Dan Ball’s Unseen, Intimate Photographs of Memphis's Music Scene
The Memphis native shot some of the most influential musicians of the past 30 years—including Jay Reatard, Three 6 Mafia, and Sonic Youth—often in his home.
If you were in a band that played a show in one of Memphis's many clubs since the 90s, or if you were one of the many locals who made those clubs their second home, or even if you just caught some music while passing through the city, you might have seen Dan Ball standing in the front row with his camera.
Ball, a third-generation Memphian, has been taking photos of bands for three decades—while they performed, backstage, or wherever he could get them to sit for portraits. Some photos made their way into bands' publicity materials, or appeared in one alt-weekly or another, but most ended up filed away in Ball's house. When I first met Ball, he was somewhere in the midst of organizing and digitizing the past few decades of his work. We sat for hours in his living room, the blinds closed against the August heat, as he told me about how he went from studying film and photography at the University of Memphis to shooting some of the most influential musicians of the past 30 years—Alex Chilton, Jay Reatard, Three 6 Mafia, and Sonic Youth, to name a few—often in that very room.
VICE: How'd you get into photographing artists? Would you just show up to the gigs?
Dan Ball: I guess it all started around '94 or so. I'd known Tripp Lamkins, the bass player for the Grifters, since college. We worked at a record store together and then we'd bump into each other here and there over the years. I was sort of into an art thing at that time. I wasn't really thinking about shooting musicians so much, but then they got signed by Sub Pop. Dave Shouse [the Grifters' drummer] was my neighbor in this apartment complex then. The band suggested I shoot some pictures for them. I did and it seemed to go really well. Then slowly other people I knew in bands started asking me to shoot for them. The Oblivians, Impala (this surf rock band with Scott Bomar and John Stivers). From there I just started photographing bands that I would meet along the way.
What was it like shooting Jay Reatard early on? You mentioned that first time you saw him at [popular rock club] Barristers in '98.
Right. He'd already been around. Eric Friedl at Goner Records is the one that sort of really nurtured him and got him going. It was through Eric that I had heard about him and went to see him. I never got to be really close friends with him. I guess he intimidated me a little bit, but we were friendly. I think there was a mutual respect there. And then there's Lost Sounds. Alicja Trout [co-founder of Lost Sounds with Jay Reatard] was a dear friend and I wound up shooting them. Around 2007, Jay was really taking off. I shot a cover for his record Singles 06-07. We got together for that shoot and it was like we were old chums. Everything had come full circle and we were buddies.
You shot a lot of these bands in your living room, right?
Yeah, right here in the house. A lot of them are bands that just came and went, commercial jobs or whatever. A lot of them I shot at Barristers and various places around town, and on Mike McCarthy's movie sets. That's where I shot people like Guitar Wolf.
Jay Reatard during a Lost Sounds shoot, 2002.
Why do you think Memphis has been home to so many different types of music?
It's one of those things I can't really put my finger on. That's why I just take pictures. There's just a vibe here that started a long time ago, long before the 60s. And I think people got attracted to it and came here. There's a real sort of community thing here where everybody's willing to help each other out. I don't know if it has to do with the mixture of races or the food. A lot of people say it's the water—some of the best water in the world is in this city. Nowadays, you see so much stuff that's mainstream that people like me can trace back to here. You can't get to Taylor Swift without going through Carl Perkins.
Do you think people should pay more attention to what's happening here?
I do, but I'm kind of careful about that because you don't want to spoil the soup. The thing that's going on here might not be commercially sustainable, but that might be the very thing that makes it interesting. I feel like people come here to learn and to get better and occasionally they take off and go around the world. Memphis is definitely a brewing pot. There are plenty of great recording studios here, great ones doing amazing things. But the big names don't necessarily come here that often.
Sonic Youth came in '95 to record Washing Machine at Easley-McCain Recording.
That was great. Unfortunately I didn't have access to them easily. They were protecting their privacy. I didn't know them and I wasn't going to bother Doug [Easley] about it, but I was informed that they were playing this show at Barristers so I got down there early and got in a good position for it. It was really hot. Barristers was never super well air-conditioned and there must have been a hundred people in that place. Everybody heard about it and it just got crammed packed. It was an all-instrumental show, basically.
What about the Antenna Club, what was that like?
The Antenna Club was the first of the alternative clubs, opened in '81. It was just a little tiny room right here on Madison, but that's where everybody played until Barristers. The Antenna was the main thing.
