The Godfather of Rock ‘N’ Roll Photography

Jim Marshall was the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll photography. With a career spanning 50 years, the American photographer has produced some of the most memorable pictures of the great icons from the 60s and 70s. From being backstage with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to photographing the Beatles’ final concert, he had an all access pass to the artists’ lives on and off tour. Marshall not only photographed musicians, but photographed some of the most culturally significant events of his era, documenting the Sumer of Love in his hometown San Francisco and becoming the chief photographer at Woodstock.

From San Francisco to Greenwich Village

Born in 1936, he picked up his first Leica in 1959 and began visiting jazz clubs in San Francisco, where he learned how to take candid photographs in dimly lit environments. From then on, Marshall was early to come onto the music scene in the Greenwich Village, New York, where his candid photographs of unguarded moments started attracting attention from the industry.

A Photographer and Anthropologist

Jim Marshall both saw himself as a photographer and anthropologist visually recording the changing times of the era, and the creative explosion during the 60s. His photography helped to usher in a new approach and style of capturing candid, unstaged moments. Marshall was not interested in the norms of the star-making sensational images of the times, or technical perfection in his photographs but rather capturing the essence and character of his subjects in its purest form. He would say;

Let the photograph be on you remember not for its technique, but for its soul. Let it become part of your life – a part of your past to help shape the future.”

Unlimited Access

In order to capture the very essence, Jim Marshall cultivate unlimited access to the lives of the artists he photographed. He relied on a small Leica camera and natural light. This also helped Marshall to relate to his subjects on a personal, intimate level and gain their trust. His long time assistant, Amelia Davis, said that the artists,

…exposed themselves to him. They showed their vulnerability and allowed him to photograph it. Jim would be very chameleon-like depending on the persons he was with, and he would mirror them so that they were at ease.”

It is with this impromptu approach that Marshall was able to take pictures of some of the most iconic names in musical history in ways no one else would’ve been able to take.

Jim Marshall, Bob Dylan, 1963, Silver gelatin photograph
Jim Marshall, Bob Dylan, 1963, Silver gelatin photograph

Bob Dylan

One of his most memorable is the one of a 23 year old Bob Dylan Rolling a tire on the streets in Greenwich Village, New York. This image has also become of of the most iconic ones of Dylan himself, as it portrays the young musician just before he became an electric force in the music industry and a world-renowned artist. The image has become one of Marshall’s ‘hero shots’, it has been included in three of the photographer’s books and has been featured in nearly all articles and interviews made on him. Jim Marshall explains the behind the scenes story of the image as;

This particular photo was taken one Sunday morning when Bobby, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, Dave Van Ronk and Terri Van Ronk all were going to breakfast in New York. Just two frames were shot – no big deal—but I feel it shows that Bob was still a kid in 1963.”

“On the Fly”

It reflects an innocent, optimistic time in Bob Dylan’s life; both the photographer and his subject were unaware of the sensation the image would cause in the years to come. It also speaks to Jim Marshall’s ability to get his subjects to be so comfortable with him that they barely know a camera, or a photographer for that matter, is present. The viewer also becomes a participant. The photograph is dynamic with its movement and “on the fly” quality. We, as the spectator, are allowed to feel like we are there on that very street walking alongside Bob Dylan. It comes as no surprise that Jim Marhsall’s favorite photographers were Robert Capa and David Douglas Duncan, two of the most iconic names in combat photo-journalism. Just as in war photography, Jim Marshall captured the moment in a split second, with no chance for do-overs and developed an immense trust in instinct and equipment. Young Bob Dylan’s unstaged act of simply rolling a tire down the street is a great reflection of the spirit and candidness that symbolizes Marshall’s photographic style.

One of the Music World’s Immortalized Photographers

Over the years, Jim Marshall became one of the music world’s immortalized photographers. It is through his intimate photographs that we witness the spirit of the 60s and 70s, not only within the music scene, but also in a cultural aspect. Jim Marshall is the first and only photographer to be presented with the Recording Academy’s Trustee Award, an honorary Grammy presented to an individual for nonperformance contributions to the music industry. In 2019, an extensive documentary film on Jim Marshall’s illustrious life and career was produced, titled; Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, which has won numerous awards for film and documentary. Marshall’s contribution to the music scene and photography remains as one of the most significant portfolios of the 20th century.