Saturday, October 13, 2012

DAVID GAHR, influential master music photographer

 The above scan is from my own treasured if tattered copy of the book "The Face of Folk Music," photographs by David Gahr, text by Robert Shelton, 1968. Granted, Gahr's own definition of "folk music" remained sufficiently elastic to have included Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, partial (and bad) scan of entire 2-pp. double truk below of the best representation ever of an early Mothers performance/"happening."

Or...folk music was Janis Joplin in Big Brother and the Holding Company, or any number of rockers he was hired to document live, on location or in the studio. His C.V. was whomever represented the pinnacle in modern music or was eminently interesting. The recent U.S. postage stamp featuring Mile Davis arched in an extreme but naturalistic pose wailing on horn was David Gahr's portrait.

When asked which photographers have influenced my own work, the reply is short, sweet and mainly oldskool high fashion practitioners:  Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Hiro. (not that I'll ever achieve their league. ) For overall technical expertise no matter what attempted, it would be Kurt Ingham. 

For live action/music photography, it's only David Gahr. Why? Because of what his body of work in the above book instantaneously taught me, my take, not his words, as follows.

Flatter the subject even while extracting all the excitement possible in action gestures. Shooting natural light onstage is always superior to flash (when possible.) Make sure your timing is impeccable, no microphones covering most of the face. Document what's there without editorializing: your own P.O.V. can be deceptively candid, as will be the subject's. Trust your fine art background (which I had) to get unusual but perfect composition. Make sure your photos are the right value/balance/contrast to reproduce exactly as you expect. (I've seen his photos in person: they look precisely as they appeared printed in books or other media.) His Mimi and Richard Farina shot above encompasses all such lessons.

There's no online verification of this, but I seem to recall reading that his studio and archive for the shots in this book were destroyed by fire, every photographer's worst nightmare, which explains why more of this work is not in museum circulation. He spent his last years in a sumptuously large 5-story townhouse (with lots of natural light!) in NYC with his family and passed away in 2008. Read more from his website LINK

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