An Interview with photographer Reed Radcliffe: I like to think I feel the music in a way that I can relate in a photo.

"The blues are something that is for everyone in the world to enjoy with no restrictions, no boundaries, no government influence."

Reed Radcliffe: The man behind the lens

Reed Radcliffe is based St. Louis, Missouri photographer. Mr. Radcliffe works professionally as a free-lance photographer, specializing in real estate, but his passion is the Blues and the Rock.

Mr. Radcliffe, make a Self – introduction for your life
"Well, I should introduce myself. I live in Sunset Hills, Missouri - born in Chicago and grew up in Kirkwood, Missouri - just a couple miles from where I am now. I joined the Navy way back when and vowed never to come back to Missouri, at least to live. So much for vows! I came back one time too many and found my high school sweetheart. In 1995 we got married, two years later I retired from the Navy and returned to the homeland.

I got a job with a major health care system here in Missouri - BJC HealthCare - worked there for about 13 years before they got so corporate that it wasn't fun anymore. Even before I joined the Navy I was into old stuff. Antiques, collectibles - I used to dig for old bottles in 100 year old trash dumps and collected Mason jars for years. I still collect them, but my original collection burned in a fire while I was at sea. This passion for old things and antiques followed me around my whole life. Shortly after joining the Navy I discovered computers. I always had a camera of one sort or another. When I discovered eBay, all my hobbies gelled into one! I built a computer to sell old stuff on eBay. Of course, you must have a digital camera to take photos of all that old stuff, too! I did that as a hobby for years.
I also love music, especially the Blues. I have always taken photos of the music when I could, some folks told me they liked how they came out. One day a guy named Robby Z e-mailed me to ask permission to use my photograph of Shane Dwight on Shane's upcoming DVD."

OK... let's talk about the BLUES...

Interview by Michael Limnios

Credit All Photos: Reed Radcliffe

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
The blues influenced almost all the music I grew up with. The first record I ever bought was Led Zeppelin’s first album. It was loaded with electrified blues. I didn’t know it yet, but that was the sound that started it all for me. Shortly after that was Long John Baldry and John Mayall. It was after hearing Mayall’s “Room To Move” that I went out and bought a Hohner “Blues Harp” harmonica and tried to teach myself how to play it. Teaching myself to use a camera was much easier – you see which won out!
I identify with John Mayall – he’s a white guy with complete and total passion for the blues. He proliferates the music to so many others – I believe if it were not for John Mayall, the blues would not have developed into what it is today – the audience would be totally different.
I also grew up loving the Allman Brothers. Now I listen to Greg’s son, Devon Allman. He’s on the forefront of a new revolution of the blues, along with other Allman-influenced music, like Tedeschi-Trucks, Warren Haynes, Moreland & Arbuckle to name a few.
I try to bring folks with me who have seen my photos but not really been to a blues show – I try to convert them into blues lovers. I’ve been successful in a couple of cases, but most folks just know I’m a little fanatical when it comes to music.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does “photo” offered you?
The blues are something that is for everyone in the world to enjoy with no restrictions, no boundaries, no government influence. Like Albert King said in Blues at Sunrise on his Live Wire/Blues Power album, Every Body Gets The Blues. I don’t care what country you live in, your nationality, you are going to have the blues sometimes. The blues are a universal language in that sense. Blues music is one thing American that other folks do not have to feel guilty about enjoying. No one can control blues music and it will make you feel good no matter what.

What do you learn about yourself from the photography?  What characterize your work & progress?
I never considered myself to be an artist, but have, for many years, considered myself a technician. However, I am finding that I am becoming much more artistic than I ever was technical. Artistic for myself – I try to express myself with my camera and if I find maybe one or two people that get what I’m trying to say, I’m ecstatic. But mostly I do it for me.

What are some of the most memorable shoots you've had?
I love shooting blues festivals – it is like total saturation for a day or two or maybe even three. The Springing the Blues Festival in Jacksonville Beach, Florida every April has been my favorite. Mostly because I have been allowed such total access and have been able to meet and talk to so many blues masters there. Also there are some of my favorite photographers that I get to shoot next to that frequent that festival.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music & photo?
I have to give credit to my father, who, when he saw a camera in my hands, gave me three main compositional techniques. He also said that I should blatantly break the rules of composition if it works for me.  He told me that if I follow those rules, my photography will be more interesting than 90% of the people I meet in my life. He was wrong – it has been more interesting than 95% or more.
I think a lot of my band photography has been influenced by Fran Ruchalski, a guy I shoot next to in Jax, but another photographer,  a Polish-Canadian named George Grabarczyk gave me the idea to try to show the true feeling of the blues. George is a purist in that he has to see feeling or the drama of the human being in a photograph before he will acknowledge its existence. He shoots for that feeling as well – much differently and much better than I do, but when I can, I take influence from him.
As far as secrets, well, I only have one. That was told to me by Bruce Iglauer, the president and founder of Alligator Records. I will not share that secret, because I think it contributes much to my style – enough people steal my work, I’d hate to have them steal my style, too!
Really, it is all about collecting nuggets of information and things that I liked when I saw others do them, then combine them all into what I like.

