Focus on the Blues- page 1 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Focus on the Blues

Richard Waterman's never-before-published photographs caught the roots music legends at their down-home best

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Dick Waterman’s front porch resembles many in timeless Mississippi: wicker-back rockers, a bucktoothed rake, withered hanging plants. But step through the front door and you’re in the proud, disheveled 1960s. The living-room walls are adorned with posters for long-ago concerts. Shelves swell with LPs. On tabletops and couches are stacks and stacks of vintage photographs. B.B. King and Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Waterman’s pictures of old bluesmen (and women), taken over four decades, include priceless artifacts of the music’s glory days, and until now they’ve been all but hidden.

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Perhaps no one alive has known more blues masters more intimately than Richard A. Waterman, 68, a retired music promoter and artists’ manager who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. He broke into the business in 1964, when he and two friends “rediscovered” Son House (guitar mentor of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters). Waterman went on to manage a cadre of blues icons (Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James and Mississippi JohnHurt, among them), promoted the careers of their electrified musical progeny (Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells), and took under his wing a 19-year-old Radcliffe freshman named Bonnie Raitt and managed her career for about 18 years, helping her become one of her era’s reigning blues guitarists and singers.

 

Through it all, Waterman carried a Leica or Nikon camera and committed thousands of musicians to film, catching the magical and the mundane. Usually he just stashed the photographs in a drawer or closet. Though a relentless advocate of other artists, he never got around to publishing his own work, perhaps out of some bonebred aversion to seeing things through. “I’ve been trying to get him off his you-know-what to get these photographs out to the world,” says Raitt.

 

They are finally surfacing, thanks to a chance encounter in 1999. Chris Murray, director of the Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C., was strolling down an Oxford street when he spotted a number of Waterman’s shots in a framing shop. Within hours, he and Waterman were talking about doing a book. Their project, Between Midnight and Day, is scheduled to be published next month by Thunder’s Mouth Press. Now those images, like the blues veterans they depict, are resonant again after decades in the dark. “This was no more than a hobby,” Waterman says of his photography. Despite many years in the South, Waterman’s high pitched voice is still shaded with notes of his Boston boyhood. “I never considered myself a chronicler of my times.”

 

“That’s like Faulkner saying that he was a farmer, not a writer,” says William Ferris, a folklorist and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “There’s no question [Waterman] knew what he was doing and he did it systematically, like any good folklorist or documentary photographer. He is a national treasure.”

 

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