From smoky teen bedrooms to exclusive green bedrooms, the photographer Jay Blakeberg has kept a steady pace in the music business for over four decades. The 60-year-old lens that got its start by sneaking a camera into Grateful Dead concerts in the 1970s is preparing a two-part retrospective of his decades of work, both titled RetroBlakesberg. One is a coffee table book that captures his work from the late 70s to 2008, all shot on film. The other is a museum exhibition covering similar ground, where Blakesberg’s work will occupy four galleries at Morris Museuma Smithsonian branch in Morristown, NJ just 25 miles from where he grew up in Clark.
Beyond brilliant photos of nearly every great rocker of the last 40 years of Bob Dylan at sound garden at John Mayerthe book RetroBlakesberg: The Film Archive, Volume 1 serves as Jay’s visual autobiography. The project began, like so many recent artistic endeavors, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jay’s daughter, Ricky, a photographer in his own right, began combing through his father’s vast archive of nearly half a million film stills. She opened an Instagram account, @retrolakesbergwho quickly amassed a viral following of concert-hungry fans as well as a social media-savvy subset of 20s who took Jay’s photos as much for the vintage aesthetic as the performers on stage.
“One of the things that Ricki always said she wanted to do was kind of find a new audience for my work,” Jay said. live for live music. “So a lot of people who follow me on Instagram, or Facebook, or know me, they’re older, they’re Deadheads, they’re 40, they’re 45, they’re 50, they’re 60, they’re my peers, my contemporaries. … And so, that’s his mission statement, to get a new, younger generation of music fans interested in my photography, and to realize that I’m not just this deadhead photographer who’s now shooting goose and Pigeons playing ping pong and jam bands. But, once upon a time I had a life where I was cool. Oh wait I a m always cool, because all of these bands are fucking badass that I just mentioned.
The Instagram account eventually snowballed into a book, Blakesberg’s sixteenth. The 312-page hardcover features Blakesberg’s earliest photos from his high school days in the late 1970s through 2005, three years before he took his last filmed photo on August 24, 2008, capturing Jack Johnsonis fixed at Outer lands in San Francisco.
The photos form a narrative not only of changing trends in music and fashion, but also of Blakesberg’s life. RetroBlakesberg serves as Jay’s long-requested autobiography, with the photographer beginning each decade with an introductory essay about where he was in life when these photos were taken. From his high schoolers growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s joining the traveling circus that was the Grateful Dead to moving to the West Coast in the 1980s and tapping into the rising tide of alternative rock in the 1990s, Blakesberg gives readers a look through his viewfinder.
As Inflamed lips leader wayne coyne, a friend of Blakesberg dating back to the 1980s, points out in the introduction to the book, “The more I see Jay and his work, the more I realize how much his youth was like mine. I say ‘looked like’ because I can see it in his photos. Even though he’s not in many pictures, I can see his life. His story is there in the photos he took of others, not in the photos of himself (which is how most people see their years go by). By capturing the people, places and mood of a given time, Jay’s photos provide a visual record of that time – the world as he sees it and has seen it, and perhaps as others who have been through it have been through it. So today when Jay’s photos appear on the RetroBlakesberg Instagram, or in a book like this, everyone can see their story (my story) unfold.
Capturing this history also carries over to Blakesberg’s role as a “visual anthropologist” preserving hard evidence of societal progress. Everything in the background of one of his photos, from the price of a dozen eggs to the model of a car, provides the context to form a vision of a world that is long gone.
“I see myself 100% as a visual anthropologist and I see myself as a historian, because I think it’s pop culture history,” he said. “And I have been filming with a camera for 44 years. And I was able to successfully keep all of that material, still have it, still have the original negative, still have access to it, have the ability to scan it and bring it to life an analog world to a digital world and share it in new ways.
The story Blakesberg captured belongs in a museum, and from October 14, 2022 through February 5, 2023, it will be at the Morris Museum. Similar to RetroBlakesberg: The Film Archive, Volume 1the exhibition RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film 1978 to 2008 is divided into four galleries: portraits of artists such as Jerry Garcia, carlos santanaand Joni Mitchell; live performance shots of Hot red peppers, Neil Young and many others; a gallery dedicated to the Grateful Dead largely from 1978 to 1980; and introductory photos from high school, college, and early career.
“And, of course, as this is a museum exhibit, there will be things behind display cases, ephemera and other tear-off sheets from newspapers and magazines that will help me in some way to tell my story. story and my early trajectory as a suburban youth. Stoner from New Jersey as a teenager, a 16-year-old kid with a camera,” he said. “And here we are 45 years later and I get a museum exhibit.”
Related: Tell the Story in Your Own Voice: An Interview with ‘Grateful Dead Hour’ Host David Gans
Changing technologies have always been at the center of Blakesberg’s career, from the move to digital film to the early adoption of inkjet printers, this adoption of new technologies continues with the RetroBlakesberg exposure. The 126 prints in the four galleries were cast onto premium Chromaluxe metal sheets using a process called “Dye Sublimation” whereby the images are fused onto the metal and embedded into the raw material. Jay worked closely with a printer called Magna Chrome to produce these prints to its standards.
“There’s just something about the look, the feel, the texture, the sturdiness of it all. It’s just about presenting the work in a new way that maybe 25 years ago would have been scoffed at in terms of having a presence in a museum,” he said. “What amounts to the same [that happened] when [the] the first inkjet printing began to be made. If it wasn’t a traditional darkroom print, it wasn’t a real photograph. And within a few decades, that completely changed. And now, digital inkjet prints made on truly high-end printers with archival inks are absolutely considered museum worthy.
“And the other beauty of metal prints is that you don’t usually frame them,” he continued. “So it floats a bit off the wall. It’s a cool presentation, but it’s also fair… taking newer technology and connecting it to older technology to share that work.
Much like Ricki’s work on @retroblakesberg, the hope of the exhibit is to continue to attract new fans to Jay’s vast archive. Although the days of the Grateful Dead and many stadium rock concerts that Jay captured in his early years are over, photos of those events will hang as historical artifacts in the Morris Museum to bring audiences back to today. today in a world lost in some respects, and conscientiously preserved in others.
“I think young Deadheads, young music fans who see my photographs, what I want them to do, and I think what it does sometimes is it takes you back to a time that doesn’t no longer exists,” Blakesberg said. “You saw Phishing, you are a fan of Phish. You see a pic I took on a Phish show you were on I shot Jones Beach This year. Maybe you were there. And so, you might see those photos and be like, ‘Oh my God, this brings back those memories, that song they played. This time I was with my girlfriend, my boyfriend, my husband, my wife, my sister, my brother, my best friend, whatever. And you look at this photo and it brings you back to that moment. And I think seeing pictures as the youngest of my pictures, let’s say the Grateful Dead, takes you back to a time you’ve never experienced, and that’s how you’re going to experience it.
Signed copies of RetroBlakesberg Volume One: The Movie Archive are available to order from Jay’s website. RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film 1978 to 2008 opens at Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ on October 14, 2022 and will continue through February 5, 2023. On October 16, Jay Blakesberg will give a guest lecture at 2 p.m. that is open to the public with admission to the museum. Discover a selection of RetroBlakesberg images featured in the book and museum exhibit below.