Is there any similarity between the “blues image” today and the image of “OLD DAYS BLUES”?
Another musical quote – these are the good ol’ days. Blues music is just as alive and vibrant as ever. It never fails to amaze me when I see a band of kids on stage doing great blues.  They can do the old blues music and they have created their own as well. The North Mississippi All-Stars are a prime example, the Bottoms-Up Blues Gang here in St. Louis, Pokey LaFarge, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Devon Allman’s new venture down (The Royal Southern Brotherhood – they even have one of the coolest band names in recent memory) in New Orleans. It’s a wheel, it keeps turning through the years. Once in a while a spoke falls off and someone replaces it with a shiny new hubcap. When that spins off, maybe another will put a rocket booster behind it. I hope it never ends.

Are there any memories of all GREAT BLUESMEN  you meet which you’d like to share with us?
Recently I was sitting at a bar with a great bluesman, a younger guy. My buddy was there with me and he asked that great bluesman “Hey, why are your groupies so old?”. The bluesman just looked back and said “That’s the blues for ya…”

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I think the worst moment was the first time I tried to get a photo pass to a show. I didn’t have a website, but I had great tickets to see Grace Potter & the Nocturnals and really wanted to be able to bring in my Nikon. When I sent the request to the tour manager, he refused it because I didn’t have a website or any media relationship. It was a also the best moment of my career because it gave me resolve to create my website to display my work and to work hard to be allowed to shoot the music I love. They allowed small cameras (and you could record the whole concert from the sound board) so I brought an old point and shoot Olympus camera that barely worked. I got one of my favorite shots ever that night. I call it “Lemonade” because that’s what you do when life gives you lemons – you make lemonade… Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

How does the blues music come out of your lens?
This is the best question I have been asked all day. I like to think I feel the music in a way that I can relate in a photo. It’s the most challenging task and I have only really done it few times. It’s like asking a gold miner why he mines gold – because when you find it, when it happens, it’s a great feeling. You look at it and say “Yeah, that’s it!” and try to do it again. It’s not because of money or value or fame, it’s more like the thrill of the hunt. In photography it is capturing a moment that will never occur again, a moment of enjoyment – maybe even bliss - between the blues artist and the audience. Sort of a “lightning in a bottle” moment.

Who from THE BLUESMEN, had the most passion for the image & camera lens?
I’ve recently had the pleasure of photographing Cee Cee James (The Vocal Volcano) and find her passion translates well through the camera. She doesn’t mind being photographed and, well, she gets so swept away by the music that I think she forgets I am there. Sometimes I get so swept away by her music that I forget to shoot. She has recently relocated to St. Louis, so I hope to get many opportunities to show her passion to everyone.

What are some of the most memorable tales from the NAVY? What is the “thing” you miss most from the Navy?
I joined the navy for one reason only – to see the world. I saw the world – almost circumnavigated the entire globe on US Navy vessels. My last ship was sitting at the mouth of the Panama Canal waiting her turn to go through and we got called away to follow a drug smuggling boat, so we never got to go through to the Pacific. Funny thing was, in three months of chasing drug smugglers, we never made one bust – until the last day when we smelled the odor of marijuana coming out of a vent. Two guys on my ship were busted for drugs for our only bust of the whole operation. It’s amazing the amount of money that is wasted on the “War on Drugs.”
I miss that travel, that exploration the Navy allowed me to do. I got to see things many people will never see in their lifetime. I always dreamed of seeing the city of Petra in Jordan, ever since I was a boy. Did that. I walked up several thousand hand-hewn steps in the side of Mount Sinai and stood in the place where Moses received the tablets while a group of pilgrims from Poland sang a sweet hymn next to the site of an ancient church on Ash Wednesday. I got to go to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Australia, Italy, France, Crete (Greece), Spain, Egypt, Jordan and several dozen other countries. I lived in Washington State, California, Florida, Virginia and visited countless towns in between each duty station and I can honestly say I found something or someone to like everywhere I went.
I miss many of my old shipmates and other friends I met in my travels. My biggest (in both stature and status) mentor was my boss for about eight years, first on the aircraft carrier Forrestal and then during a stint as a mobile technician in Mayport, Florida. I still see him every time I go to Jacksonville to visit my son and shoot at the Springing the Blues Festival in Jax Beach, but there have been times when I wished he was in the office down the hall again.

