We had the good fortune of connecting with Jim Brock and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jim, what principle do you value most?
Perspective and self-awareness. Acknowledging our filters and using that for creative expression and personal growth. To look everywhere with wide eyes and an open mind. To see differently. To. See. Differently. To find beauty in the forgotten or unnoticed. To experience our common humanity through others, not ourselves. That’s the magic I discovered by my father’s side in the family darkroom, behind the lens, and in the world. We all have a perspective, shaped by experience and circumstances. Without perspective, and an awareness of it, intolerance grows. Without perspective, compassion does not.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Spoiler alert, commitment to my creative path is more of a second or third act. That’s not unique, but I didn’t come out of the womb with mad skills and unbridled expression. I spent three-plus decades in a left-brained career, and it’s only been deeper in life I’ve felt at home in my creative skin as an artist first. Perhaps that’s an advantage, freeing in a way, and less burdened by expectation. I’ve always been shaped by sounds. Dylan, Beatles, Zeppelin, Cream and Hendrix hit my ears before I was 10. Live music grew to obsession after my first concert (Allman Brothers at the Hollywood Bowl, my older brother none too happy about dragging me along). I’d go to shows, just to go to shows. Open up the LA Times to see who was playing the Santa Monica Civic, hop on the Big Blue Bus and see what the box office had available. I craved the live experience, even as a barely teen kid. But I always knew what pulled me. Miles Davis’ quote that “good music is good no matter what kind of music it is”, was, and still is, a bit of a mantra. Whether a full symphony orchestra, a jazz trio, a power trio, high lonesome bluegrass, bad ass country, deep dive jam excursions or six strings and a voice. If it hits me, I’m all in. Flash forward, and I shoot what I love, and hopefully, that comes through. I create visual soundtracks with my live music work. If you hear something with your eyes, whether you know the subject or not, then I’ve hit my mark. I shoot with a fan’s emotion and the infused musicality of many, many decades spent just about anywhere music happens. A hair behind the beat or past that note, there is no shot. It is as a fluid as the music itself. Anticipation and intuition. There is no recipe for feeling where the tune is going, catching the nods between players, and finding my own groove from my ears to my eyes to the shutter. I was asked in a filmed interview last year how I felt about creating art around art being created.
Funny, that hadn’t really occurred to me, that interlocking dance. Such a beautiful thing. Music photography is not for the meek. You push for credentials. You hold your ground in the pit. Your gear and, sometimes, even your safety, are at risk, whether up to your knees in muck, or plowing through 100,000 fans in triple digit heat. But there is always reward in visually extracting what reverberates in your bones from the stage, or from the crowd, or from those smaller things around you that seem so huge right now. What I’m not is an I-was-there-move-‘em-on-move-‘em-out-moment-grabber. Whether elbow-to-elbow with 30 photographers in an obstacle course pit or a rainy night late set with 30 people in a small room, something unexpected will be revealed, even if it’s not obvious at the time. That’s what I seek. An early career turn happened some 20+ years ago, when I fell (and fell hard), into a lifelong relationship with the music and musicians of New Orleans. It cracked open something that is in my blood for good. And this kid from WLA was about as far from all that gumbo as you could get. The place will do that to you. Beginning in 2008, I was jury selected for 11 consecutive years to shoot for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive. I’ve returned to New Orleans, and “Jazz Fest” every year since, where I’ve brought home some of my best work from the Fair Grounds during the day, and club nights til dawn. I’ve shared the pit at the legendary Newport Folk Festival with Henry Diltz, Jay Blakesberg and Danny Clinch, guys who’ve made some of our most iconic musical images, and who have my complete admiration. Eight minutes of shooting Paul McCartney’s final show of his last tour with only a handful of other photographers, were 500 or so pretty priceless seconds. But when an artist reaches out for an image, because they think you brought some of them home in a visual, well, that is immensely satisfying. In recent years, I have focused more on my profound love of jazz and cultivating a studio like feel from a live moment that only occurs on the stage or bandstand. An effort that was recently acknowledged as the only US entry in the Jazz World Photo 2021 travelling exhibition beginning in the Czech Republic later this month. My images can be found in newspapers (remember them?), magazines, books, film, album art, online and on walls across many time zones.
