Today, “Five Questions” are put to legendary Nashville photographer Jim McGuire. Jim's work has graced hundreds of album covers by the cream of the country, bluegrass and folk worlds. His book Nashville Portraits: Legends of Country Music collects this work and is available here. Jim also has a new book documenting "the Mother Church of Country Music" called Historic Photos of The Opry: Ryman Auditorium 1974, also available here.
Your work is instantly identifiable. That’s not easy for a photographer to achieve; what’s your secret?
Well....over the years I've shot all kinds of stuff besides album covers and musicians.....from corporate annual reports for Cracker Barrel to hotel travel brochures in Mexico. But I seem to have migrated back almost exclusively to the music. I've sort of become known for these black and white portraits that I love to shoot. If my portrait style is recognizable, it's because they have a certain timeless look which I've developed over the years. Most of these portraits you can't tell if they were shot last week or 25 years ago.....and some of them were shot 40 years ago. I wouldn't call it a secret, but the idea is to keep it simple. I've used the same hand painted canvas backdrop on all the Nashville Portraits series since 1970. Same with the lighting......very simple....one front light for simple shadows and one back light behind the subject.
The thing I see most in your work is the honesty and emotion of the subject. You must have quite the “bedside manner.” How do you work?
I live and work in my studio. So when people walk into my studio, they are walking into my home. And I live the way a lot of musicians live, surrounded by instruments and a huge collection of Vinyl and CDs and lots of liquor on the countertops and always music on the system. So it's a cozy comfortable place to walk into. I like to talk at length to people about what they are working on and listen to music if they bring some. The photo sessions are for the most part, very conversational. We talk and I shoot.....I also like them to play and sing if they want to. I've had some amazing private concerts doing this. I don't like to give much direction.....most of the time it's just a matter of putting an instrument in their hand and stand back and shoot.
What is it like photographing some of your idols?
Pretty damn cool is about all I can say about that. One of the reasons I even got into this was to get to work with people who's music I listened to. I grew up in New Jersey but listened to hard core country music my whole life....and to get to work with Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe and all the people whose records I bought was exciting and rewarding. When you get a call asking if you want to spend a day with Marty Robbins on his farm taking pictures.....or get on a bus for week on the road with Vince Gill.....you just have to think this is a pretty good job, right ?
Ever feel like breaking out and going wild, like shooting a heavy metal band in color?
That's easy.....NO. I get to shoot a lot of "off the wall" stuff as it is. A few years ago I shot the "Blue Collar Tour" guys......Larry the Cable Guy, and Foxworthy and Bill.....It was crazy and fun. And last week I shot the Black Comedy Tour......portraits of five black comedians....also off the wall and fun. However, I'm feeling the pull to maybe get out of the music business and find something else to do or shoot. I've always loved hanging out at the race track....so maybe something to do with horse racing. I've tried once or twice to shoot the race track before.....but it always seems to interfere with my gambling......I'll have to find a way to overcome that, I guess.
Want to hip us as to who was the hardest and easiest to shoot?
The hardest to shoot are the young artists who have just had some kind of success for the first time and their heads are swollen to the size of a station wagon. The biggest stars are always the easiest. They are professional... kind.... and come in ready to work. The most fun shoot that stands out was Carl Perkin's....who was one of my hero's growing up. He came in for some portraits and just by circumstance, it was just the two of us. He asked me if I wanted to hear the new record he was working on. I said "of course " expecting him to pull out a cassette......But instead he walked over and picked up my Martin guitar sitting in the corner and started to play and sing these songs he had just recorded. He sat a played the entire album. I couldn't move and I didn't. I knew that no one was going to believe that I was getting a private concert by Carl Perkins and playing it on my guitar.
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