Were there any places where you did especially well in Missouri?
Well, I grew up here in the St. Louis area, so I must say I did well in St. Louis. We have some of the best blues music in the world, the very best baseball team in the world, and I met my wife here way back when I was in high school. I have always done especially well in Missouri. When I joined the service I vowed never to come back, though. Can’t remember why I said that.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid BLUES memory from Missouri?
We have a fantastic blues festival here on Labor Day. It’s called The Big Muddy Blues Festival and it happens right downtown on Laclede’s Landing, not far from the Arch and about two blocks from the Mississippi River. It is (or was) totally free and I saw some really great acts there. I get there each day of the festival very early so I can sit right in front of the main stage to get the full effect of the blues. Sometimes after each artist was done I got to shake their hands, maybe get them to sign a CD or a book on the blues I used to carry around. I met Pinetop Perkins, Johnnie Johnson, Oliver Sain, Big Jack Johnson, Snooky Pryor, Bennie Smith, Henry Townsend, Eric Sardinas, Billy Boy Arnold and many others from the foot of that stage. They always are so nice, so incredibly friendly and genuinely happy to know they have fans that really enjoy their show. Sometimes when I am out and about at the bars and stores I will run into one of the local bluesmen and nine times out of ten they pretend like they remember me, too, and always have a good word to say. That is my memory of the blues in Missouri, more so than any other place.

What is your favorite photo, how did this project come about?
I have so many favorites – they are like my children. Like offspring, many times they are unplanned, and those surprises can really be the best of all.

In which photo can someone see the best of your work?
I believe my best work is done locally, in bars and small venues. I recently photographed Victor Wainwright and got some really nice moments of his show. The best shot, which I covet as one of my favorites, can be seen here: Victor Wainwright

How would you describe your contact to people, when you are “on the project”?
Understanding that it takes an incredible amount of talent along with an incredible amount of luck to become a success as a blues musician is key. The folks I shoot are giving all they have to show off their talent. Every night, every show is like the finals of “America’s Got Talent” or “The Sing Off”, only to a smaller audience. I feel the same way with my photography. Some of them have seen my photographs before, so there is a mutual respect – I know I am going to have a chance to achieve my goal of capturing that one moment, and they know I am going to proliferate their images in a positive light that is the best for them. Many times I only get to communicate with them after the fact, on Facebook or at their next show, so most of the contact is through my lens.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
My life has been incredibly interesting, at least to myself. I really can’t say I would want to change much – maybe I could have a degree or some paper saying I was a real smart person or maybe have a little more money to be able to afford to do more things, but overall I think I made my life what it is by my choices. I have always chosen to do what interested me at the time – maybe not the smartest thing or the most profitable thing, but the thing that interested me most. I wasn’t interested in any more school after high school, but I was interested in exploring the world, so I joined the Navy. I fell into my computer career while in the Navy because I got interested in computers at the right time and place and chose to explore that field. All in all, the most interesting period of my life is right now, because I’m really not interested in looking back and I could never predict what will catch my eye next. I’m wide open and I just hope to live a long, pain-free life in which to continue to pursue my desires and interests.  

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Don’t do it if you are looking to make a living. Go into technology and pursue photography as a passion. If something happens from it, then work it for your advantage. But have a skill to fall back upon.

What do you feel is the key to your success as a photographer?
Once I become a “success”, I’ll let you know. I have only been successful in pleasing myself with my photos, with a modicum of positive criticism.

Tell me a few things about your work with Shane Dwight
Basically, I just got lucky with a shot of him at the Beale Street Music Festival a few years back. Now whenever Shane is close to where I am, I go to see him play and take a few photographs. I’ve become a big fan of his music, especially his new album “A Hundred White Lies”. If he hadn’t used one of my shots for the cover of his DVD, I might have never heard him again, which would be a real shame. I believe Shane will soon reach large success. I have a hard time believing that he hasn’t yet, as hard as he works. I hope I can be there when he’s rich and famous.

Who is a quick review of your work & how do you want to be remembered?
As the man behind the lens, I know there will be few remembrances of me as a person. I try to keep a low profile so the show can go on uninterrupted. I would hate to be remembered as the photographer who stuck his big ass in front of everyone trying to enjoy the show! I’d like to just get some great shots that everyone can enjoy for a long time to come.

What is the secret of the magical Reed Radcliffe’s hands & eyes? What characterize your photos?
A photographer must shoot what he loves. I endeavor to transfer that love to the photo.

BW or Colors, Digital or Film and why?
Digital is fast. The result is immediate. The ability to share the results with the artist and his other fans quickly is key. I shot some festivals before digital and was happy with the results, but would not let anyone else see that work. I like to be able to edit the photograph, process it to show exactly how I saw the moment before the photo is seen by any artist. Digital photography allows me a more pleasing result in my eyes and hopefully for the artist, which are really the only ones I am concerned about impressing.

