John Erikson

Tom Erikson's Musician Portraits

Exhibit Location: Stairwell Gallery

Special Event: Meet the Artist: Thursday, August 8th, 6:00 -7:00 pm


My brother used to write record reviews for San Francisco's Bay Guardian newspaper, so he could just walk right into the Fillmore Auditorium or the Great American Music Hall (or anywhere else) with his press pass and move around the floor making stage portraits. Later, I packed up all those rolls of film into two boxes – and they weighed more than I do. Precious few of those exposures are misfires.  Tom always waited for a reason to open the light shutter.  Even after he’d finally made the move to digital, that discipline remained.

His photographs of Iggy Pop reveal his approach to this, his favorite work.  Those rolls of stage shots from the Fillmore conclude with several taken backstage, and then the first images from Iggy’s subsequent G.A.M.H. concert are views from the side of the stage – he’d clearly talked his way into a backstage pass.  That series of frames concludes with a few of Iggy at a table out on some hotel balcony.  By the time I asked Tom what the conversation had been about on that occasion, MS had robbed him of any memory of it.

Tom wrote a magazine article about one of his early encounters with Townes Van Zandt, a whiskey-stoked romp that ended up on a floor unrecognizable in the cold light of dawn. He woke to see his companion rummaging through a knapsack to find a fifth of vodka for breakfast.  A fan boy would have been left with the story of how he’d gotten to tie one on with Townes Van Zant, but Tom swore to never drink with him again.  He counted Townes among his friends.  His portrait of the man graces the cover of the first posthumous record.

Warren Hellman hired Tom to make some family portraits – and then to document the first three years of his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, staged in Golden Gate Park.  There he got to know a select assemblage of musicians I would also have chosen had I been a billionaire capable of specifying my own musical offerings. The organizers got in touch with me when they were putting together a coffee table book to celebrate the festival’s first two decades, so I delved into those two boxes of negatives for a wealth of material.

Jim Marshall was a neighbor and friend.  Tom and I both ranked his musician portraiture as the best we knew of.  The context of the photographs is his friendship with the subjects, and Tom's work shows the same kind of trust and generosity.  Once sure that everyone was comfortable with him being there, he’d look for times to discreetly deploy the shutter.  He was always sharing a moment that meant something to him – so now it can for us, too.  Ray Davies had told him about how his father liked to balance a beer bottle on his head, and Tom knew how Keith Richards exudes a distinctively angelic vibe, in contrast to his unshakable demonic reputation.  Far more went into his photographs than light bounced off surfaces and captured on film.  It was not the surface of a situation that interested him.

Managers and promoters often use photographers to present a specific desired image, but Tom never got used that way.  He deployed his camera to reveal what he had learned about the subjects he chose – and then those photographs would sometimes prove useful.  The camera provided income, but the need for money didn’t drive the work we see here.  Tom was intrigued by the work of fellow artists.  He didn’t pose as a celebrity facilitator, and he didn’t want subjects to pose. That honesty distinguishes his work from that of less discerning observers of music makers.  You can pick out one of his portraits in a crowd.  His work is respected by those who know it.  At this point few do, but that might change.

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