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Joseph A. Rosen Captures the Soul of Musicians in “Blues Hands”

Schiffer presents, “Blues Hands,” portraits of music legends James Brown, B.B. King, and Al Green made by Joseph A. Rosen.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Eubie Blake,New York, NY, May 1982 (detail)

If the soul of America made a sound, it would sing the Blues from dusk til dawn. It is, deep beneath the plastic veneer of appearances, the truth about the human condition: joy and pain, love and grief, triumph and tragedy mixed together into a sparkling cocktail of art. The Blues pulls you under and it makes you realize that you are not the only one who has ever been done dirty and gotten hurt. The blues pulls you up out of your funk, keeping you company as it soothes your weary heart.

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BluesHands_CVR FRONTPhotographer Joseph A. Rosen has been photographing Blues musicians for 40 years, taking portraits of the legends of our time including James Brown, B.B. King, Al Green, Les Paul, Mavis Staples, Eubie Blake, Maxine Brown, Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr., and Pete Seeger, among others. He has compiled these photographs in Blues Hands (Schiffer), which hones in on the visual expression of music through the way they play their instruments. Rosen speaks with Crave Online about his work on this project.

Maxine Brown, photo studio for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, New York, NY, 1994

Maxine Brown, photo studio for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, New York, NY, 1994

I’d love to start where it all began: with your pilgrimage to see Muddy Waters in 1976. Please talk more about this trip and what it meant to you at that time in your life, both as a person and a photographer.

Joseph A. Rosen: At that point I was already a Blues DJ on a community radio station in Pittsburgh. I was a both a huge fan of the music and at the beginning of my career as a photographer. It was natural that I should meld the two. It was real labor of love stuff, fun and fan stuff. Back then Muddy only played three or four clubs on the East Coast. When I found out that he was going to be in Washington, D.C., I drove down with a pal and we were the first on line both nights.

Things were much more casual and it was easy to shoot if you were polite and respectful; in fact the artists often seemed flattered that you wanted to take their photo. Using my first Leica, I shot both b&w and color. I was thrilled with the results, but never expected anything much to come of it. The Muddy show was the start of a big adventure and I just kept doing it. I’d give the artists prints, get autographs and just enjoy the experience. Then “poof”—thirty years go by and I’ve got an archive and vintage photos of archetypal artists. That show was a tipping point of my artistic, career and life path.

Buckwheat Zydeco, Recording Studio, Woodstock, NY, April 2005

Buckwheat Zydeco, Recording Studio, Woodstock, NY, April 2005

Blues is a profoundly American phenomenon, speaking to and of the experience of Black folks in America throughout the 20th century to our present day. While other forms derived from it (such as rock and roll and R&B) have been commodified and lost their soul over the intervening years, the Blues has resisted being co-opted by the establishment. Why do you think this is?

The Blues has never really been a mass-market music. There were periods when Blues in its many forms was simply popular music of a culture. There is also a regional aspect; Blues and Blues-based music has always been stronger in the South or places with Southern connection. Changing times, tastes, and demographics have lead to peaks and valleys of its popularity. But, it has always been there underneath it all, with a loyal, dyed-in-the-wool following, either among those who grew up with it or those who came to it.

I think that when the economics of the music business shifted to newer, more profitable and commodified styles those fans never went away. They stayed connected to the music that moved them. And, while the music evolves and brings in new fans, it’s the directness and the soul of the music that keeps it popular, if not lucrative, with those who play it and those who have made the connection.

B.B. King, Benson & Hedges Blues Festival, Beacon Theater, New York, NY, 1991

B.B. King, NOLA Jazzfest, circa 2010

Having photographed Blues musicians for forty years, please speak about the relationship between sight and sound in your work. I find it to be such a curious and compelling phenomenon: photographs being silent yet able to capture the frequencies, rhythms, harmonies, and grooves of music and I’d love to hear your insights.

Blues, to me anyway, is an emotion-based music, a truthful, storytelling music, rooted in and derived from African-American culture. That does not exclude other races from getting it. “If you can play, you can stay” is an old saying. I feel that there is an emotional, human element to the Blues. It can be everything or anything human: sad, joyous, sexy, evil, kind, propulsive, etc. It’s that emotional, aspect that I try to capture in my photographs.

Frank “Scrap Iron” Robinson, Legendary R&B Cruise, January 2007

Frank “Scrap Iron” Robinson, Legendary R&B Cruise, January 2007

For Blues Hands, you have honed in on the one thing all artists share: the use of their hands to create and express their artwork. In the book, you mention that while editing, Jimmy McCracklin’s bejeweled hand and Cliff Belcher playing bass guitar jumped out at you. Can you describe this moment further? What ideas did it spark and how did that lead to the creation of the book?

When I saw the McCraklin and Belcher pictures next to each other it was an “ah ha” moment. I realized then that here was a theme, a thread that I could follow and use to expose the work. After that whenever I shot music I would dedicate a few minutes to hands. Also, I realized early on that there had to be more than close ups. Then I searched through my archive for photos that enhanced the theme, but were also not limited to tight shots. Gesture, posture, moment, emotion all fit the theme and hands were the thread that tied the photos together and got the idea and emotion across.

Irma Thomas, Tramps, New York, NY October 1992

Irma Thomas, Tramps, New York, NY October 1992

Forty years in, with the pleasure and privilege of getting to know these artists both professionally and personally, what would you say is the greatest lesson you have received from the Blues?

My lesson is that it’s all about the connections you make: personal, emotional, artistic, spiritual. I love photography and I love Blues music and it has been about connecting and following those passions. I feel very lucky and blessed to have been able to do that. And to quote my friend and mentor Herman Leonard, the dean of the Jazz photographers, “Above all enjoy the music.”

All photos: © Joseph A. Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.