Essence of Light
The Adam Smith Interview
By James Calemine
Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1975, Adam Smith's photography transcends his age. Smith attended college in Mississippi when he began to frequent the juke joint of bluesman Junior Kimbrough. After Kimbrough died, Smith raised money to place a headstone on the unmarked grave of the seminal bluesman. Adam Smith's soulful images speak for themselves.
"Old Highway 61: Crossroads"
Over the years Smith captured timeless images of Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Jimbo Mathus, Grayson Capps, Precious Bryant, Abby Owens, Southern Bitch, The Whigs, The Sundogs, The Drive By Truckers, The North Mississippi Allstars, Don Chambers, Cary Hudson, Lucero, Bloodkin, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Widespread Panic, Dexateens, Centro-matic, Beanland, Porter Wagoner, Frank Edwards, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Marty Stuart, Warren Haynes, Gregg Allman and many more.
Smith also provided artwork for labels such as Fat Possum Records, New West Records and Anti Records as well as periodicals such as MOJO, Billboard, Paste, Living Blues and Hittin' The Note. Smith even accompanied Annie Leibovitz on a photo shoot in the Mississippi Delta. He graduated from the University of Mississippi. He worked in Atlanta for years, and now lives in his hometown of Macon where he was named Photographer of the Year in 2008. Smith's photographs were chosen for permanent display at The Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
A while back, Smith sent me a version of his unpublished book Mornin' Ain't Come Yet: A Look Into the Music and Landscape of the Deep South. It's a sight to behold. He's currently searching for a publisher for this inimitable collection. This book includes Smith's singular photographs along with written work by Larry Brown, Lisa Love, Patterson Hood, Ben Nichols, Marty Stuart, Luther Dickinson, a poem by Daniel Hutchens and a few other surprises. Adam Smith's photos appeal to the senses...
This is what Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers had to say about Smith's work: "Adam Smith is a lightning capturer. He also seems to have the uncanny knack of clicking the camera at that exact moment the thunder strikes, the moment the magic occurs, when just one millisecond later would produce a fine picture but not the moment of alchemy that separates the great from the mundane."
Luther Dickinson (The North Mississippi Allstars & The Black Crowes) went on the record to reveal this about Smith: "Adam Smith captures the essence of the modern day south in all its extension cord run out of the bedroom window, Peavey powered back yard house party, midnight mosquito ridden fluorescent light glory. From the pool tables of back yard juke joints to the sleeping bag on the floor of a punk rock touring van, Adam Smith's photographs make you hold your nose, yearn for ear plugs and a semi-working window unit air conditioner. They don't call it the Dirty South for nothin'."
One cannot question the power his music photographs evoke, but to me the real spirit of his talent exists in his landscape photos such as a Highway 61 dirt crossroads, the Oliver Baptist Church, The Bluefront Cafe, railroad tracks and The Po Monkey Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. These photographs capture a by-gone era...a time that will not return, but the image is preserved. Stark beauty preserved on film. Without a story, song or photograph only the ashes of memory linger. Smith's work keeps memories alive.
Marty Stuart wrote this about the photographer: "Adam Smith is one of my all time favorite photographers. He shoots lean, neat and to the point. He understands the dance between music and photography and knows how to capture it. He eases up on a musical situation in the form of a ghost and his results are always timeless."
His personality, like his photos, represent no nonsense. He's a straight shooter. In this exclusive Swampland interview, Adam Smith discusses photography, his career, blues in the north Mississippi hill country, renown musicians he's worked with, his book Mornin' Ain't Come Yet and more.
James Calemine: You grew up in Macon, Georgia...great music town...
Adam Smith: Yeah, I feel the great music was a little before my time. I grew up with my parents listening to a lot of that style of music. To tell you the truth, in high school was really into the Replacements. If you can believe it, I was a big Cure fan (laughs). I missed the whole Capricorn era since I was born in 1975.
JC: When did you get your first camera?
AS: Well, I remember going to my parents mountain house up in Franklin, North Carolina, they were renovating. My father owned a business here in Macon that specialized in architectural woodworking. I left Ole Miss my freshman year and went up to Atlanta, to meet my parents in order to travel to this new house,and my father had an old Cannon AE1. I literally picked it up and starting messing around with it. It was that weekend in the mountains that I gravitated towards it immediately. Like everybody, I started out (laughs) with babbling brooks, flowers and stuff like that. I went back to school, and a girl I was dating here had a sister that worked at a local camera shop--a real old shop for specialized photography, which is rare these days.
