“My photographs are my children.” — Jim Marshall
One of the most esteemed rock photographers of his generation, few people behind the lens are as suitable equipped to say “I was there” as Jim Marshall. Throughout his pivotal and illustrious career, Marshall became not only one of the better music photographers around, but also the preferred photography for musicians. Famously, Marshall was the only snapper allowed backstage at The Beatles final ever gig, but he also photographed everyone from The Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Marshall moved to San Francisco when he was just two-years-old and first picked up a camera when he was in high school, purchasing his own not long after. Immediately bitten by the bug, Marshall began doing what any sensible teen would do during the years of the counterculture revolution; he headed to the streets of San Francisco, armed with his camera, and began taking as many pictures as he could. It was here that Jim Marshall’s name would start to carry some weight.
Skulking around the smoky streets of the Golden Gate City in the mid-to-late sixties was a pastime that many of us wish we could be a part of. The city was positively brimming with revolutionary rock ideas, and, following on from the Beat generation, the neighbourhoods hummed with creative possibility.
As Beatlemania had subsided and a new sound was beginning to find the airwaves, Marshall was there to catch many great acts in their infancy and assert himself as the only photographer worthy of fame.
Stunning performers from the area, such as The Grateful Dead, the Grace Slick-led band Jefferson Airplane and the esteemed singer Janis Joplin were all photographed by Marshall at the beginning of their ascendencies. He also understood jazz’s power and snapped both John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk as they made their way through the city.
While other photographers understood the appeal of rock music and how it offered a glimpse into a new generation of kids, they preferred to stay aloof from the scene and their subjects; however, Marshall immersed himself within the grime and grit of the entire movement. In fact, he wasn’t just a photographer, he was part of the scene itself and a star attraction of it.
In truth though, Marshall was a bit wild himself. The photographer is known for being at one with the rock stars and that’s likely because he behaved in much the same fashion. “I’ve been busted a few times for drugs, guns, assault with a deadly weapon,” he admitted in a documentary about his life that aired just before his death in 2010. “I shot a guy once. It got out of control … It’s just part of who I am.” It would ultimately de-rail his career too as the swathe of cocaine users in the seventies included Marshall and cast him out to sea.
That was a notion confirmed when, in 1966, Marshall was invited to be the only photographer for The Beatles final ever paid performance. “You couldn’t hear shit,” he said later of the short show. “It was right out of A Hard Day’s Night.” The Beatles were, and quite possibly still are, the biggest band in the world. But it was Marshall’s work with the hard rock groups that emerged after Beatlemania had begun to subside that really catapulted him into fame and led Annie Leibowitz to call him “the rock ‘n’ roll photographer.”
Whether it was his shot of Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his Fender on stage at Monterey pop festival in 1967, his candid images of Janis Joplin backstage at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, cuddling a bottle of Southern Comfort, the moment he captured Johnny Cash’s middle finger “for the warden” in ’69, or indeed the months he spent on “the pharmaceutical tour” with The Rolling Stones as part of his photo journal for Life magazine — Jim Marshall had lived and breathed it all.
By the beginning of the seventies, having completed his role as head-photographer for Woodstock, Marshall had become the most widely adored photographer of his time.
He was the snapper du jour and was wanted by every establishment not only for his images, clear artistic eye and ability to render the very essence of his subjects with the click of a button, but for his unadulterated access.
Marshall had quickly become not only the photographer of the rock scene with his portfolio packed with stars like Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Otis Redding and Duane Allman, but he was a pillar of that scene too. He had been assimilated into the same crazy lifestyle, unstoppable partying and unfathomable debauchery because of his no-nonsense approach and refusal to bow down to any pop music primadonna, once famously walking out on Barbara Streisand for being a diva.
Jim Marshall was a rare breed. An artist who spent his life showcasing the men and women behind the music, capturing iconic images of Bob Dylan, Guns N Roses, Santana and all the above, who became at one with the very subject he was trying to capture. He was not only the foreword in immersive photography but helped to define the very parameters of music photography as we know it.
As the great man said himself: “When I’m photographing people, I don’t like to give any direction. There are no hair people fussing around, no make-up artists. 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.” It is something that is expertly captured within Jim Marshall: Show me the Picture, the latest book that chronicles Marshall’s storied life. Written by Amelia Davis, it retells the very visceral life of the photographer, as well as including essays from his contemporaries and analysing his legacy.
Simply put, there will never be another Jim Marshall.