The cliché that a photo is worth a thousand words may be out of date. At a time when our world is preoccupied with selfies, social media, and instant communication, there are fewer people who take the time to read 1000 words, or have the attention span. Joseph A. Rosen’s new book Blues Hands targets the new paradigm that – especially for today’s world – photographs may now be worth more than 1000 words.
Photographs are what we remember from significant news events long after the details of those events are forgotten. Like music, photographs eliminate the objectification of the thought process and mainline emotion in often overpowering ways. Rosen has been documenting blues artists in performances for more than 40 years, and as a blues Renaissance man and fellow photographer, Dick Waterman says up front in this book that there are shooters and photographers. And Joe is definitely a photographer.
More than 100 blues artists are represented in this beautifully produced book published by Schiffer Publishing. Looking at all the hands with multiple rings, tattoos, wrinkles, and gnarls, one wonders how all that beautiful music gets from the artist’s soul into so many souls.
“It’s not solely about close-ups of hands,” says Rosen about his work. “Hands are a thread that connects all the pictures. It can be a gesture. It can be moments like James Brown and Al Green who have their hands waving above them, but hands are a theme. There are a lot of close-ups of hands. That’s absolutely there, but I used hands as a connecting theme so a lot of what I felt was strong work and spoke to the blues.”
Perhaps these photos say something about the beauty within, especially with those artists who use their hands to create the music we love. We idealize their hands and see them in our mind’s eye as smooth, languid, sleek like a sports car, because their music takes us to places like that. Seeing their hands up close strips away the idealized image.
When Joe describes what 40-plus years of professional photography do for him in capturing that magic, he might as well be talking about what the performing artist does: “It’s important to appreciate the medium,” says Rosen, “to understand the medium and the mechanics that are involved and to know enough technique so that you can forget the technique and shoot reflexively and keep things on a higher level.” The critical word is reflexive. Both the photographer and the subject of his photos perform reflexively when they take us into “the zone.”
So when we see Magic Slim’s stubby fingers we marvel that they fly across six strings and connect with us on a primal level. Or when we see 96-year-old Honeyboy Edwards’ crinkled fly paper back hand, we can imagine what it must have been like for him to have heard the levee break on the Mississippi River in the flood of 1928. Rosen gives us an intimate look based on his years of experience. He helps us see the artist in ways we never thought of.
Two of the more atypical photos in Blues Hands are of Bobby Rush and Shemekia Copeland. Both tell stories reminiscent of the way Norman Rockwell painted scenes. In the Bobby Rush photo he’s running his hands down the backside of Mizz Lowe as he winks knowingly to his audience. Miss Lowe smiles broadly indicating with her hands on Bobby’s back that she’s complicit with his moves. But then you see peaking up from under the stage the face of a little boy watching this go on. Rosen calls that picture an example of what Branch Rickey terms the residue of design. “Keep doing. Keep honing your skills and then occasionally some extra magic comes along.”
The photo of Shemekia shows her doing the bump with four guys in fatigues, one with an automatic rifle hanging down. It was taken during the Bluesapalooza tour of the Middle East. “That was an amazing night,” says Rosen, “because that was what they call an FOB, a forward operating base, a little bit further out and smaller and a little more rugged, and the soldiers, mostly Marines I believe, were ready to rock. They didn’t get a lot of entertainment out there, and they were ready to have some fun. And they did. It was great. Those guys just spontaneously jumped up on stage and started dancing around there. They had automatic weapons unloaded. They’re very careful. You don’t just lean your weapons against a tree or anything.
As an editor of blues magazines, I’ve always breathed a sigh of relief when I knew a Joe Rosen photo was going to grace a cover or accompany an article because I knew it would give the article context. But it’s more than that. As a writer, I often feel that a Joe Rosen photo is the sugar making my herbal tea into sweet tea. It’s not just that he sweetens a story, but he often is the “secret ingredient” – the special sauce – that wholly transforms the editorial package, working with the words to create an experience for the reader that’s worth more than the sum of its parts.