You may wonder what a music/live performance photographer does when there are no live events and most days feel like Blursday? No lying here, it is very, very tough. Some photographers pick up wedding, portrait and family gigs, where they can. I know others who have moved on altogether. In my case, I’ve used the opportunity to creatively pivot, shooting in a different style with different subjects, more abstracts and local culture and a strong pull to the ocean, while also revisiting the arc of my career and selling licenses and prints. Translation, I’m pushing my profile hard and holding on. Fortunately, I have the means to do so, where many others don’t, and for that I am grateful. The power of the still image grows over time, viewed through the lens of history and the perspective of the unfolding now. Hopefully, my work, and that of working photographers everywhere, contributes to an important historical record that will stick around long after we’re gone. Perhaps the photographer I most admire is Herman Leonard. His images of jazz greats from the 40s and 50s are beyond stunning. They’re transportive. I met Herman a few years before he passed, at an exhibition on La Brea. He said he wasn’t good, he was lucky. Well, I have to differ. He was really, really good and so far beyond the luck of being at the right place at the right time. Because he saw differently. With unparalleled skill and intuition in every grain of every image. Creating a visual soundtrack that inspires me to this day and gives me something to shoot for.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
How much space do I have? As a native Angelino, I often feel like an endangered species. While I may have a love-meh relationship with my hometown (doesn’t everybody?), it has matured in spectacular ways I haven’t (so far). Heck, growing up in Westwood, Downtown (long before it Marveled itself into DTLA) might as well have been Siberia. Even east of La Cienega felt like crossing state lines. The place has a donut rep of no core or middle, but that is part of its beauty. It is dozens and dozens of “cities” (and I’m not referring to the 88 municipalities within the County) each with unique character and place, from the water’s edge to beyond the Arts District. From the wilds of the San Gabriels to the largest port on the continent. And the Santa Monica Mountains throwing down nature in the middle of it all. It is a place where, with a little elevation in February, you can take in snow and surf in the same view. What would I show off (especially in a pre-/post Panny time)? Classic DTLA is a must. Strolling the vendors through the Grand Central Market is a foodie’s (and photographer’s) haven.
Then, crossing the street to walk through the historic Bradbury building’s stunning interior. During the Fall through Spring, any LA Phil performance (especially under Dudamel’s baton) at Disney Hall is quintessential LA. A summer night at Dodger Stadium, with the salmon blushed hills aglow at game time. The Far Bar in Little Tokyo, nothing fussy with strong drinks, decent Asian fare and a courtyard patio I like (and a haunt of a particular local columnist I admire). Whether or not it reopens, Everson Royce Bar on E. 7th has excellent cocktails and other beverages, with a limited menu of exceptional bites in a mellow and generous outdoor setting. Love the vibe and the hang late on a summer day. Sadly, one of my favorite jazz venues, the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo is gone for good, another economic casualty of these times. But when live music does return, The Mint on Pico, a few doors down from Crescent Heights, is living room friendly, a pipeline to New Orleans bands when they come west, and I’ve seen the likes of Trombone Shorty, The Revivalists, Jackson Browne, Ben Harper, Billy Cobham and Terence Blanchard there through the years. The ”World Famous” Troubadour needs no intro and even after half a century, still has the best bookings in town, and the history to match. Gawd, I miss live music.
If it’s a Wednesday night, the JustJazz series at Mr. Musichead Gallery, is utterly unique, with intimate jazz performances amongst imagery from some of the most renowned music photographers to ever pick up a camera. The gallery alone, which sits between West Hollywood and Hollywood on Sunset, is worth a visit on any day. Heading west, a hike in Sullivan Canyon to the top of the San Vicente Mountain Park-Nike overlook will fill your riparian senses through deep groves of Sycamores that could be a thousand miles away, then greet you with sweeping mountain-to-sea views after some sturdy gain. There are still some independent bookstores, anchors of their communities, somehow surviving through the pandemic. Vroman’s in Pasadena, Book Soup on Sunset immediately come to mind. I’m also partial to Small World Books on the Venice Boardwalk, which shares an entrance with the Sidewalk Café. Yes, the Boardwalk is a destination (for out of towners) for its color and craziness, but slip inside Small World for eclectic titles and a completely different vibe.
I’m a tide watcher, and there is something magical about November-December light in Los Angeles, especially when sunset and low tide converge and the sands of the bay become an ephemeral pan of pink and orange. The line between land, sea and sky delightfully blurred. I’m partial to the stretch between the Santa Monica Pier on the north and the Venice Pier on the south. Cap it all off by sidling up to the bar (when those days return) at The Golden Bull on W. Channel across from PCH, a beachside institution, and Dan, a very friendly bartender who’ll make you feel right at home. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My shout goes to most everyone I’ve shared a photo pit with, but especially those who let their game face down on occasion, flash a knowing instant and acknowledge the privilege with a smile or a fist bump. A bigger shout to photojournalists everywhere, many who put themselves in harm’s way while delivering the dark and light of humanity without words, in a world that seems to have gone so sideways. To the musicians who are the subject of so much of my work, who stay true to their craft, despite struggling to make rent, find health insurance and raise a family (and that’s before a pandemic).
I draw inspiration from the eye of Chris Grainger in New Orleans, Jay Clendenin with the LA Times, Carolyn Cole’s Pulitzer winning global mirror and the mastery of the late Herman Leonard that is so much spiritual fuel. I’m in debt to portrait and unit/set photographer Claudette Barius, who took me seriously from the get go. I would also not be moving along this path without the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive, one of the richest musical and cultural collections in the country, and to which I have contributed over the years.
Last, but far from least, my wife Elizabeth who’s slogged through just about every festival and show by my side, often spotting shots I miss, while keeping me on the clock from stage to stage, taking it all with visible delight.
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