03/26/10

Photographer Jim Marshall Dies in New York City

Photographer of iconic images of ‘60s musicians was 74

Jim Marshall, a photographer of iconic images of rock, blues and jazz musicians, died on Wednesday, March 24 in his sleep in New York City. He was 74. He was in New York as part of a publicity tour connected to Match Prints, a joint book project with the photographer Timothy White, in which images from the two photographers are juxtaposed according to common subjects or themes.

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Photographer Jim Marshall
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Photographer Jim Marshall

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The cause of his death was not disclosed but the restful setting belied a man who always seemed to crave action for better or worse. He didn’t seem like someone who ever slept. Marshall was born in Chicago in 1936, but his family relocated to San Francisco a few years later. According to his web site, he started taking photos with a Baby Brownie camera when he was in high school. He bought his first Leica in 1959 and appropriately enough started to work as a professional photographer in 1960. His timing was impeccable in many ways.

A fixture on the Bay Area rock scene of the '60s, Marshall took several of the most famous photographs from that era, including Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar at Monterey, a somber Janis Joplin reclining backstage with a bottle of Southern Comfort in her hands, and a youthful Bob Dylan kicking a tire down a Manhattan street. It seemed that whenever someone in rock did something interesting or outrageous, Marshall was there. However, the converse was that his in-your-face, take-us-for-what-we-are images helped to define those artists as interesting or outrageous, at least in the eyes of a society still struggling to figure them out.

In his foreword to Marshall’s first compilation of music photography, Not Fade Away, actor Michael Douglas eloquently wrote, “His images are at once larger than life and yet private and off-guard. His photographs genuinely remind us that the performers are human and, in many cases, lonely wanderers.”

One of Marshall’s more provocative images showed a grimacing Johnny Cash giving his middle finger to the camera. In reality, Cash was merely fooling around with his old friend, and likely letting off tension related to his performance that day at San Quentin Prison. Marshall also accompanied Cash and his group to the Folsom Prison and took a series of photos that not only adorned the cover of that hit record, but also become the basis for a book Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison by Michael Streissguth and, later, a documentary of the same name. It could even be suggested that those images of Cash at Folsom inspired at least the leitmotif for the biopic Walk the Line. If you knew Marshall, you would know that he wouldn’t hesitate to claim credit for that inspiration. One thing for sure, Marshall was there at the prison that day and he captured the highly charged scene in a series of images that still resonate today. Cash made many appearances at prisons, but this one became special.

Marshall also had a passion for jazz and took many photos of notable jazz legends, including Miles Davis (whom he captured wearing boxing tights and looking like a bantamweight contender), John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Many of those images were compiled in a book, Jazz, that came out in 2006.

Lee Tanner, a jazz photographer of note and frequent curator of jazz exhibits and shows, said about Marshall: “Jim Marshall, a complex individual, was one of the most masterful photographers of the recent era. He was a dedicated member of a small group of us who followed the comings and goings of popular music-makers, particularly those in the worlds of jazz and rock & roll. In spite of his mercurial social behavior, Jim was invariably capable of capturing an intimate sense of the character, humanity and devotion of his subjects. We will all miss his unique visual creations.”

Although he was known primarily as a music photographer, Marshall took pride in his career as a photojournalist and scoffed at being called a celebrity photographer. Early in his career he did photo essays of the Civil Rights movement and living conditions in Appalachia. In the introduction to Not Fade Away, Marshall wrote about his journalistic approach: “When I’m photographing people, I don’t like to give any direction. ... I’m like a reporter, only with a camera; I react to my subject in their environment, and, if it’s going well, I get so immersed in it that I become one with the camera.”

He was not without his faults. A man of mercurial moods and hedonistic habits, Marshall had a reputation for an explosive temper, particularly in matters concerning a misuse of his work. That temper even led him afoul of the law and after being arrested in 1983 for a gun-toting incident in his apartment building, he was sentenced to a work furlough program for less than a year. By all accounts, Marshall emerged no less intense and passionate, but more under control. He returned to shooting musicians again and eventually began exhibiting and publishing his earlier work. Marshall had a particular aversion to aspects of modern technology, at one point in the ‘90s declaring that he wouldn’t deal with anyone who used voice mail, a pyrrhic victory to be sure.

In that same introduction to Not Fade Away, Marshall tried to describe his own style: “I think my style is that I don’t have a style—I never do anything the same twice. When you see my pictures, it’s about the person in the photograph, not me—not the guy behind the lens. .. When I’m able to capture the essence of my subject and show something of what they do or reveal who this person is, then I’ve achieved what I want to do.”

Jimmy Katz, jazz photographer and longtime contributor to JT, said about Marshall: "If Jim Marshall didn't have a signature style he did have a multitude of signature images. A style can be copied but signature images can stand on their own and if a photographer is remembered it will be for these images. Jim was not always easy to be around but his passion for photography and commitment to making a good image were never in question. Jim Marshall demanded and was given special access, so he was in the right place at the right time and with a sharp eye and quick finger he got lucky...often!"

Michael Weintrob, a contemporary music photographer and JT contributor, considers Marshall a major influence on his career. “Jim Marshall has always been a huge inspiration to me," wrote Weintrob in an e-mail to JT. "In the world of music photography he was the king. His images were raw and told the truth. When I decided to work in music I used to always look at Marshall’s images and think to myself one day I hope to have the access and the trust that he had. He will live on forever through his work.”

You can view many of Marshall’s images at his own web site.

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