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You may not know the name Jim Marshall, but you probably know his photographs. His collection of work is a near-complete account of the cultural revolution that took place in the 1960's, from jazz clubs to Woodstock. Now, his long-time assistant, Amelia Davis, is trying to promote his work and alter the way the world thinks about the legendary photographer. Christopher Booker has the story.
You may not know the name Jim Marshall but you certainly know his photographs. Collectively his work is a near complete account of the counter-cultural revolution; from photographing jazz clubs in the 50's, to backstage images with the Beatles and Woodstock, few photographers covered as much ground as well as Jim Marshall. Notably talented, notably difficult, his long-time assistant witnessed his daily life and helped him curate a massive photography archive, compiling his most iconic images into a book and documentary: show me the picture: the story of Jim Marshall. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.
There are two ways to consider the photographs of Jim Marshall.
First, the technical. Few photographers working in the '60s and '70s could match his ability to work with and use natural light — the contrast in his images are a road-map in how to exploit darks and lights.
And second, proximity. Backstage and up-close, his photos are unguarded — snapshots from the view-point of a very close friend.
But, to consider the work of Jim Marshall, you must also consider the way Jim Marshall worked. A process his longtime assistant Amelia Davis recently tried to explain in her documentary, "Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall."
Look at my work. Look at my track record over 20 years of taking pictures. Look at my body of work. Think it works?
Davis, also a photographer, first met Marshall after college when he was looking for an assistant to work out of his home office.
We went to his apartment and then I saw iconic photo after iconic photo, Johnny Cash flipping the bird, the Beatles coming on the stage at Candlestick Park. Jimi burning his guitar. And I was mortified. And I said, 'Oh, my God. I had no idea that was you.' And he smiled and he said, 'that's why I liked you.'
But as Davis would learn, as many had before, working with Jim Marshall was not a simple proposition.
You either loved or hated Jim and he either loved or hated you. And if he loved you, he was so generous and he would lay down in front of a, you know, oncoming truck. If he hated you, he would be the driver in that truck that ratted you down.
At least there is no middle ground there.
There is no middle ground whatsoever.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Marshall picked up a camera after his time in the Air Force, taking photos in jazz clubs in the late '50s.
While his music photos made him famous, he also worked chronicling poverty and the Civil Rights movement throughout the south.
Jim always wore about five Leicas around his neck. The minute you started talking to him, he would just start clicking away. So at first people were like, oh, my God. But then they would forget and they really opened up. And I always like to say that with Jim's photography, I never feel like I'm a voyeur. You feel like you're there.
One of Marshall's earliest relationships was with John Coltrane. Marshall met the saxophone player in San Francisco in 1960 and Marshall would go on to produce some of the the most indelible images of the jazz legend.
Most notably, a portrait of Coltrane on the street in Queens.
There were more:
Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and Miles Davis in the boxing ring.
But with his success, came excess.
I've always liked cars, guns and cameras. Cars and guns have gotten me in trouble, cameras haven't.
As Marshall's fame grew, so too did his reputation for being abrasive and difficult to work with. A situation made only worse by a growing cocaine addiction–one that would lead to arrests and a gun conviction.
I met Jim later on in his career in 1998. So he really wasn't doing a lot of photography. He was living off of his photographs. I mean, he was, he was really well known at that point. He was selling in galleries. He did a lot of licensing. So he really didn't have to work anymore. And he was still doing a lot of cocaine.
You actually quit the job twice and came back twice. Why did you quit? And what made you come back?
I kept coming back because it was the photography. You know, there was this incredible photographer that took these amazing pieces of history. And I just thought it would be horrible if this was lost.
But there was a commercial benefit to Marshall's mercurial nature — his refusal to sign away the rights to his work proved to be a prescient decision.
Jim was fiercely protective of his own work. So he early on said, I'm never gonna be a work for hire. I'm not going to work for a label where they own my photographs. The only way I'm going to work for somebody is an independent contractor, because then I own the photographs. They can choose which ones they want to use and license from me. But I own them. And it did cost him, you know, early on. It cost him a lot of jobs. But he was ahead of his time because then he owned those copyrights.
I mean, what's astonishing is thinking of the time. I mean, the Beatles weren't even thinking this way. I know Paul McCartney has very famously been trying to get back his publishing rights. He even acts like that. Weren't thinking about protecting their copyright. I know why. Why do you think he had that instinct?
I don't know. It's really interesting. It's one of those things. And same with photography. I mean, he was self-taught. He didn't go to school. So he was one of those rare cases where his brain, he could be really creative, but he could also be very organized in business. Like, lot of artists aren't.
Do you think Jim could work and succeed as he did in this era?
No. He would piss somebody off so much, no, he would not be able to.
Jim Marshall died in his sleep in 2010, leaving his archive to Amelia Davis.
Now you are serving really as the steward and protector of his work. What happens to Jim's work and all of these images?
So we do a lot of books. We do a lot of shows. One of the reasons I did want to do the documentary was to connect the name to the photographs, because everybody who's seen Jim Marshall photographs, but they don't know they're Jim Marshall photographs. And especially now we're looking 50 years later at a lot of these historical events and we can learn from them what worked, what didn't. And be inspired with what Jim did.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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