Even though so many of these places have been shuttered, the architecture of Memphis has stayed the same since Elvis's day. How do you look at the city's photographic potential?
It's kind of difficult, because it's so personal. I was born in the 60s, so I got to see a lot of that stuff as it was disappearing—just like, crying every time one of those old buildings got knocked. Baptist Memorial Hospital where Elvis died, got imploded, what, ten years ago? I guess there ain't a thing that could have been done about that, but I did get to go inside it and take some pictures before they dropped it.
If you look at William Eggleston's photography, you'll see a lot of it. He was instrumental in me staying in Memphis. I discovered him when I was in college. I was house sitting for this FedEx pilot and his wife. Going through their books I found an original copy of William Eggleston's Guide, from the MoMA show in '76. I'd heard the name Eggleston but I didn't really know what it was. I thought maybe he was a photographer for [the newspaper] The Commercial Appeal or something. I started looking through it and it was like my childhood in photographs. He delivered the idea that no matter where you are, it's about feeling the vibe, and trying to seize it somehow with a camera. I'm not sure anyone else could have done that for me because he was from right here. That's when I forgot about going to Paris and trying to join Magnum, an idea I had been playing around with.
What are some aesthetic considerations when shooting a live act?
Old films are a big influence. There's a certain raw and grittiness to it that I don't see as much of today. There's a whole generation of kids coming up who learn photography through Photoshop, whereas I learned it in a darkroom—everything was kind of grainy. Half the beauty of a photograph is the imperfections. Everybody tries so hard now to eliminate all the imperfections, it becomes so sanitized it looks like a Denny's menu.
How does shooting Three 6 Mafia differ from shooting the Oblivians or Jay Reatard?
It's a different kind of energy. When you go to a rap show, it's like a really cool pep rally, whereas at the Oblivians show it's like drunken cheerleaders. The energy's there, but it's a little more whittled down.
Jeff Buckley at Barristers, 1997.
Tell me the story behind that Jeff Buckley photograph.
I met Jeff in January of '97. I was taking pictures of a band that Dave Shouse had started called Those Bastard Souls. Jeff Buckley's girlfriend Joan Wasser played violin. We were in this hotel in St. Louis. Jeff came to visit Joan and that's where I first met him. He was real nice and we had a great time. A month or two later Dave told me that he was going to move here, and record at Easley. The vibe was that he was trying to avoid the media, so I was really cautious about approaching him because I didn't know him real well. We sort of ran in the same circle of people here so I knew we'd get to be better friends. I figured my best shot was just to leave him alone and get to be friends instead of grabbing paparazzi-type stuff.
So anyway I saw him play at Barristers a few times. It was impossible to really take a good picture of him because it was so dark and you couldn't use a flash without pissing everybody off. But this one particular night one of the Grifters said, "Take a picture." I was doing these long exposures at the time, but I didn't have my equipment, so I just set my camera down on a little cocktail table and set him down in the loft upstairs at Barristers and borrowed a flashlight and a piece of blue filter gel lying around. I rigged it all together and we tried to take these pictures with these long exposures, but it was really difficult because there were people all around us. Everybody was moving. People were smoking grass and the pictures turned out less than what I'd have liked. But he really liked them. He said let's definitely do some more, but let's wait till the band gets here. They were flying in. I was like "OK," and I decided to wait. Then the day that they flew in, he drowned. So I only got these few precious pictures of that whole thing.
He drowned because the Mississippi River moves so fast?
I don't know if anybody told him not to swim down there because every year somebody drowns in that river. It looks all still and quiet but underneath there's all kinds of other stuff going on. Apparently he was wearing his boots.
Is there anyone you regret not having shot?
I tried to get together with Isaac Hayes once, but for some reason his people wouldn't let it happen. He passed away right after that.
You photographed his car though.
That's right. It was on Beale at the Orpheum Theatre. I'm pretty sure the fella that runs the Orpheum owned that car. He probably bought it at an auction and he was selling it for whatever reason. At the time I took it, I didn't even know what it was. I just pulled up and was like, "Holy crap, what it that?" I just took a picture of it. I was thinking about the Elvis statue in the background. Later on I realized it was Isaac's car.
When was this?
Oh, God. I took that in college. It probably was 1984.
Now the car's on display at Stax Museum of American Soul.
Yeah, spinning around in a circle.
See more of Dan Ball's photos below and visit his website.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer living in Memphis. Visit his website.