Which of the bluesmen were the most difficult and which was the most gifted on pickup lens?
I’ve really had little difficulty in photographing blues musicians – they are generally all so nice and friendly and they understand that I am a rabid blues fan and will give them exposure in a light beneficial to their image. Some, though, are more fun to shoot than others – Michael Burks is one of my favorites! He’s incendiary in his guitar playing and he emotes so well – it’s easy to capture the passion he has and the feeling of the show.

How important is image to artists? To which person do you want to send one from your photos?
With the advent of the cell phone camera there are so many photos taken of any given artist. You can get a really great shot with an iPhone and I have seen many of them used on artist’s web sites, Facebook pages and music blogs. The artists know that no matter where they are, someone is there capturing an image at almost any given time. Because of that, I don’t believe they feel professional photographs are all that important to them, to their future as an artist. Performance photography doesn’t get much play unless it is really something special. I try to capture something special with every shoot and have been rewarded with recognition several times, but in the grand scheme of things, that recognition is only valuable to me in a personal sense.  Saying that, I wish all the artists I photograph would get a look at the photos I shoot of them. I try to let them know they are out there and that I will work with them if they want to use one for something other than Facebook. I truly miss some of my subjects, though, like Hubert Sumlin. I got a few really nice shots of him playing “Killing Floor” at the Beale Street Music Festival back in 2009. I don’t know if he saw them, though. I’d like to think he did.

Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
I have different moods where I want different styles of the blues. I went through a big Hill Country Blues period. I still enjoy the hell out of R. L. Burnside and I think that area is still spewing forth many quality blues musicians. Now I listen to what I found recently, what struck my interest in the last little while. Next week it will be something else. The next CD I buy will probably be by Jason Ricci & New Blood.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new, would you like to meet and shoot?
Michael Burks, Cee Cee James, Shane Dwight, Ana Popovic, Alvin Youngblood Hart, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Joe Louis Walker, Marquis Knox, Matt Hill, Trampled Under Foot, The Lee Boys, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Hot Tuna, North Mississippi Allstars, Homemade Jamz, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Big Bill Morganfield, Keb’ Mo’, Little Milton, Rod Piazza, Shemekia Copeland, Taj Mahal for starters – if I could go back in time, I wish I could have shot Stevie Ray Vaughan,  T-Bone Walker, RL Burnside, Albert King, Freddie King, Willie Dixon and a plethora of other folks. There is just so much great blues music happening and so much I missed!

Difficult question but, which blues artists have you worked with & which do you consider the best friend?
I’ve become friends with Cee Cee James through my photos, but most of the time I’m pretty much a loner , I suppose.  

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
Blues music is basically American Roots music. If you go back in time to the advent of Rock n Roll, you see how it took its first cues from blues. Much of today’s modern blues is a lot like rock n roll used to be. Even “country” music takes its roots from blues and bluegrass music. When things spin out of control we always go back to the basics – in the case of music, Blues is the basics, the beginning and a new direction can be taken from those beginnings. I believe we are seeing a new renaissance of music and here in St. Louis we have a real melting pot of the roots of that renaissance, similar to other movements that came from Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans, Nashville, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and especially Seattle, Washington. I hope that I am able to record some of those moments of that new renaissance.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experience in the “BLUES SOUTH”? Give one wish for the BLUES
I have so much fun photographing blues musicians – I just wish the blues to go on forever!

What is the strangest desire that someone have request in the shooting?
To me, it is strange to be limited to shooting just the first three songs at a venue. Hell, the show doesn’t really get going until after those songs, when the artist starts to warm up and the crowd really gets into it. At that point there are dozens, even hundreds, of people shooting with cell phones and point and shoot cameras, flashing away in the artists faces. Tons of embarrassingly bad photos and videos are posted on Facebook and YouTube after any particular show. I don’t see how those help artists as much as some well shot and dare I say even interesting photographs from their show.

What is your “secret” PHOTO DREAM?
If I could go back in time, I would like to take my Nikon DSLR’s to Egypt for the Grateful Dead concerts in the 1970’s. To experience such incredibly progressive music in that setting at the Great Pyramids would be fantastic. The Dead’s music was rooted in the Blues – they just took the music in a direction that worked for decades.
Since I cannot go back in time, I sometimes dream of being the main photographer on one of those Blues Cruises, there for the purpose of nothing else than documenting all the great jam sessions that take place. I have yet to see an album of photographs that captured one as well as I believe I could. Of course, I could do this on my own, but I would like to be the person asked to do it and possibly be paid for it. Or have my ticket paid for. With an extra ticket for my wife, who is the best assistant I could ever ask for.

Reed Radcliffe & TripleRphotography Website

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