“I’ve spent a lot of time in blues clubs. I’ve been a fan for years,” says St. Paul-based photographer Marc Norberg. “I used to play trumpet when I was young,” he says, “but I quickly put down the trumpet to starting playing with a camera instead.”
“I was a regular at the Blues Saloon in the 1980s and hung around with a lot of local musicians,” he says. “I was taken by the vibe and by the musicians in the scene.” In fact, many of Norberg’s portraits of these artists were taken in the wee hours, between 3 and 4 a.m., after the musicians were done playing for the night. In those early days, he talked them into having a session after the gig, on the spot. “While the artists were changing clothes and relaxing after a performance, I’d be setting up my equipment,” he remembers. “I wanted to capture them in their world, to shoot on the stage”
No one was doing this kind of thing when he started making the portraits that would later collected for the Black & White Blues project. “At first, I showed up at the club, with a portfolio in my hand to show artists some of my previous work; I’d have my camera gear in the trunk of my truck. But really, I was just there to have a good time,” he says. “I always felt at home with the blues crowd – they really inspired this work.” But as the series grew, Norberg also began to realize its potential as a visual record of the artists and the crowds so important to this music tradition. “I really started to see this project as a kind of historical archive.”
The Minnesota Museum of American Art’s portfolio of photos from the Black & White Blues series spans more than a decade, from 1982 to 1995, when it was published by Graphis as a book by the same name. “For many years, I made my living doing art and commerce as a location photographer, specializing in editorial, advertising, and graphic design work,” he says. “Actually, my professional life at the time had a lot in common with the sort of life led by touring musicians; I was gone for weeks at a time with a small crew, shooting annual reports for Fortune 500 companies, on location just long enough to complete an assignment. We would fly in, shoot, and fly out.”
Norberg’s portraits are arresting, as is the candor of their subjects’ expressions and poses, particularly when you consider the fame and status of the musicians involved. “Shooting someone’s portrait is an intimate thing,” Norberg says. “It could be hours of conversations, weeks of planning, to get a ten-minute photo session.”
“People have to feel comfortable, in the space and with me, to get a good shot,” he says. “I tell people, when you come in for a shoot, you own the studio while you’re here.” Before a portrait subject came into the studio, Norberg found out what they liked to eat and drink, so he could have it on hand when they came for a session. “I had a great staff of three employees who helped me out for years. I was very lucky,” he says.
“I mean, there’s only so many photos of a guy with a guitar you can take. The real work is in capturing the unique story of that performer – the way they tilt their head as they talk, some particular look in their eye, that true moment of expression on their face.” Getting those visual stories right, he says, takes empathy, collaboration, and trust.
“But trust is the main thing,” he reiterates. When everything comes together for one perfect moment of “light, shadow, frame, subject – and when you can catch that on film – it’s such a high!”
This collection of Norberg photographs came into the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s (the M) collection thanks to a donation by lawyer and avid art collector John Roth. Friends for many years with the artist, Roth had amassed a large portfolio of Norberg’s photographs and other ephemera from the project by way of his work with the artist on the publication, in particular. “I helped him in various ways,” Roth says: “Releases for the artists, contracts, and basically handling the legal side of the publication of his book with Graphis.” He goes on, “Marc and I had a long working relationship, and I took my fees, most often, in photographs.” Roth also had ties to the M’s executive director, Kristin Makholm, whom he’d advised during initial conversations about reviving the museum when she first took the helm of the museum in 2008.
“I’m vested in the M now,” Roth explains. And he’s also amassed a fairly large personal collection of art over the years. So, when he and his wife began to downsize their home, they went to their kids, all now grown, to get their thoughts on how to handle the family’s artwork. “They told us they wanted the collection to be kept intact and given away.” As a result, the M was the lucky recipient of the 78 photographs that appear in the Black & White Blues publication project, as well as a number of other works by various artists also donated to the museum’s collection by the Roth family.
Thirty-nine of Norberg’s marvelous portraits are on display through July 29, 2018, in a pop-up exhibition held in conjunction with the annual Lowertown Blues & Funk Fest in St. Paul. As you look through the galleries, you’ll hear the recordings made by the very musicians captured in photos on view.
“I’m so happy to see these works come into public view again. A number of the legendary musicians I shot back then are no longer with us, and it’s wonderful way to pay tribute to their talent,” and to the lasting influence of this vibrant American musical tradition.
Black & White Blues, featuring photographs by Marc Norberg, is on view through July 29, 2018 at the Show Gallery Lowertown, 346 N. Sibley Street, St. Paul. The exhibition is free and open to the public.
Visit www.mmaa.org/blackandwhiteblues for more information and gallery hours.
Image credit (L to R): Johnny Winter, 1990; Blues Saloon, Saint Paul, 1990; Buckwheat Zydeco, 1984. Gelatin Silver Prints. All photos by Marc Norberg. Gifts of John, Julie, Elsabet, and Joren Roth. Collection of Minnesota Museum of American Art.