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Sunday, 23 September, 2007 7:49 PM

CMA: Photographer Jim McGuire Shoots the Stars of Country Music


Country music photographer Jim McGuire

By Melissa Coker
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

Despite his protests, Jim McGuire just might be lauded by lovers of the visual and musical arts as one of the finest portrait photographers in the business. The proof is in Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts, where many of McGuire's best-known portraits of Country performers are on display through Sept. 9. Yet McGuire - until recently, at least - often waved off this sort of praise, demurring that he began taking these pictures "just for fun."

"I've grown up with Country Music," he said. "I've always been a fan. I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can still remember the smell of the room I was standing in when I first heard Hank Snow sing 'Spanish Fireball.' I was a 12-year-old Boy Scout when I fell under the spell of his hypnotic guitar rhythms and that velvety voice coming out of that ratty loudspeaker. And just as he wrote 'I played the part and gave my heart to that Spanish fireball,' my love of Country Music started that day and has never left."

That day was in 1953, and while his love for this music would change his life in years to come, another passion left its impact first. In 1961, having survived high school and college, the Pennington, N.J., native landed in the U.S. Air Force. Shipped off to Vietnam in 1964, he was put to work as a military photographer, taking aerial photos and snapshots of conflicts involving American troops. His headquarters was a makeshift tent, which he transformed into a darkroom.

"It was actually a wonderful experience," he said. "I would not trade it as it was the first time I felt myself being able to 'see' things."

By the time of his honorable discharge, McGuire knew he would pursue photography full-time. He returned to New York for a three-year run as assistant to fashion photographer John Foote, from whom he learned how to print and take black-and-white portraits, among other skills. Foote introduced him to Irving Penn, whose "Small Trades" portraits exerted a powerful influence by finding something extraordinary in its depictions of "ordinary" people in their work clothes.

Music, though, drew McGuire to Nashville in 1972. "I moved here to produce albums," he confessed. "And I did produce two dobro albums by a fellow named Mike Aldridge. But along the way, this [photography career] just kind of happened. I made a living shooting album covers. I just wanted to hang out with some of these musicians that I admired. It took about 15 to 20 years until I realized that these 30 to 35 years worth of portraits are historic in a lot of ways."

A stroll through the "Jim McGuire: The Nashville Portraits" exhibit at the Frist makes these clear. Among the images that duel for attention are a dolled-up Dolly Parton; a striking shot of Johnny Cash with Billy Graham; a "what are you looking at?" glare from Chet Atkins; Carole King, clad in overalls; a classic image of Harlan Howard; and a couple of carefree captures of Benny Martin, who worked alongside Bill Monroe , Hank Williams and other legends.

A different take on today's image of Vince Gill, snapped in 1985, might evoke the "Grease"-era John Travolta. A mysterious Jack Ingram, pre-Big Machine Records, is included with a very much un-cowboy hat. Dr. Ralph Stanley and his banjo, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash with Rodney Crowell, George Strait and other greats appear happily at home. And Tammy Wynette, with her widespread dress, seems to have found her wings.

"Jim made his living doing album covers and commercial work," said Katie Delmez, Associate Curator at the Frist. "But in these shots we're seeing the artists more purely, almost stripped down to the basics. The fact that he's using black-and-white photography also takes away some of the smoothness of the more commercial images. They're more raw, immediate and direct. To me, they seem to really be themselves."

By restricting himself to black-and-white format, McGuire was able to bring out the "color" in each of his subjects. For the same reason, he chose uniformity in his setting, positioning the artist before the same canvas backdrop, which he had painted a neutral gray in 1969. The fact that these sessions often occurred right after McGuire had done a color shoot for an album cover or publicity photos only makes the contrast between his art and commercial work more striking.

"After the commissioned photo shoot, Jim would ask the artists - many of whom are his close friends - to stand or sit in front of this canvas," Delmez observed. "The only accessory might be their musical instrument. That shot of Bill Monroe cradling his mandolin, for example, is so moving. He was obviously such a passionate artist, someone who felt so strongly about his craft, and I think McGuire captured that dedication beautifully in the way Monroe almost seems to be lovingly kissing his mandolin. That purity of emotion makes these images come alive for me."

McGuire has particular attachment to some of the portraits in the exhibition. The one that depicts John Hartford leaning over his banjo is one of his favorites because it was among the earliest to actually turn out.

"It was one of the first times I shot before that canvas," he remembered. "It was a nice moment too, where he was within himself, playing his banjo and not looking at the camera."

Second on the list would be Marty Robbins, who McGuire listened to throughout high school. And that Monroe image has special meaning too: "Someone told me that Bill Monroe had that portrait up on his wall."

"The bigger the star, the easier they seem to be to work with," McGuire added. "Marty Robbins, for example, was especially friendly. And when artists aren't onstage, it seems like that's when their guard is down. They're alone. They're not 'on.' So it's an honest image. And I always try to make them comfortable. I talk to them, put a guitar in their hand, whatever they need. I encourage them to bring their instruments - or their dogs. Whatever they show up with is fine with me."

Organized by Kevin Grogan, Director of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga., who was Director at Nashville's Cheekwood Museum of Art when McGuire held his first exhibition there in 1981, this nationally traveling exhibition of 60 portraits will hang at the Frist first through Sept. 9; other viewings will be announced in the months to come. A Nashville Portraits book is set for release in October.

On the Web:,



Dolly Parton (1974)


Johnny Cash and Billy Graham (1978)


Bill Monroe (1989) is Detroit's exclusive media outlet for this syndicated weekly column!



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Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer.