Considering that he began taking pictures as something of an accidental photographer, Herb Wise has managed to capture some of the most compelling images of the last 50 years, often focusing on musicians as his subjects. Some of the finest of those music-centered photographs have been collected recently in People You’d Like to Know (Omnibus Press), a beautifully laid-out retrospective of pictures Wise took mainly while attending folk and rock festivals of the ’60s and ’70s. Among the notable subjects presented in Wise’s strikingly naturalistic black and white shots are Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, James Taylor, Steve Winwood, Taj Mahal, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, David Bowie and Lou Reed.
At the start of the ’60s, Wise had a comfortable career in publishing, overseeing production of a series of music books for Oak Publications. One day he was handed a camera by David Gahr, an esteemed figure in the photography world best known for his portraits of American folk artists. Gahr encouraged Wise to start taking pictures on the streets of Manhattan, and while nothing memorable may have come from his initial efforts, it wasn’t long before Wise had enough passion and confidence to begin turning up at music festivals with his own camera and countless rolls of film. The festivals were an excellent training ground for Wise, as the relaxed environment often allowed for direct access to star performers.
“Sometimes I was getting close to a no-name spoons player,” laughs Wise. “But I always wanted to take pictures with a name. I was never a tourist: ‘Oh that’s a nice scene there. Oh that’s a nice outfit – take a picture.’ I always had an ultimate goal – some reason for taking the picture. Quite often I could get right up to these well-known players, and if you approached them with some respect and friendliness, they didn’t mind having pictures taken. There was a very familial atmosphere at these festivals, with no real barriers between the performers and the audience.”
The shot of Browne is one of the most charming in the book, and was taken at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1972. “Sometimes a great opportunity just presents itself, and that was one of those moments,” explains Wise. “Jackson was there at the festival with Joni Mitchell – the two of them were an item at the time. You can see that he’s wearing a badge that says ‘Kin.’ He wasn’t performing – he was her kin, which I think is a little more than being someone’s ‘plus one.’ He was just hanging out and strumming his guitar on the banks of the St. Lawrence River and made for a beautiful picture.”
Wise’s shots alternate between offstage candid shots and pictures taken during performances. Like Browne, such talents as Winwood, Taj Mahal and the members of the New York Dolls are captured in revealing moments before or after performances, but such talents as Dylan, Zappa, Chuck Berry, Sonny Sharrock, Roy Buchanan and Mott the Hoople are captured mid-performance with guitars in hand.
Wise says that while taking shots during a concert, he put his own sense of musicality to use. “To some extent you play the song with the camera. I have a master’s degree in music theory and composition, so I have some sensibility to appreciate what’s being done on stage,” he says. “But it’s really not magic. If you know a little bit about the way a guitar is strummed and the way a song flows, you know when the performers are going to open their mouths and when they’re going to hit a great downstroke or do something interesting at the end of a phrase. You try to catch that moment. I remember seeing other photographers climb on stage and get their cameras literally in a performer’s face. That’s not the way to do it, because you don’t want your presence to impact what you’re trying to photograph. You just need to stay down in front and rely on your graphic sense, your sense of timing, and some beautiful light.”
The secondary subject in many of Wise’s photographs are the guitars themselves, and he says he’s always been conscious of treating the instruments with as much respect he did the performers. “You really do have to consider the instrument as a major element of the photo,” he explains. “Most people who have never held a guitar take a picture of the wrong portion of it – if you just have the hand that’s doing the picking and strumming, and you miss really getting the body of the guitar and what’s happening on the neck, then you’re missing it. You need the whole thing because the instrument is really an extension of the performer. The way a performer holds an instrument and interacts with it really tells a story that can make for a great photograph.”
In selecting the photos to be included in People You’d Like to Know, Wise sometimes had to work hard to remember who his subjects were or where he was when a shot was taken. And he occasionally discovered that he was in possession of historical treasures he hadn’t been aware of. It was while assembling the book that he realized that shots of jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s back-up band at the Mar y Sol festival in Puerto Rico featured a young guitarist named Duane Allman. Wise also realized in looking over his years of work that his favorite shots were not always the ones of his most famous subjects.
“It’s funny because when I put on a gallery show, people want to see Dylan and Bowie and the other stars – but those aren’t always the best shots,” he says. “My favorite ones are of some of the old bluesmen. There’s a shot in the book of New Orleans musician Robert Pete Williams in front of an old truck that still looks great to me. And there’s an unbelievable shot of a New Orleans couple, Blue Lu and Danny Barker. He’s sitting in a chair with his guitar and she’s standing next to him in their living room. It looks like it was shot as a cover for Good Blues Housekeeping.”
At least once while going through his photos, Wise was reminded of a moment of regret in his career. After shooting one of the Mar y Sol festivals in the early ’70s, Wise found himself hanging out with Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Greg Lake at an old San Juan tavern. “We had a few rounds together and I offered to pay. He insisted that he wanted to pay, and he brought this attaché case up from the floor and opened it on the bar,” he remembers. “It was filled with cash – just like in a spy movie. I asked him why he was walking around with a briefcase full of tens of thousands of dollars, and he said, ‘Do you think I’d walk away from a festival held in an open field run by a promoter I’ve never heard of with just a check in my hand?’
“He ended up inviting me to come with him from the bar to the airport to get on the band’s private plane so I could go back to London with them. He’d said they’d set me up in a hotel, make sure I had the proper medications, give me whatever I required, and I’d just be there to take some pictures. For some reason, I felt like I had more important things to do, and went back to New York instead. There are four or five major mistakes I’ve made in my career, and not going to London with ELP is one of them. But, on the whole, I’d have to say that things turned out all right for both of us.”