Photographer Michael Kurgansky talks about Ronnie Earl, Newport Jazz Fest, Buddy Guy, "Honeyboy", & Greece

"The music come out of the lens through my efforts to capture the energy and soul of the artist"

Michael Kurgansky: The image of music

Michael Kurgansky, born in Germany of Russian parents immigrated to the United States at a young age and attended art schools in Pennsylvania. First, at Kutztown University he received a degree in design, and then, a degree in photography from the Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts).

Though his personal vision takes him in many directions, this work combines his passions for jazz and photography.

Any first comment ...?

I want to mention at the outset that I'm a relative newcomer to this genre of photography although I've been photographing for over 45 years. In 2003, I was offered a press pass to photograph at the Newport Jazz Festival and I was hooked. Photographing musicians in performance has become a passion for me … not just blues musicians, but jazz and world musicians … any musician that moves me.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Michael, when was your first desire to become involved in photography? What has “photography” offered you?
In my second year of college as an art student studying design, I was introduced to creative photography by a young, creative and interesting professor, Paul Laincz. I continued my studies in design, but was fascinated by photography and went on after graduation to pursue a second degree.
Photography has sharpened my vision and made me more sensitive to my surroundings and allowed me to communicate this vision.

What do you learn about yourself from photography and music?
The combination of visual and auditory expressions heightened by the camera lens and the soul of music touches me at a deep level enhancing my feeling of connection with the performing artist.

What characterize your work & progress, how do you describe your philosophy about the IMAGE?
I strive to capture the moment of ultimate moment of the musician, which in turn strengthens my creative energy.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the image?
I think I have learned the most not only from my photography instructors, but also from the works of other great fine art photographers whose work I admire. Also talking to my contemporaries about images and learning from their critiques.

What are some of the most memorable shoots you've had?
Some of the shows which interested and stimulated my photography the most were of musicians that in my mind have been blues legends, such as … Buddy Guy, Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, as well as jazz greats Dave Brubeck, Cassandra Wilson and Pat Metheny. Too many to mention come to mind.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best moments are when the music is great, the lighting is good, and I can produce images I'm happy with.
The worst and most frustrating are when the music is great, but I can't capture the essence of the performer for one reason or another … the lighting is poor in many clubs, technical problems or an inability to get close to a performer.

How does the music come out of your lens?
The music come out of the lens through my efforts to capture the energy and soul of the artist.

Are there any memories of all GREAT MUSICIANS you meet which you’d like to share with us?
It's rare when I have a verbal interaction with the performer other than my thanking them for a particularly good performance. I don't have a chance to meet most of the performers I photograph.

Which is your favorite photo? In which photo can someone see the best of your work?
It's difficult to narrow down to one favorite photo. I find I like images where the performer is making eye contact and there is a strong connection between myself and the musician. Two of my favorites are of Buddy Guy and Honeyboy Edwards.

Who from THE MUSICIANS you have shoot, had the most passion for the image & camera lens?
There are so many photographers, all shooting the same images, that performers are often overwhelmed with the large numbers of photos they are presented with.
Ronnie Earl had a strong appreciation of a photo I presented to him of he and Lurrie Bell playing together during a particularly moving performance.
Geoff Muldaur had a similar reaction to a photo I presented to him when he had a reunion concert with Jim Kweskin.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your shootings in gigs and festivals?
Two of the most vivid memories I had were at the beginning of my career as a photographer of musicians. After shooting primarily architectural and travel photography, I was offered the opportunity to photograph at the Newport Jazz Festival. This opened a whole new world to me in terms of combining my passions for photography and music … photographing artists at their most creative. The same happened in Chicago at the Blues Festival and at the blues clubs. Now I return to Chicago as often as I can to experience and photograph the blues musicians.

How would you describe your contact to people, when you are “on the project”?
While photographing, I'm totally focused on the musicians, looking for that "magic moment," and oblivious to people around me. I don't do studio sessions … just concert photography.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Follow your passion. Learn everything you can about your subject. Listen to all genres of music not just blues. Don't just "record" an event … create something beautiful with your image. Look and listen for the peaks of creativity which musicians strive for in their music. Invest in good, reliable equipment.

What do you feel is the key to your success as a photographer?
I invest a lot of time in refining my images and craft. I feel my work is most successful when I can integrate my love for the music with my photography and communicate that passion to an audience.

How do you want to be remembered?
As a person who loved and helped to preserve the blues.

