There’s a glow emanating from a new photography exhibition at the National Blues Museum in downtown St. Louis. Visitors who step foot into “Our Living Past” might expect to spend some time looking at the images of blues musicians, but what they might not expect is to find their gaze returned by a pair of eyes in each photograph.
“The musicians are looking right at you,” says Glenn Riegelman II, digital storyteller and archivist at the museum. “It’s a primal connection.”
The subjects of the photographs there are forgotten heroes of American roots music, as seen through the lens of Tim Duffy. Duffy is a scholar of folklore, record producer and avid advocate for blues music. Because of his passion for preserving the rich tradition of blues, in 1994, he founded The Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support for older blues musicians. Duffy believes that the best way to preserve blues music is by taking care of its creators first. The foundation provides financial assistance to aging blues musicians to help them meet their basic needs, and also helps artists book gigs.
“The foundation helps them get through poverty and helps conserve their story and their timelines,” Riegelman says. “Because of our role in preserving blues, it seemed like a natural partnership to have the exhibit at the museum.”
The goal of the exhibition, which runs through Feb. 28, is not just to show that blues can be preserved but also to show that the music is still alive and well. Through his work with the foundation, Duffy got to see artists in their element – raw, rich and full of energy. But he wanted the rest of the world to see them that way, too. That’s where the exhibition comes in.
The photographs are deeper and more multidimensional than many of the images we’ve grown accustomed to viewing today. Duffy uses a technique called wet plate collodion photography, a method that dates back to the 1850s and involves exposing an image directly onto a piece of metal that has been treated with a hand-coated, collodion emulsion solution.
“There’s a process to the portraiture,” Riegelman says. “He could shoot all day and only get four prints. There’s a level of respect in the photos that reflects the music of today. The photos dignify the music and the artists and give them a legendary connection. The way these portraits are made, they can last hundreds of years.”
The process also allows the ink to seep into the paper rather than sitting on top of it. Those who look closely will notice broad ranges in the tone of a given print.
“They have character and depth to them, just like blues music,” Riegelman says. “They have a timeless quality. It resonates with the fact that this music is the basis of country, rock and jazz, and it’s here to stay.”
Like Duffy, the staff at the museum works to educate visitors about the role of blues in American music today. The museum opened to the public in 2016 and works with teachers, educators and other community members to celebrate blues as the foundation for modern American music. Often, Riegelman says, photographs of musicians are taken behind the scenes and don’t capture the essence of the artist. Duffy’s work, he says, is an exception.
“He made this exhibit because he was inspired by other artists,” he says. “He wanted to capture their energy and the richness of blues. The energy emanates out of the picture.”
Duffy’s subjects agree. He has photographed blues guitarists Alabama Slim and Algia Mae Hinton, as well as electric blues keyboardist “Ironing Board” Sam Moore, and the self-taught Taj Mahal, a Grammy-winning blues musician, has collaborated with Music Maker for more than two decades. Mahal credits Duffy for the respect and compassion he shows subjects when taking each of their photos.
From a Time article when the exhibition debuted, Mahal says: “So many photographs of older bluesmen or African-Americans are more voyeuristic, as opposed to the energy of the people – what they do, what it is they’re into – coming across in the photograph … but Duffy never treads on people’s dignity.”
National Blues Museum, 615 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314-925-0016, nationalbluesmuseum.org