John Thawley: Birthplace to the Blues

Photographer John Thawley is best known for his automobile racing and sports photography and is the official photographer for the Trans Am Series. In addition to being a full-time photographer, John Thawley owns Creative Communications Group, a company specializing in graphic design for print and electronic online applications. Thawley’s racing images have been featured in print for companies such as Acura, Cadillac, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lexus, Maserati, Mazda, Raybesto and in the pages of Autoweek, USA Today, SportsCar, Vette and others. In this interview, Thawley reflects on his project exploring the Mississippi historical blues scene.

Q: This is the second time you’ve appeared on the Leica Camera Blog. What news can you share since your last interview?

A:  Well, Alex, thanks for revisiting. I’d have to say, my new love affair with a Leica M is pretty big news, at least for me. I’m enjoying the camera much more than my initial reason for purchasing it. I really felt at one with my M9,  but the improved high ISO options of the M was very enticing. To say the M delivered on the promise would be an understatement. I do, however, love the traditional feel of the M9 and will perhaps swap it out for the Monochrom. I don’t see myself using the movie or live view features of the M. That’s just not why I choose to shoot with a rangefinder. I like the traditional analog feel.

Q: You have a successful blog with an audience that follows you. As a photographer and writer, I ask you: you don’t consider yourself just a photographer, am I wrong?

A: I think I’d prefer to be thought of as a storyteller, using photographs as a medium.

Q: You’re best known for your work documenting motorsports. You wrote on your blog,  “As a photographer, race day changes how you think, how you move, plan, react and how you see. The emotion of race day runs through your body into your brain and demands that you step up your game.” I absolutely loved this thought which claims a state of well-being mental and physical and total involvement of the photographer.

A: What is challenging (and fun) about shooting motorsports is you never know what you’re going to face — weather, light, the time of day. Even your shooting locations can change or be impacted by the promoter or track officials. You have to show up and go to work. You can’t just rearrange things to your liking.

So yes, when you stop and assess your actions and emotions, race day is game day. Even for the photographer. Now, maybe that’s a function of two things. I’ve been doing this for a number of years. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes practice sessions and test sessions haven’t become a bit mundane or that I’m a little bit jaded. But the fact remains, come race day, you’d better have your game face on. You’d better be prepared to move, think, and look for unique opportunities. Things are happening … you want your best stuff to come from the race. And I don’t just mean the cars on track. You’ve got to have your head on a swivel and observe all the things that are happening around you. Everything is stepped up a level. You’d be well off stepping up your game too.

Q: The portfolio you submitted was a self-assignment with the interest of the Mississippi historical blues as seen through Leica. Did you find what you were looking for?

A:: It was everything I’d hoped for and more. The trip included a stop in Muscle Shoals, Tupelo and ultimately Clarksdale and the Crossroads — the birthplace to the blues.

On one hand though, it’s hugely disappointing that it seems to be disappearing in front of our eyes. I’ve always wanted to photograph older blues players and the juke joints of the region. Sadly, the juke joints are all but non-existent. There is a coffee table book out there published in ’90s that probably includes 30-40 full color plates of different juke joints. Today only one remains.

Q: Following the roots of Blues, is there still the blues on the Crossroads?

A: Absolutely. Clarksdale is the town where the Crossroads exist and they hold several blues festivals throughout the year.  There are also several clubs such as Ground Zero and Reds that offer blues acts throughout the week.

Q: I can imagine that your knowledge of the blues is broad enough. Would you like to share who are your favorite blues men?

A: I have a very diverse and eclectic taste in music. I’ve spent many hours, years even, as an avid audiophile. So my taste for blues ranges from Eric Clapton to John Lee Hooker. I also became exposed to a lot of smaller acts while photographing the Bonita Blues Festival. Magic Slim was a favorite. He was not only a great musician, but he was also an incredible subject to photograph. The blues is so diverse and you find so much of its roots in rock … bands like The Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan … they’re all great. I’ve always been a big fan of Mose Allison as well.

Q: Do you have a special story on a human level with this project? Did you make friends with the musicians?

A: I don’t know that I’d say I’ve made friends. But I have found the blues community to be very down-to-earth and the people involved to be especially kind. They’re always willing to share their time and they show an incredible amount of interest in what I do as well. I don’t know if there is something written on my forehead, but I’m always delighted when a performer makes eye contact with me (or the camera) and turns up the animation a bit.

Not unlike motorsports, it’s really a bonus to enjoy the subject you’re shooting and to feel an extra connection. While you want to keep things candid, to have a degree of trust extended to you can provide a lot of extraordinary opportunities to capture special moments.

Q: Which cameras and lenses did you use for this project?

A: I was committed to shooting only Leica for this trip and only in black-and-white. I originally planned to shoot with my M9 along with a 35 mm Summicron, a 50 mm Summicron and my 90 mm Summarit. Then as my plane was taxiing down the runway toward the terminal at Atlanta’s Jackson Hartsfield Airport, I got a text from my friend, Michael Geng. The text read, “If you want my Monochrom and 50 mm Noctilux, meet me at exit 20 off the freeway and it’s yours.” Nice to have generous friends. Needless to say, the extra kit made for a nice set of options throughout the week.

Q: So you tested the Monochrom? What are your thoughts about this camera?

A: In a word? WANT. As I said, I love my M9 and I really like the M. But to be honest, I’d have preferred to have an M9 with the higher ISO capabilities. I felt the M9 was as close as you could get to having a film/analog camera where the sensor had simply been slipped in to replace the film. Given that, and to me, it was the first digital camera I felt I could use forever. So with the Monochrom, retaining that same analog feel as the M9 and its high ISO capabilities, I think it’s a camera I would keep forever.

I have to add, coupled with the 50 mm Noctilux the Monochrom is scary, scary good. In a blues club with a grand total of four 150-watt flood lights hanging from the ceiling, the images at 3200 ISO and f/1.4 on the Noctilux where magic. Really a joy to shoot.

Q: Do you consider this work completed, or is it ongoing?

A: The work is not complete. I hope to get back to the Crossroads a few more times. My goal is to locate some of the older blues men or their siblings and capture some environmental portraits and record their stories. I hope time doesn’t get in the way. Sadly, I think the opportunities are going to be challenged as we lose these American icons of the past.

Q: Have you thought about or have you made videos during this project?

A: Yes and no. I’m not a huge fan of video unless it’s really, really well done. I don’t possess those skills. I think I’d rather put together a collage of stills with music and voice-overs.

Q: This work in my opinion deserves to be appreciated more through a publication. So I wonder if you’ve thought about making a book. What are your thoughts?

A: I think you’re spot on. I would like to do just that. However, I’m one of those people (like most creative-types) who is very hard on themselves and never really feel work is complete or good enough. It’s not that I don’t think my work is good enough, but I guess I always feel I could do more or better. I’m just never satisfied or have the feeling that something is complete.

I have used the project in a couple of photo presentations, mostly to other photography groups and I did put together a small coffee table book for personal use. I think, in the back of my mind, it is sort of a dry run of how the book might look and what the direction be. But, I’d definitely want to expand on what I have, both photographically and in written content.

Thank you for your time, John!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of John’s work, visit his blog and website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events. Learn more about Alex’s nasty project on his website, Tumblr, YouTube and download his book THE ART OF SEEING here and other publications on iTunes. He is also a member of the international photography collective, noise. Check out their work on Tumblr, Facebook and Blurb.