with your daughter?
My daughter Ricki studied Photography and Business at Skidmore and she’s now in a Master’s program in Arts Management in New York City. She’s really interested in my archive and loves working with it. There’s two parts of it: @RetroBlakesberg (an Instagram page she started at the beginning of the pandemic) and Retro Photo Archive.
As an artist, you start to think about, “What happens to your work when you’re gone?” Music lives on in a different way than visual stuff – moving film or photography. I want my work to be around for another fifty years, if not longer, and so I started thinking, "Okay, people are interested in what I do today...how do I keep them interested in 30+ years? How does my daughter keep this alive financially? Can she do it with JUST my work?" So, we started to acquire archival photography collections that have been dormant, either from deceased photographers or elderly photographers that don’t know how to get this imagery out in the world. We’ve acquired several archives over the last few years and that’s what Retro Photo Archive is. We're actively searching for pop culture/music archives that are shot on film, nothing digital. We have an incredible historic collection and it is growing. I found 75 rolls of film of Jazz Fest in 1971 that nobody has ever seen before. Twelve rolls of film with Evel Knievel in 1972. The Rolling Stones in ’69 and ’72. Bob Dylan in ’74 and ’75. There’s all of this stuff that we’re getting and we’re resurrecting it; getting it out into the world and generating some revenue for the people who took these photos (or their estates). That’s a business that my daughter and I are running together...she’s slowly integrating in and will eventually take over Retro Photo Archive, which will include my archive. You can see some of this work on Instagram @retrophotoarchive.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my daughter came to me and said, “Hey, I want to do a new Instagram page for you and call it ‘RetroBlakesberg’ and its only photographs that you shot on film.” I was like, “That’s a great idea,” so she started doing that with great success. RetroBlakesberg: Captured on Film - 1978 to 2008 is the museum exhibit and that was at The Morris Museum - the only Smithsonian-affiliated museum in the state of New Jersey. I had four galleries there: 126 prints, glass cases with ephemera and memorabilia...didactics written about me in the third-person. It’s like the real fucking deal. My work is in a museum! I’m pretty proud of this exhibit and Ricki curated it, and she also curated the book - and of course the Instagram page and that’s basically the gist of RetroBlakesberg. My film photographs are already a part of the Retro Photo Archive, so when somebody uses a film photograph somewhere, the photo credit is Jay Blakesberg/Retro Photo Archive. Its our own little boutique stock licensing agency that we own and operate.
Looking back on your career, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Well, my proudest accomplishments, of course as a father, are my children. I do have two incredible, creative children. Ricki’s working on all of the photography stuff with me. My son is a staff writer on a Netflix television show in LA and he’s also a filmmaker. I got lucky with creative kids, who also don’t want a corporate type career, which is great! I’ve got an incredible wife and we have been together for over 30 years - so all of those are personal accomplishments I am proud of.
On a professional level, the fact that I’m still relevant and that people are actually interested in my photography. I’ve essentially had a career as a rock-and-roll photographer now full-time for 35+ years. I quit my last job in 1987 and I’ve been working for myself ever since. I hope what I do still inspires people and they can be passionate about the work like I am. It still feels good to me. And I’m still having fun, because you know what...fun is fucking fun! (chuckles) I hope that doesn’t come off as pretentious or anything.
Pictured Above: Jay Blakesberg with his daugher Ricki in November 2021.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Ross
No, not at all - it’s personally inspiring to see someone who followed their dreams and were so successful! What are some of your favorite venues you’ve visited throughout your career?
Favorite venues? I like venues that don’t have really high stages. Any venue is a good venue to shoot at as long as there’s lighting and you can have access. I do dig venues that have cool history…and the ghosts are friendly…
The Capitol Theatre, built in 1926, has housed thousands of legendary shows from the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Phish and countless others. What does this venue mean to you? Why do you think bands like playing this venue?
Bands like playing rooms where magic drips from the walls. The Fillmore in San Francisco…Jimi played there, Janis played there, the Dead played there, magic happened, it’s part of the building forever...a legendary room. The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY is a legendary room because of some of the artists that have played there. With the Cap, you also have to take into consideration the people who manage it - and the people who run it are the personality behind that room, right? The Fillmore in SF is a Live Nation room, but it’s got it’s own personality because of the people that run it: Michael Bailey and Amie Bailey and the other staff there. It’s a vibe. It’s the whole package, AND it is in San Francisco! In San Francisco, almost every venue somehow has the "Bill Graham vibe," because someone involved in that venue once worked for Bill or was trained by someone that worked for him. Many incredible people that ushered in the modern day concert experience from San Francisco worked with Bill: Peter and Bob Barsotti, Sherri Wasserman, Gregg Perloff, Danny Scher and David Mayeri - to name just a handful.
The Cap has got a lot of magical history, but the one thing that the Cap has that no other venue has is Pete Shapiro. Pete is what makes sure that the vibe is the vibe. I just recently finished Pete’s book…Pete and I are good friends, but after reading his book, I feel like I know so much more about him and what his motivations are and the way that he thinks. The way his brain works and how he conjures magic. The Cap is a special venue because of the people that run it. It’s a special venue because of the projections they put on the walls and the ceilings. It’s a special venue because of the carpeting and the wallpaper they chose to put in there. It’s a special venue because of the bands that choose to come back there…I’m not a local but I love the Cap! I live in California, but its still my venue, you know what I mean? That’s my take on the Cap: is that it’s the people, the vibe and the vision of Pete Shapiro and the people that are under him that share his vision. That's what makes a great venue!