Anyway. I got a heavy duty Cannon AE1. It was a nice starter camera. They don't make metal heavy ones like that anymore. I got a job at Wolf Camera and really just started snapping pictures. It was horrible stuff, but I knew if I was going to do it right I had to learn everything. I wanted to master shutter speed, aperture and film speed. So, that's what I did. I went back to the University of Mississippi and tried to get in a photography class under a guy named Tom Rankin, but the class was full. I bugged him a little, and he ended up letting me into the Intro To Photography class. That's kind of where it all started learning the basics in Tom Rankin's class.
JC: When did you first go out to shoot photographs at Junior Kimbrough's juke joint?
AS: I was into my sophomore year. Obviously, in college your whole musical tastes change. I started getting into Derek & The Dominos, The Band and Duane Allman. I remember hearing about Junior's juke joint. At one point I remember going out with some friends. It was only open on Sunday nights. We tried to find it one time, and we drove up and down this road, and unless you knew exactly where it was you'd drive by it ten times. It's literally a dark and gloomy place of the road in the middle of the night. I remember the first time we didn't have any luck finding the place. We tried to go a second time. I had my camera with me. I remember walking through the doors for the first time and seeing Junior in the corner of the juke joint playing, and just the atmosphere and the energy was overwhelming. I was taking the whole place in.
The Break" Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint
Obviously, being a white kid from Georgia walking into a place like this is a little daunting, but what I soon found out was that color doesn't matter out there. Everybody comes for the music. I was one of the only white people in there that night, and they were all like, 'Hey man, we're all glad you're out here. It's about celebrating life.' I was sitting on the couch, chillin' out takin' it all in, and a guy came up to me and said 'Hey man, you gotta get up. Junior's about to play.' He handed me a beer, and I remember they kind of set me in the front. Larry Brown described Junior's place best. I just remember people started dancing, and that style of hill country music is very...um, what's the word I'm looking for.... JC: ...Hypnotic...AS: Yes, hypnotic. The people would just lose themselves in the music. It's an amazing style. And up to that point in my life, I'd never heard anything like that. I thought I knew what blues was, but I'd never heard any raw energy like that before. Literally that night I had one of those come-to Jesus moments when the energy and the power of the place was so overwhelming that I realized if I could ever capture the energy or the power that was coming out of that place that it was all I wanted to do. that moment will always stick out in my mind.
JC: Ultimately, you were very instrumental in obtaining a headstone for Junior Kimbrough's grave...
AS: Yeah, I'd go back to Junior's and I was very lucky to be welcomed. There were few people Junior would get on a first name basis with, but he knew I came out there to take pictures. Junior and R.L. Burnside would hold court. I'd turn around and watch people dance. I'd seen other white people, tourists, want to take pictures and they would charge them $50 or $75 just to get in. That never happened to me. I'd like to say Junior could see in my eyes how much it all meant to me, and how respectful I was. We had an unspoken bond. He knew I was out there to document everything. He knew my heart was in the right place. When Junior passed away, and he was buried without a headstone...I thought that was crazy. So a friend of mine, Amos Harvey and I raised the money to get Junior a headstone for his grave. In certain circles there's always talk about the white kid goin' in there and just taking from them, but they don't know the full story. I was there to preserve things.
"God Knows I Tried" - Junior Kimbrough
R.L. Burnside used to live out there right next to Junior and I got a bug to go out there. I started taking pictures and just hanging out with those guys. I met Paul Wine Jones and T-Model Ford. I'd call and make pilgrimages down to their house. You were lucky if you showed up and they were actually there, or you'd have to wait around. I just sat down with them and explained what I was trying to do. Most of those guys were all welcoming, and they would invite you in, and let you take pictures of them. That's what I started doing. I wanted to document everything that had to do with that music. Then I met the guys from Fat Possum Records. They did work with all those guys. They were the dirty little label that got these real deal Mississippi musicians. Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson had a great marketing campaign. My friend Amos Harvey worked there, and they called me because they were doing Junior's Meet Me In the City album and they wanted my artwork. I was coming up in my career, and they wanted me to have the cover. That gave me a kick start. I continued on while I was at Ole Miss. I did everything I could possibly do to immerse myself in the scene.