BW or Colors, Digital or Film and why?
I grew up with film and darkroom processing of black and white images. When DSLR and PhotoShop arrived on the scene, I sold my film cameras, and now work exclusively with my digital equipment. It's about control … I can correct colors and enhance images so much easier in post production with PhotoShop than I ever could in the darkroom. Lately, I have been producing digital images primarily in black and white.
The down side is I got lazy … I shoot a lot more images now and am not as selective as I used to be when photographing.
Also, I have yet to master the craft of producing a digital print as beautiful as a silver halide print.

Which of the musicians were the most difficult?
Most of the musicians I photograph perform in small clubs or festivals. They welcome, for the most part, being photographed. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, not get in people's way, and never use a flash (it calls attention to me and can interrupt the mood of both the performer and audience). I always respect a musicians wishes not to be photographed.
"Ramblin'" Jack Elliott and Maria Muldaur were two performers who didn't want to be photographed during their performances, although before and after the shows, they were most cordial in allowing photographs taken.
Bo Diddley never wanted to be photographed … he felt I would become rich on my images of him and he wouldn't get anything for it. He was unfairly treated by the business side of the music industry and his feelings were understandable and respected by me.
I haven't run across many prima donnas in the blues world.

How important is image to artists? To which person do you want to send one from your photos?
"Image" is important to all artists … of expressing honesty and feelings and looking good … all people in the public eye are concerned about "image."
I occasionally will share with performers photos that I send to them unsolicited. Some never respond. Others are grateful. I wish I had the time to send every musician a photo … to give back to them a piece of what they offered me.

"A picture is worth a thousand words" it is certain…can music has image and the image to have notes?
Blues music has so much feeling, soul, energy and passion, which is often expressed in a visual way on stage. I strive to capture the feelings of the musicians as they expresses themselves. In that way I try to communicate the essence of the music if not the "notes."

What is your “secret” PHOTO DREAM?
Simply to try and capture the musical "essence" of a performer and be able to communicate that through my photo to an audience.

Difficult question but, which artists have you worked with and which do you consider the best friend?
For the most part I don't interact with many of the musicians I photograph, more because of being shy than for any other reason. There are some performers who have been very kind to me … Nick and Kate Moss from Chicago and Peter Parcek and Diane Blue from Boston to name a few. Most musicians I photograph don't know me, but some recognize and acknowledge me from previous performances, which I appreciate.

Of the entire musician you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?
Again it's hard to pinpoint just one or two. I admire Nick Moss very much … very creative and soulful musician and a really nice guy. I don't know Buddy Guy personally, but I do admire him for the feeling he puts into his music and the way he communicates with his audience. He's a little more of a show man than many blues musicians, but he works hard at promoting and preserving blues music to a wider audience.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new, would you like to meet and shoots?
My friends and roommates, while in school, were musicians and they introduced me to blues music. I was lucky to live in the Philadelphia area at the time and was able to see many musicians … Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Magic Sam, J.B. Hutto, Junior Wells and Mississippi John Hurt. But, I didn't photograph them … I wasn't into that kind of photography at the time and I missed a golden opportunity. Now, I make sure I try and capture in photos every musician whose music and passion stimulates me, especially the old timers from Chicago and Mississippi. We seem to have lost a lot of them in the past year or two.

Which memory during of your shooting makes you smile?
I love what I do … photographing musicians while they are creating and expressing themselves. When conditions are ripe for a good photo session … good lighting, the musician is "on," and I'm in a good position to photograph … life is good and I smile. It's all good for me.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
We all have feelings, and blues music, when performed well, has the ability to touch and move us all. The "blues" is a universal feeling and American blues music has been accepted and welcomed almost everywhere in the world. Chicago blues clubs and American blues festivals always have blues lovers from all over Europe, Asia and South America.
But, many countries also have their own ways of expressing the blues through music. Sadness is universal and many people experience difficult times … especially in these days. Blues music is a way of expressing those feelings.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experience in Greece?
Not so much amusing but embarrassing … a major faux pas on my part. My wife and I were shopping for some fabric in Athens and I commented that one of the patterns had a Turkish or mid-eastern flavor. Not a good thing to say about a Greek design. I was given a brief lecture by the shopkeeper on the differences in fabric design and a brief history of the relationship between Greece and Turkey.
Also, I have the classic tale of being on the bus in Santorini that takes you from the ferry up the caldera to our hotel. As it made one of the sharp, hairpin turns the luggage door swung open and suitcases were strewn all over the road. Fortunately there were no other vehicles behind us. (I always keep my camera equipment with me … I never store it with luggage.)

Michael Kurgansky's website

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