I pretended to look through the camera’s viewfinder; a maneuver that is indistinguishable from looking through the camera’s viewfinder. I was framing my thoughts, not the picture. Buying time. Working the problem. Joan Baez fidgeted on the other side of the lens. She was not cooperative.
Since 1963, when the social activist and “Queen of Folk” invited an unknown “urban hillbilly” who called himself Bob Dylan onstage to perform with her at the Newport Folk Festival, Joan Baez recorded sixteen albums. It was now 1988, more than eight years since her last release; and, with a new album called Recently, she was attracting renewed critical attention and praise. On top of that, her second autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, was on the New York Times bestseller list. I was on assignment to photograph her for the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.
I introduced myself at the door of her Woodside, California home. She greeted me politely, and we got quickly to Joan and Tom. But I was uncomfortable. She seemed edgy. It would have been impolite to ask her why; I didn’t know her. I mean, she was Joan Baez and all that being Joan Baez entails, but . . . The public at large is impertinent. And blithe about it. They feel entitled to get chummy with celebrities, no matter how much talent, travail, and time it took to achieve that celebrity. I’ve always thought the press has a professional obligation to respect social etiquette, to show a little deference, until a modicum of trust is established. But trust had little to do with getting a good picture this time.
Joan suggested setting up my lights and camera in the den without giving me the benefit of scouting her home for alternative locations. Given her edginess, I didn’t argue. But it was a mistake. I had no idea what was on her mind before I even got there, but, if her disposition wasn’t dark enough already, the room made up for it. The ceilings were low. The walls felt close. What light made it through the window was eaten up by furniture and bookshelves. It was a black hole. The room had no photographic appeal; nor was it spacious enough to erect a plain portable backdrop and my lights. For reasons that remain unclear to me, still, no other room in the house was agreeable to my subject. There were only low ceilings throughout, anyway. So, there we were. Working the problem.
I had a job to do. I had to get the picture. And for the good of both our careers it had to be a good picture. That is to say, she had her job cut out, to present herself in a good light, given her guise as a public figure; and I was the guy with the good light. I had that control. I couldn’t afford to let her look like crap. The Chronicle had a limited budget: no wardrobe and makeup stylists; no photo assistant. I had to get everything right on my own: imminently doable, just less convenient without a crew. But the thought is always in the back of my mind: if I turn in a lousy photograph, it could be my last. A photographer does what he must to make everybody look good. We were all in this together, Joan, the magazine, and me.
Joan could see I was making an effort. She’s a pro. She had to know it was impossible to place my lights optimally in that room or find a flattering camera angle. It was difficult, in there, to frame a magazine cover in the first place, to leave plenty of neutral space around her head for a publication logo and editorial teasers. Didn’t she see that, too? I could see this was going to require deft negotiating skill as much as photographic technique. Or something else.
I suggested that we could shoot outdoors in her garden. She demurred, citing her certainty that a chill would affect her voice; too soon before an upcoming concert performance. But it wasn’t particularly cold outside. And it was sunny. The garden was just steps away in her backyard. I didn’t tell her she was acting like a diva. I didn’t tell her that, bad mood notwithstanding, she was bullshitting. I didn’t know what her reasons were. I just dished it right back.
First, I tried once more to explain what difficulties we had to deal with in her dark den, citing my own fear of a lousy photograph, of making her look bad. She was adamant about staying inside. I suggested coming back on a warmer day; I’d ask my editor if we could extend the publication deadline. But Joan said her performance schedule wouldn’t accommodate the delay. I put a little steel in my voice and resorted to my nuclear option. Because she was intransigent, I lied. I said I had just returned from Europe and a photo session with Luciano Pavarotti, and that he had no misgivings about posing outside — in the snow — I said; all bundled up, I said. And we can bundle you up, too, cozy and warm. (I don’t know why Pavarotti popped into my head. I had once photographed Placido Domingo in a damp, cold New York City basement.) We could work fast, I said. I’d be all set up, so all she’d have to do was bop outside for ten minutes and — presto! — all done. If I’d had to turn my head away and pluck a nose hair to bring on the waterworks. . . well, I was ready to try anything. I can bullshit a bullshitter when I have to.
I didn’t have to resort to tears. That would have been over the top, anyway. But she relented. My Pavarotti prevarication must have done the trick. We’d have her tie a scarf around her neck to protect her vocal cords. Heaven knows, I didn’t want to be remembered as the photographer who destroyed the inimitable voice of Joan Baez! No singers were harmed in the making of this photograph.
I saw Joan again several days later at the old Paul Masson winery in Saratoga where she was performing. It was part of my Chronicle assignment to get some live-on-stage shots there. I didn’t go backstage; we didn’t engage one on one. But when she saw me, she gave me a wink and a nod and a smile. All good. I think she knew I fibbed about Pavarotti.
The last time I saw her was at the Great America Music Hall in San Francisco on May 17, 2010, where she sang to memorialize the passing, two months earlier, of Jim Marshall, the greatest photographer of jazz and rock ’n’ roll artists who ever lived. He was a dear mutual friend. I got to tell her how moved I was, as were the hundreds of other people in attendance, to have heard her sing “Jimmy” away so poignantly, so sweetly. I reminded her we made a pretty good picture that day, twenty-two years earlier.
- Subscribe to Storius Direct to receive articles like this to your inbox
- Subscribe to Storius Digest to receive a weekly digest with links