Like I said, Junior died and we did the headstone thing. Then around 2000, when Junior's place burned down Amos Harvey and I got together again. They thought it might be arson, but nobody did anything about it. A lot of musicians lost their instruments out there and they lost income of coming out there to play. After Junior died, David and Kenny Kimbrough still went out there and played. When it burned down Amos Harvey and I did a huge benefit one night with many musicians who were there. It was a big jam in Oxford. Our goal was to raise money to rebuild and then we realized it would be impossible to recreate the place. So, the first part of the money was to buy back instruments for the musicians and give them some relief. I can't remember how much we raised--seven or eight thousand dollars. that was very important to me. I knew I was getting something because I took their pictures, but I wanted to give back to them, and the charity stuff helped me show them respect.
JC: I could understand where that was an unforgettable education. Eventually you came across the rock & roll scene...
AS: Yeah, I apparently got on the radar with a lot of the right people. I got hired on by Annie Liebovitz around that time. Her people from New York got in touch with me that she was coming down south to do a book titled American Music. She wanted to do a blues part of it. I said okay, and they wanted a bunch of information, and I wondered if I gave them anything would I ever hear from them again. I called and told them I could put them in touch with all the people you'll need to know and when you go see them I'll line it up. I told them I would be the liaison between them and the musicians. I told them that would open more doors for them and the musicians would be more welcoming. People would come in and want something and they would never hear from them again. They ended up accepting my offer, and I basically produced the whole shoot for Annie.
Another big thing for me was these guys needed to be paid for their time because they didn't know Annie, and money talks. I knew she could afford it, and they were open to it. I lined up everything and it was a great experience. I remembered we finished that shoot and I was taking her to the airport, and she looked at me and said, which was completely true: 'Adam, we didn't see eye to eye on everything on this shoot, but I really respect your help.' I was very protective of those guys. When Annie got her photos, and left I would still be there. It ended up working really well. Annie is amazing to work with, but there were times I had to hold my ground. She was extremely moved by what I showed her down there. A couple of years ago, I got hired again. They did a shoot with the girl in Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) for Vanity Fair. Annie's book came out and I was honored to have a working relationship with her.
JC: I'm sure you picked up a few tricks of the trade from her...
AS: Oh yeah. She gave me a $3000 camera that I had been eyeing during the whole time she was here. She said, 'I want you to have this.' I think I was shaking when she gave it to me, and then she got on the plane. I lived in Mississippi for another year or so, and then I moved to Atlanta. They didn't have the real deal blues scene in Atlanta, and I was having withdrawal symptoms from it. I met Frank Edwards at the Northside Tavern in Atlanta.
JC: That's where we first crossed paths, around some of those Music Maker blues musicians in Atlanta...
AS: That's right. I hooked up with Amos Harvey again who redisovered and produced Precious Bryant. She put out a record on Terminus Records with Jeff Bransford. I went down and shot her and hung out with them. Then I did a Fat Possum session with a guy named Duck Holmes that Amos again produced. I did all the work for that. I was living in Atlanta for about a year working at the Atlanta College of Art managing their photography department, which was a good job. It kept me in the photography world and gave me access to top notch equipment. On Thanksgiving night, a friend called me and said I needed to check out a band. I was real close-minded at the time, and I thought if I hadn't heard of them, they can't be much. So I walked into The Earl in Atlanta and The Drive By Truckers were playing. That literally blew it all open. As a photographer, you always need new subject matter...
The Truckers did that for me--that low-lit gritty rock & roll...and it wasn't blues-infused. I was like, 'These fucking guys are amazing' the energy coming from the stage took me back to that night at Junior Kimbrough's. the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was one of the first nights Jason Isbell joined the band. I met their manager at the time--Dick Cooper--and he was a photographer himself. I introduced myself to them, and asked them to check out my work. My friend Scott Munn was managing The Truckers at the time, and I'd worked with Scott before and that's how I got in with The Truckers. Maybe two months later I got a call saying The Truckers wanted to do a shoot with me and we did it at the back of the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. We did that first full-on shoot, and the love affair between me and The Truckers began. They are great guys, and I would bend over backwards for any of them. Patterson would do the same for me, but if you screw them, Patterson will put you under the bus.
JC: You can't blame him...
AS: Not at all. I already knew Luther & Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. they were coming onto the scene. A lot of times when I was in Atlanta I wanted to show these bands support, especially if they came to Macon. I was always trying to lend a hand. I think Cody gave me a copy of Lucero's first album, which he produced. It was raw, but on the country side. I'd never met Lucero, but I called them when they came to Atlanta. Lucero was on tour with the Allstars. Lucero's van was broken into and they lost all their cash. They didn't know they were going to make it to Atlanta. I called them and they literally came to my house. There's a knock at the door, and they're standing there. Ben Nichols says,. 'Amos Harvey told us you wanted to shoot us. So we're here, but we don't have any money.' I was like, 'I don't care about your money, but don't even know you motherfuckers (Laughs)! But we had that one night where we dranks beers and really connected. I got them a gig at Smith's Olde Bar, and the folks at Smith's loved them. We got to be really good friends. So, I did that shoot with Lucero. Then I got them a couple of gigs at The Earl in Atlanta. so, it made me feel good to help them. I know you know just as much about this stuff.
