Dick Waterman has spent more than 46 years photographing, representing and promoting the greats of roots music, but he dismisses his importance, instead preferring to tout the brilliance of the numerous titans he's known. In fact, Waterman admits that for decades, he really never viewed himself as a photographer.
"I was just a guy with a camera hanging around backstage, being on the concert sites and just observing these performers," Waterman said during a recent phone interview. "I think the reason I was able to get a lot of the shots I've gotten is it was never a situation where I would say to B.B. King or Muddy Waters or anyone else, 'Hey can I get a shot of you over here?' It was just me having the camera around my neck and the guys or women just hanging out, relaxing and being themselves."
But what began in the mid-'60s as a sideline became a serious business after he moved to Oxford, Miss., in the '80s. Many of Waterman's finest photos will be on display at the Bluebird in an extraordinary exhibition that begins Sunday. The opening reception begins at 2 p.m., and at 2:30, Waterman will be interviewed by Peter Guralnick, the acclaimed author of definitive biographies on Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, and arguably the nation's finest chronicler of vernacular musicians.
"Peter and I have been friends so long I can't even remember when we first met, though I think it might have been back during the first Newport Folk Festival," Waterman says. "We both knew Son House and a lot of the blues performers many other people have written about from gathering information compiled in books and encyclopedias. We knew what these people were like, what type of cigarettes they smoked and liquor they liked, the nice and not so nice things about them."
Though Waterman is among a handful of non-performers inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the founder of the first agency created to represent blues artists (Avalon Booking), he's never just specialized in shooting blues stars or working in that field. He persuaded a fledgling singer-songwriter named Bonnie Raitt to continue her career when she was about to quit, and worked as a promoter for Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Waterman's exhibit also contains country portraits, plus spectacular images ranging from the Newport Folk Festival to his time on the road with the Rolling Stones in the '70s.
"Back in the '60s, when you talked about folk music, it really meant the entire spectrum of acoustic roots material," Waterman says. "I shot Doc Watson and Fred McDowell, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, John Hurt, because they were all playing the same places. We considered all of them folk artists."
The exhibit also includes a stunning portrait of a young Bob Dylan shot at the famous Newport Folk Festival where he went electric. "That was really the end of Bobby Dylan the acoustic troubadour and the beginning of Bob Dylan the rock legend," Waterman says. "I remember him staring dead into the camera, just looking straight into the lens, holding that guitar, and you could really see the music world kind of changing before your eyes."
Though definitely an old-school type who reluctantly embraced digital photography only a few years ago, Waterman is savvy enough to appreciate the power of the Internet. At www.dickwaterman.com, visitors can see a variety of classic shots, purchase T-shirts or a copy of his acclaimed book Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive, sample his blog, or sign up to receive his newsletter.
"I have thousands of negatives, and you've got to go through that transfer process converting them to digital," Waterman said. "But it's one of those labors of love because I've done this so long."
Waterman attributes his success behind the lens to being able to fly under the radar. "I always had a good camera," Waterman says. "When everybody was quiet and relaxed, I'd just just walk around and snap photos. I remember someone asking one of the Stones once who was that guy walking around taking pictures and they said, 'Oh, that's just Dick—he's also the promoter.' " And now, those photographs are Waterman's most lasting legacy.
As the saying goes, life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.
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