THROUGH THE LENS: Photographer Jim Brock on Capturing Those Lightning Moments
B.B. King - 2013 - Photo by Jim Brock
It’s been a while since this column featured the story and photographs of one of our contributing photographers, but my New Year’s resolution is to do that more frequently in 2021. Just as a photograph tells a story, every photographer has a story to tell as well. This week I turn the Lens column over to Los Angeles-based Jim Brock so he can tell you his story and share with you some of his outstanding photos that have not been featured in ND before.
Jim’s images can be found in newspapers, magazines, books, CDs, online, and on walls across many time zones. In the past few years, he’s licensed images to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings for the 5-CD box set/book Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrating 50 years of the fest and to the forthcoming feature documentary, Take Me to the River – New Orleans. Recent interviews include a segment in the soon-to-be-completed documentary A Year in the Pit and in esteemed jazz photographer William Ellis’ One LP project.
You may also recall the July 28, 2020, column in which Jim shared his recollections and photos from the many Newport Folk Festivals he has attended.
Jim Brock’s Story
Music photography is not for the meek. You have to push for credentials. You have to hold your ground in the pit. Your gear, and sometimes even your safety (if you don’t have your wits about you), are at risk. You can be up to your knees in muck, or plowing through 100,000 fans in triple-digit heat. But there is always reward in visually extracting what reverberates in your bones from the stage, or from the crowd, or from those smaller moments around you that seem so huge right now. Whether elbow-to-elbow with 30 photographers or at a rainy night late set with 30 people in a room, something unexpected will be revealed, even if it’s not obvious.
But I get ahead of myself. When I was young, the family darkroom was magic. I learned to see differently. At the same time, I was shaped by sounds. Dylan, Beatles, Zeppelin, Cream, and Hendrix hit my ears before I was 10. Live music grew to obsession after my first concert (Allman Brothers at the Hollywood Bowl). I’d go to shows, just to go to shows, but always subscribed to Miles Davis’ “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is” philosophy, and still do. Joni broke my heart, Miles and Coltrane blew my doors open, and the Dead had me walking through the other side.
After decades spent just about anywhere music happened, it was inevitable I’d start making my own visual soundtracks around a deep love of jazz, roots, and blues. It took awhile, when some 20+ years ago I fell (and fell hard) into a lifelong relationship with the music and musicians of New Orleans.
Beginning in 2008 (and after shooting festivals from the fan side of the rail for some time), I was selected by jury for 11 consecutive years to shoot for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive, contributing to one of the richest historical collections in the country. I’ve returned to New Orleans and Jazz Fest every year since, bringing home some of my best work from the fairgrounds by day, and club nights ’til dawn.
I’ve shared the pit with Henry Diltz, Jay Blakesberg, and Danny Clinch at the Newport Folk Festival. Eight minutes of shooting Paul McCartney’s final show of his last tour with only a few other photographers were 500 or so seconds that will last a lifetime.
There are those lightning moments when you get THE shot. At Jazz Fest 2013, B.B. King closed the Blues Tent in an absolute downpour. The tent was soggy and packed. I found myself dead center at the King’s feet toward the end of the set. At 87, while the vibrato was still sharp, it all felt fleeting.
There is musicality to this work. A hair behind the beat or past that note, there is no picture at all. As King took a final solo, looking both skyward and inward, I knew if I landed it, I would have something special. When he wrapped his set, drink in hand, he raised his glass to toast the audience: “If I can’t be with you next week … think about me some time.” He stopped touring not long after that and was gone a year later. The power of the still image grows over time, as these days especially remind us, and with so many of our beloved musicians in their 70s and 80s, that moment is indeed here and then gone.
Photographer Herman Leonard liked to say he wasn’t good, he was lucky. Well, Herman was at another level altogether. He capitalized on that “luck” with unparalleled vision, skill, and intuition in every grain of every image. He saw differently. That’s something to shoot for.
A sampling of Jim’s photos are below, including one of Chick Corea, who passed away last week. You can check out more of his work at Jim Brock Photography.