From Every Stage: Images Of America’s Roots Music
Twenty years ago in a near-empty hotel bar in Columbus, Ohio, I nervously laid out 25 black-and-white prints in front a photojournalism god — a picture editor — who, for a bit of groveling and a cold beer, agreed to critique my incredible body of work. That portfolio had it all. Stunningly composed weather features. Great action moments in T-ball. Environmental portraits that left no doubt as to the greatness of my subjects in fields as extreme as, say, life insurance. I knew that portfolio was the springboard to a lifelong career of magazine covers the world over.
Fortunately, the wizard didn’t see it that way. He patiently sipped as he circled and looked at the prints from every angle. Halfway though the four-dollar bottle, he picked up one print from somewhere in the middle of pack, used a forearm to sweep the other 24 to the floor, and without even caring that my heart had shut down said, “This one. Let’s talk about this one.”
After 30 years in the business with publications such as Sing Out! and Bluegrass Magazine, we can assume Stephanie P. Ledgin has made thousands of images of hundreds of musicians. The credentials are certainly there. She’s the former director of the New Jersey Folk Festival. She’s done the road work up and down the eastern seaboard chasing countless stories. She’s even danced with Bill Monroe. Her work in this niche of journalism has given her access to all the greats of roots music, and most of the great names in roots music are here. From the godlike Monroe to the poetic Ritchie Havens. Grandpa Jones in his down-home persona to the great bluesman John Jackson. A nearly inspiring image of Pete Seeger in silhouette to energetic festival dancers.
But this book doesn’t look as though she’s making the kind of professionally unique presentation that musicians make through their performances. Anyone could have stood off to the side of these stages and made most of these images. Maybe it’s because she’s tried over the years to do it all with the writing, and the editing, and then maybe the photography fell in there somewhere to break up the pages. Regardless, there is no clear visual voice for Ledgin to call her own revealed on these pages. The kind of voice that produces the ultimate communication without blocking a clear path between subject and reader. Rather, it looks as though she just published every photo she ever made of every performer on every stage at every festival.
The title is a fairly clear indication of the visual route the book should take, but most of the images are hardly more than snapshots. Even onstage there are intimate communications that musicians project between themselves and their audiences, little fleeting moments that photographers look for to help define the character of a performing artist. There are a couple of those moments, and one, a wonderfully backlit image of John Hartford playing fiddle (p. 96), screams for full-page presentation. Sadly, it shares equal billing with a much lesser image that denies both Hartford and Ledgin a chance to pull the reader into that composition with the promise of more. On most of the pages, such visual moments tend to get lost on the face of a very gaudy clock.
With all due respect to Charles Osgood, who wrote the foreword, this is not much more than a book of visual lists. Yes, there are famous people who should be more famous, but it’s clear that photography was not the focus of Ledgin’s career or professional life. These musicians should be in books, and it’s good that someone tried, but a picture editor would have made this project really sing rather than lose us in the “more is better” whirlpool.
Take a look at that image of Hartford. I made hundreds of images of him, and Ledgin had no doubt seen one or two while visiting his house for interviews. He kept them on a wall that he could easily see from his desk. The thing is, I never made an image of him quite that good. It’s a great moment of a great man who had a unique way of projecting the music directly to the audience. He had that connection with them, and she really delivered with that photograph. There are too few moments of this strength in this book. I just want to pick it up and say, “This one. Let’s talk about this one.”