(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Music photography is not easy. Good music photography, I should say. As someone who dabbled in it in a younger incarnation, I can testify to that. Shooting concerts well is hard, but not nearly as difficult as doing good portraiture. Capturing the essence of an artist in a still photograph has been done well by very few people.
The best one to do so in Nashville is Jim McGuire. His exhibit, “Nashville Portraits,” is one of the best photographic shows you will ever see. It will be at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts through Sept. 9, after which it will tour the country. A book will also be published this fall. These 60 photographs were selected from several thousand of his country portraits.
McGuire came to Nashville via the usual unusual path. A New Jersey native, he discovered country music at summer camp. He was an Air Force photographer during the Vietnam War and later studied fashion photography in New York City and worked as a photographer for Trans World Airlines. It was there that he realized he never wanted to work for a boss again. As a freelancer, he covered the bluegrass and folk music festival circuit. In 1972, he took the first of what was to become his “Nashville Portraits” series. It was of John Hartford and was shot in New York’s Greenwich Village. (The photograph is one of several featured in photo gallery that can be accessed below.) McGuire moved to Nashville. There, he eventually photographed hundreds of album covers for Nashville record labels. At the end of each shoot, he tried to get his subjects to sit for what he called a personal portrait. That’s what this special series became.
He carried the same hand-painted backdrop from his New York City days (it’s portable, since it can be rolled up), so all the photographs have a neutral background, continuity and a shared context. They’re all in black-and-white, the classic choice for portraiture.
The eye is the window into our souls, the ancients have said, and it is so. When you look at the best portraiture, whether it’s paintings or photographs or sculpture, your eye is invariably drawn to the eye of the portrait’s subject. Look at some of McGuire’s most striking photographs, and that’s not always the rule. Perhaps the most famous McGuire image is that of Bill Monroe taken in 1989, where the inventor of bluegrass music cradles his mandolin as if he were embracing a beloved child. You do not actually see his eyes, because he’s looking down and his eyes seem closed, but you’re drawn to that. Folk music wizard Doc Watson sits in 1975 with his blind eyes closed, with his hands folded very calmly, and you look immediately at both his eyes and his hands radiating both strength and peace. Bluegrass mandolin player extraordinaire Sam Bush appears in 1981 as a wild-haired eccentric gripping an electric Fender mandolin with his eyes hidden behind avant-garde sunglasses — but that’s what draws your attention. The great fiddle player Vassar Clements is focused entirely on his fiddle and his bow in a stark image that evokes portraits from the Renaissance.
But most McGuire subjects face the camera head-on. George Strait in 1982 smiles shyly and tips his cowboy hat. Waylon Jennings plays his trademark Telecaster guitar in 1985 and gives the camera an uncharacteristic warm smile. Dolly Parton in 1974 — when she was leaving Porter Wagoner and his TV show to go solo — sits with her guitar across her lap and positively beams at the camera. Emmylou Harris faces the camera with an even gaze in 1983 with her tony lace-up two-tone shoes resting on her guitar case.
Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely and Guy Clark form a stony-faced rogues’ gallery in 2005. The four Highwaymen — Willie, Waylon, Kris and Johnny — sit dressed in black and smile intently at the lens in 1990 at the end of an album cover photo shoot that lasted probably 10 minutes. An impossibly young Nanci Griffith holds onto her guitar as if it’s her salvation. Junior Brown fiercely grips the twin necks of his guit-steel guitar like a rifle. Trucker singer Dave Dudley smokes his cigarette and wears his Pabst Blue Ribbon jacket and dares the camera to invade his personal space.
Johnny Cash and the Rev. Billy Graham stand solemnly, like two statesmen. Chet Atkins wears a goofy hat and holds his guitar and sucks on a cigar. A young Jack Ingram wears an equally goofy hat. Tammy Wynette impishly holds her skirt out like a fan. Susan Walker grabs husband Jerry Jeff Walker from behind and bites his ear. Carole King, of all people, proudly shows off her Red Snap overalls. This is great stuff. See it, if you possibly can.
McGuire is known around Nashville for his flair, although he’s seldom seen in public. If you ever glimpse a 1947 Ford woody wagon cruising by, that’s McGuire. Take a picture.