By Nicholas Meriwether
The Photographs of the Grateful Dead Archive
Capture a glance and make it dance
Of looking at you looking at me
-John Perry Barlow, “Black-Throated Wind”
One of the most extensive sections of the Grateful Dead Archive is the Photograph Series, more than 10,000 images that span the entirety of the band's history. Researchers and fans alike understand the power of these photographs: a snapshot can be a window into the past, a telling piece of documentary evidence, or simply an evocative object, as museum theorists would say. Those unfamiliar with the Dead's history and Archive might be inclined to roll their eyes, imagining shot after shot of musicians on stage, changing little from show to show and year to year. There is some truth to that: scholars poring over the band's image bank will not discover that Garcia's wardrobe challenges Liberace's, nor did the Dead's low-key stage presentation rival that of your average arena rock act. But the Photograph Series is a rich and variegated resource, a critical part of their Archive that adds a vital dimension to the band's history, in surprising and often revealing ways.
The earliest photographs tend to be by friends and fellow travelers, such as Rosie McGee and Herbie Greene, both of whom have carefully documented their time with the Dead. McGee's pictures inform her superb memoir, Dancing with the Dead, A Photographic Memoir (2013), and Greene went on to become an internationally known rock photographer whose portraits of the Dead are rightly considered iconic. His first darkroom was in the basement of the Haight-Ashbury recording studio where the Dead worked on their first single. Greene's work has appeared in many books, including his The Book of the Dead: Celebrating 25 Years with the Grateful Dead (1990). One of his most revealing shots shows Garcia with an old-fashioned camera, a subtle challenge to the dividing line between photographer and subject, just as the band's approach to concerts blurred the line between performer and audience. Greene even used it as the image advertising one of his gallery exhibitions, a poster also preserved in the Archive, seen here.
That poster illustrates another interesting aspect of the Photograph Series, which is the degree to which it is intertwined with so many other parts of the Archive. A surprising number of posters incorporated photographs, from Wes Wilson's skillful incorporation of promotional photographs of the Dead and the Airplane for his seminal graphic BG 23 to more nuanced efforts like Timothy Dixon's 1970 concert poster, which used Stanley Mouse's airbrush and charcoal sketches of the band for Workingman's Dead. Interestingly, those portraits began as photographs, which Mouse staged and then projected onto paper, sketching and airbrushing over the projections.
Mouse's photographs are perfect examples of the kind of creativity the Dead both exemplified and inspired, an extension of their approach to music: just as the band's music showed how porous the line between genres could be, the photographs in their Archive show how that boundary-crossing eclecticism extended into other media as well. Many of those images are equally ambitious. Mouse's cover shot for Workingman's Dead is a classic, a shot that somehow transcends its circumstances-a hot, sticky day in San Francisco's factory district-to capture a deeper sense of what they all sought for the album: a quintessentially blue collar scene, band arrayed on the curb as if waiting for a bus, all framed by rendering plants, with the grind of work and life perfectly expressed in Bill Kreutzmann's tired sprawl.
Mouse recalls that photo shoot vividly, with that shot as the cap of a long day. Serendipity was his angel then, and it shines in many of the images in the Archive. Band staffer Steve Brown, whose papers are part of the broader Grateful Dead Archive's collections, captured one of the best-loved shots of Garcia as he walked up Haight Street on March 3, 1968, to perform at the band's famous free show that day. Brown also recorded the songs we have from that show, documenting so much of what we know of that historic event.
The archive that best embodies that Deadhead sense of serendipity is Dick Latvala's, another important supporting collection. His papers trace his own career arc from fan to Vault archivist, and his reel to reel tapes document the kind of effort and devotion that early tape trading required. The Latvala photograph here is by Susana Millman, one of many that illustrate the archive's larger holdings. Another evocative image shows Dennis McNally at a book-signing for his authorized biography A Long Strange Trip; although just a casual snapshot, it adds an important visual dimension to his papers, which document the decades of work he put into researching and writing his book.
We don't know the photographer of that shot. That is a final aspect of the Photograph Series, which is the mysteries they record. One of the earliest pictures in the archive dates to the early 1960s, and shows a youthful group of folkies; it, too, lacked any identifying information, although we can glean some details from other sources. Its presence in the Archive shows how the band sought to build its own sense of history, or prehistory, since this predated the formation of the Warlocks.
What most stands out about the photographs of the Dead Archive is the range of the artists who created that series-not only those with the cameras, but those who encouraged them. The band built its photograph collection in the same way that it conducted its business: the primacy of fans' contributions to the music meant that it was natural to foster that kind of mutuality in a related artform like photography. The Dead were generous with photo passes; all they asked was that photographers share the results. Thousands of those images now help to make the Photograph Series a surprisingly deep resource, capturing so many sides of the Dead experience, from inside the arenas to the fringes of the parking lot. The fact that those snapshots were saved says a great deal about the band: the sense of investment, the appreciation for the scene, the perspective that united the work onstage with the lives offstage, and that forged a community.
That was the Dead. And that is the deeper, ineffable mystery that the photographs in their archive also capture.