Ben Nichols of Lucero
JC: How did you meet up with the great Marty Stuart?
AS: When Scott Munn left The Truckers he began working in Nashville. He worked with Marty Stuart. Marty wanted me to do the Porter Wagoner album. That was extremely important to me. It was interesting to cross over into the country scene, and I was paid well for it. It added a scary element when you have all that money on the table--you don't want to fuck it up. Every time I worked with Marty it turned out great, and he's a helluva photographer himself. He's got a book out of his own work. We've always gotten along really well. I've worked with Marty four or five times. Working with Porter Wagoner was amazing as well. I was really lucky to make impressions along the way...
The Last project I did with Marty was his Ghost Train album. He recorded it in Nashville at the old RCA/Victor studios where Elvis recorded. It was amazing, I got to work with Marty and Ralph Mooney and Marty ended up winning a grammy for that album for the song "Hummingbyrd". It was a great experience.
Marty Stuart "Ghost Train Sessions"
JC: What's been going on with your most recent work?
AS: I've been staying busy with my core group of clients/bands, just trying to keep the light on, you know? Did an in-studio session with The Whigs recently as they were recording tracks for a new album, which was great because usually I am shooting those guys in a a live setting, so the change of scenery made for some great shots-- I like the studio work because you can catch the guys off-guard when they're not doing their rock star moves in the stage garb, just catching them as they really are, so to speak. Also, I don't smoke nearly as much in those settings, so that's a plus I suppose.
I did the album artwork for Fat Possum's Jim Mize release recently. It was a 7 inch. Bruce called me and said, 'You got anything down from the Mississippi Delta on the edgier side? YEP!' It came out great, they ended up using an image I called Delta Dogs for the front and back cover... It was 2 consecutive 6 x 7 film frames I shot several years ago and it worked out well. Always love when Fat Possum gives me a project.
And I'm headed to Athens this weekend to shoot the Truckers at the brand new Georgia Theatre, which is gorgeous, and I'm expecting some tremendous energy from both the band and the crowd just because it's such a festive occasion. And of course I want to see how they handle the new lighting, because to be honest I never liked the old place that much for shooting, just too dark to get anything worth a damn.
The Drive By Truckers: 40-Watt Club Athens, GA, Jan. 2011
JC: Let's talk about this book you're putting together called Mornin' Ain't Come Yet...
AS: For the last few months, my day-to-day focus has been putting together a book of my work, kind of a retrospective of my career at this point that I'm tentatively calling Mornin' Ain't Come Yet: A Look into the Music and Landscape of the Deep South . It's a story in pictures beginning with my work in north Mississippi with Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside where I found that connection to the decaying juke joints and landscapes and the men and women that performed there. The story continues right on through the work I still do with bands like Lucero and the Truckers and other musicians that capture that same type of juke joint spirit-- telling the truth, as they see it, every night, late into the night. A number of the folks that are featured in the book--Marty Stuart, Larry Brown, Patterson Hood, Luther Dickinson, Danny Hutchens--have contibuted writing to help me tell the tale, and so far I'm really happy with the way it's coming out.
I've been shopping the first rough draft around the last month or so to some publishing houses, just looking for the right home, much in the way a band looks for the right label or distributor for their music. There's a certain type of person out there who can't wait to see and own a book like this, and I guess the trick is finding the publisher that knows how to reach that person time and time again, and of course believes in the work and how it should be presented and marketed. It's been a learning experience but so far, nothing but positives and good feedback. It's an exciting time for sure....
(All Photos courtesy & copyright by Adam Smith)
#1 "Old Highway 61: Crossroads"
#2 Luther Dickinson
#3 Gas Pump: "The Things You Are"-Clarksdale, MS
#4 "The Break" Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint
#5 "God Knows I Tried"--Junior Kimbrough
#6 "Burnside Style"
#7 "Delta Dogs"
# 8 The Drive By Truckers
# 9 Ben Nichols of Lucero
#10 Porter Wagoner
#11 Marty Stuart "Ghost Train Sessions"
#12 The Drive By Truckers: 40-Watt Club Athens, GA, Jan. 2011