From smoke-filled adolescent bedrooms to exclusive green rooms, photographer Jay Blakesberg has kept a steady beat on the music world for over four decades. The 60-year-old lensman who got his start sneaking a camera into Grateful Dead concerts in the 1970s is preparing a two-pronged retrospective on his decades of work, both titled RetroBlakesberg. One is a coffee table book that captures his work from the late ’70s through 2008, all shot on film. The other is a museum exhibit covering similar ground, where Blakesberg’s work will occupy four galleries at the Morris Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in Morristown, NJ just 25 miles from where he grew up in Clark.
Beyond glossy photos of almost every major rocker of the last 40 years from Bob Dylan to Soundgarden to John Mayer, the book RetroBlakesberg: The Film Archives Volume One serves as Jay’s visual autobiography. The project began, like so many recent artistic endeavors, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jay’s daughter, Ricki, a photographer in her own right, began combing through her father’s extensive archive of nearly half a million film photos. She started an Instagram account, @retroblakesberg, which quickly amassed a viral following of concert-starved fans as well as a subset of social media-savvy 20-somethings who took to Jay’s photos as much for the vintage aesthetic as they did for the artists onstage.
“One of the things that Ricki has always said that she wanted to do was sort of find a new audience for my work,” Jay told Live For Live Music. “So, a lot of the people that follow me on Instagram, or Facebook, or know of me, they’re older, they’re Deadheads, they’re 40, they’re 45, they’re 50, they’re 60 years old, they’re my peers, my contemporaries. … And so, that’s her mission statement, to turn on a newer, younger generation of music fans to my photography, and realize that I’m not just this Deadhead photographer that now shoots 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 am still cool, because all those bands are f–ing badass that I just mentioned.”
The Instagram account eventually snowballed into a book, Blakesberg’s sixteenth. The 312-page hardcover presents Blakesberg’s earliest photos from his high school days in the late 1970s all the way until 2005, three years before he took his final film photo on August 24th, 2008, capturing Jack Johnson‘s set at Outside Lands in San Francisco.
The photos form a narrative not just of the 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 on where he was in life when these pictures were taken. From his high school high-jinks growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s through joining the traveling circus that was the Grateful Dead to relocating to the West Coast in the 1980s and tapping into the rising tide of alt-rock into the 1990s, Blakesberg gives readers a look through his viewfinder.
As Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, a friend of Blakesberg’s going back to the 1980s, points out in the book’s introduction, “The more I see of Jay and his work, the more I realize how much his early life looked like mine. I say ‘looked like’ because I can see it in his photos. Even though he is not in many of the photos, I can see his life. His story is right there in the pictures he has taken of others, not in pictures of himself (which is how most people see their years go by). In capturing the people, places, and vibe of a given era, Jay’s photos provide a visual record of that time—the world as he sees it and saw it, and perhaps as others who lived it experienced it. So, today, when Jay’s photos show up on the RetroBlakesberg Instagram, or in a book like this, everyone gets to see his history (my history) unfold.”
Capturing that history also bleeds into Blakesberg’s role as a “visual anthropologist” preserving hard evidence of society’s 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 view of a world that has long since past.
“100% I see myself as a visual anthropologist, and I see myself as a historian, because I think that this is pop culture history,” he said. “And I’ve been documenting with a camera now for 44 years. And I’ve been able to successfully hold onto 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 from an analog world to a digital world and share it in new ways.”
The history Blakesberg has captured belongs in a museum, and from October 14h, 2022 through February 5th, 2023 it will be at the Morris Museum. Similar to RetroBlakesberg: The Film Archives Volume One, the exhibit RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film 1978 to 2008 is divided into four galleries: portraits of artists like Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, and Joni Mitchell; live performance shots from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, and many more; a gallery devoted to the Grateful Dead largely from 1978–1980; and introductory pictures from high school, college, and early in his career.
“And, of course, because it’s a museum exhibit, there’ll be some things behind glass cases, and ephemera, and other tear sheets from newspapers and magazines that sort of help tell my story and my trajectory of starting out as a young suburban New Jersey stoner 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.”
Changing technologies have always been a focal point of Blakesberg’s career, from switching to digital from film to being an early adopter of inkjet printers, that embrace of new technology continues with the RetroBlakesberg exhibit. The 126 prints in the four galleries were cast onto sheets of high-end Chromaluxe metal using a process called “Dye Sublimation” by which the images are melted onto the metal and embedded into the raw material. Jay worked closely with a printer called Magna Chrome to produce these prints to his standards.
“There’s just something about the look, the feel, the texture, the sturdiness of it all. It’s just presenting work in a new way that maybe 25 years ago would be scoffed at in terms of it being in a museum,” he said. “Which is the same thing [that happened] when [the] first inkjet print started being made. If it wasn’t a traditional darkroom print, it wasn’t a real photograph. And over a course of a couple of decades, that’s completely changed. And now, digital inkjet prints made on really high-end printers with archival inks are absolutely considered museum-worthy.”
“And the other beauty of the metal prints is that you typically don’t frame them,” he continued. “So, it sort of floats off the wall a little bit. It’s a cool presentation, but it’s also just … embracing newer technology and connecting it to older technology to share that work.”
Just like Ricki’s work on @retroblakesberg, the hope of the exhibit is to continue to bring new fans into Jay’s extensive archives. Though the days of the Grateful Dead and many of the stadium rock concerts Jay captured in his early years are gone, photos of these events will hang as historical artifacts in the Morris Museum to bring today’s audience back to a world lost in some ways, and dutifully preserved in others.
“I think, that young Deadheads, young music fans who see my photographs, what I want them to do, and I think what it does do sometimes is it brings you back into a moment that doesn’t exist anymore,” Blakesberg said. “You’ve seen Phish, you’re a Phish fan. You see a photograph that I took at a Phish show that you were at, I shot at Jones Beach this year. Maybe you were there. And so, you might see those photos and be like, ‘Oh my God, that brings back those memories, that song they played. That time I was with my girlfriend, my boyfriend, my husband, my wife, my sister, my brother, my best friend,’ whatever it might be. And you look at that photo and it brings you back to that moment. And I think that seeing pictures as a younger kid of my photos, let’s say the Grateful Dead, brings you back to a moment that you never experienced, and this is the way that you’re going to experience it.”
Signed copies of RetroBlakesberg Volume One: The Film Archives are available to order from Jay’s website. RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film 1978 to 2008 opens at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ on October 14th, 2022 and will run through February 5th, 2023. On October 16th, Jay Blakesberg will give a guest lecture at 2 p.m. that is open to the public with museum admission. Check out a selection of RetroBlakesberg images featured in the book and museum exhibit below.