Given your storied career, what is it like seeing younger generations of musicians today collaborating with those who paved the way that you’ve grown up with, like Bob Weir?
Nothing turns me on more than seeing these sit-ins happen. I did a book called Jam eight or ten years ago that’s about bands sitting in with bands, collaborating. I’m a firm believer in the philosophy of: “no risk, no reward.” And when you put Rick and Bob Weir on stage together – maybe they rehearsed a song backstage a couple of times – there is still risk in there and if it works, the reward is grand. Trey…nobody knew what this Trey/Goose thing was going to be. Do you know anybody who walked away from that saying, “Oh, that sucked!” Right? No risk, no reward. They took the risk, and the reward was great – for them, as players and it was fucking fabulous for the fans. I love that and I love photographing those moments. And if I want to photograph those moments, I have to show up….because if I don’t, I can’t capture those historical moments!
That was something that was in Pete’s book and something I’ve always said. If you don’t show up, you can’t capture it, as a photographer. If you don’t show up to the show…you can’t have the experience.
Pictured Above: Goose with Trey Anastasio & Father John Misty at Radio City Music Hall on June 25, 2022
Pictured Below: Goose with Bob Weir at Playing in the Sand 2023
"If you don’t show up, you can’t capture it, as a photographer. If you don’t show up to the show…
you can’t have the experience. " - Jay Blakesberg
This used to drive my wife crazy in the old days, when I’d be like, “Yeah, I heard that, Bobby’s gonna sit-in with so and so down at The Great American Music Hall or the Warfield or Sweetwater” and she’d be like, “C’mon! Who cares!” And I knew it was important to capture, so I'd respond: “No! Bobby’s gonna sit-in with x-groovy musician…and I gotta be there!” Now, 25+ years later, I look at photos from special nights or sit-ins and I was like: “Fuck yeah I was there and here’s the fuckin’ photos to prove it!” It’s not just for me, it’s for all of us. It’s for our collective pop culture history.
A lot of people laugh at us for what we do and the amount of time and energy and money that we put into this - but for us, that’s where we get to touch that magic: as photographers by capturing that moment and as fans by experiencing those collective moments.
People wonder, "Why are you going to 20 Goose shows this year?" Because there’s a good chance that you’re going to get to touch magic. Connections are made by musicians connecting with musicians. Jeff and Ben sitting in with Dead & Co, Bob with Goose were both epic moments at epic events! Older generations of musicians playing with younger generations…fucking unreal, I live for it, I live to photograph it.
I love it! How did you first hear about Goose? What draws you to the band and their music?
I believe I first heard of them from friends of mine, who are big Pigeons fans – a family from Richmond, Virginia. I’m friends with the mom and everyone in the family, from shows. I missed the Goose show at Peach, the one where Rick was sitting because of the leg injury. I missed that show although I was at the festival, but I don’t know why I missed it. But everyone was talking about Goose.
Even before that I had been hearing about it, but when Ben Baruch and Dave DiCianni, who (now) manages Pigeons and Goose, started saying, “I think we’re going to start working with this band Goose.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of them but I haven’t heard their music.” They were both saying to me, “Oh yeah, you gotta hear Goose, you are going to love this band.” It didn’t take long to go down that road of Love, Devotion and Surrender!!
My first Goose shows were in Mexico when they did the late-night stuff with Dead & Co and I fell in love with it right there. I met the guys and got introduced to them by Dave and Ben on the beach, and we did a quick photograph of the band and their crew and families. On that trip, I met Sam (the monitor mixer), Murph, Goedde, and Coach - that was the first time I met Coach (Jon Lombardi). They were excited I was there and I was Dead & Co’s photographer and I was coming to shoot their show. I became friends with all of them pretty quickly. Very generous and very warm people across the whole Goose family/crew.
I was on the East Coast doing my Grateful Dead slideshow, and Ben, Peter & Jeff all came to see me at the FTC in CT. When they came out to the West Coast and we did that photo shoot - I shot their shows and our friendship deepened. I was supporting them, because I liked them as people and musicians!! I was into it - and I would show support by being there and shooting. Then they started inviting me to stuff: “Hey, are you going to come to Red Rocks? Can you come to Goosemas? We want you to get a shot for us.” Ben asked me to come to Goosemas to get a picture of him proposing to Sam. Everyone in the band, crew and family are just super real, down to earth groovy humans… That’s how I met those guys. I’m thirty years older then them, but we all travel on the same frequency. I did a book in 2n 008 called Traveling on a High Frequency and its really about musicians and what they do. Sometimes I get to ride on that frequency with them…and bring my camera!
Thank you so much for your time, Jay! Again, it’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to have this discussion with you and reflect on your storied career.
If our readers would like to learn more about how to purchase Jay’s new book or look at the
Retro Photo Archive, please visit:
Note: We are not affiliated, associated with or in any way officially connected to Goose.
We just love the band and community that much.