The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, May 9 through November 2
If Marty were not such a great picker, he would be known simply as a great photographer. He has the eye and he knows all about the moment. – Jack Spencer
by Susan H. Edwards, PhD
Marty Stuart was a child prodigy who became a music icon. What is less well known is that Stuart is also an accomplished photographer. Although barely a teenager when he began touring with Lester Flatt and Nashville Grass, Stuart was already a student of America’s vernacular music. He quickly began making photographs of the music legends he encountered and soon developed a sophisticated photographic eye. Because of the longevity of his career and his diligence in documenting his milieu, Stuart has created a visual history of musicians, singers, and songwriters. Over the years, he expanded his subject matter to include people he encountered along the back roads of America as well as the members of the Lakota tribe, Pine Ridge Reservation (South Dakota), their hardships, and their profound dignity. Selections from these three bodies of work will be exhibited in the Conte Community Gallery at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts May 9–November 2, 2014.
Stuart’s photographic career was sparked on his first trip to New York City while touring with Flatt. There, in a Greenwich Village bookstore, he saw black-and-white photographs of jazz greats made by the renowned bass player and photographer Milt Hinton. Stuart knew he could do for country music what Hinton had done for jazz, and the timing was perfect. He borrowed a camera from his mother, Hilda Stuart, a photographer of considerable talent, and began making photographs of his fellow performers.
As Stuart’s interest in the medium intensified, he was drawn to the work of Nashville photographers Ed Clark, Jim McGuire, and Les Leverett, particularly their images in black and white. The latter, as the official photographer for the Opry for over thirty years, had the same behind-the-scenes point of view Stuart had. Further study led Stuart to the work of Dorothea Lange, Eudora Welty, and Diane Arbus, and one can see how all of these predecessors informed his aesthetic.
Stuart has owned only three cameras in his life: a Kodak Instamatic, a Minolta, and a Nikon. To date, he has used only film and traditional photochemical printing. He understands that the documentary mode shares with country music a democratic alignment with working-class values. It is best unadulterated. Thus, Stuart uses available light—natural light whenever possible but also stage lighting for photographs made during performances.
Stuart has photographed musicians practicing, in recording sessions, and in quiet moments at home. His country music Masters series includes those who were front and center as well as major talents known only in the business. Frequently photographed members of Stuart’s inner circle age before the camera. On September 8, 2003, Stuart made his final portrait of one of his most frequent models, Johnny Cash. Four days later, Cash died, reminding us of the poignant association of photography with past, irrecoverable moments. In the photograph, Cash does not make eye contact with the camera or the photographer, but rather gazes downward at no one in particular. Stuart captures his friend, mentor, neighbor, and former father-in-law in a pensive moment, which conveys both dignity and frailty. June Carter Cash had died less than four months earlier. In life, the man in black was a study in contrasts, flawed and redeemed, humble yet iconic. Stuart’s last portrait is a tribute to their long and warm friendship.
During the early 1980s, the Johnny Cash band, which included Marty Stuart, played a benefit at the Holy Rosary School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Stuart felt an immediate and strong kinship with the Lakota people he met there. He noticed how their observing traditional ceremonies and rituals elevated their dignity and spirits. In the late 1980s, Stuart saw Edward S. Curtis’s photograph Vanishing Race—Navaho, circa 1904, in which a group of Navajos on horseback file into a canyon with one lone figure turned to look back. Stuart realized he also had the perspectives of immediacy and hindsight. With the Lakota tribe, Stuart is not a voyeur but the keeper of an inside view. His compassionate images of the Lakota people are akin to social documents by Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and Mary Ellen Mark. For decades, Stuart has revisited South Dakota not just to photograph the people but also to donate time and resources to help alleviate the crushing cycle of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism there. For his efforts, he has been adopted officially into the Lakota tribe.
In a body of work he refers to as “Blue Line Hotshots,” Stuart chronicles ordinary people doing ordinary things. In the era before GPS, we consulted road maps that marked the highways and roads in blue, red, or gray. As a chronicler of people who reside along the blue lines, Stuart champions people, who are hotshots in their own back yards, with empathy and respect. Stuart is an insider among the regional characters he encounters at rodeos, state fairs, and truck stops. After all, Stuart was a star-struck, vulnerable kid himself in 1970, when he borrowed his mother’s camera and approached recording artist Connie Smith and asked if he could take a photograph of her seated behind the steering wheel of her car in a blue-sequined dress. Twenty-six years later Stuart and Smith married.
Marty Stuart is a singer-songwriter, musician, performer, historian, collector, writer, entrepreneur, and photographer. His forays into photography blossomed early and never waned. He has created a world of wonder and preserved it at the same time. Being a Marty Stuart fan is its own reward. At a live performance, one is dazzled by his virtuosity as an entertainer, musician, and fan. His joie de vivre is irrepressible and infectious, a visceral reminder to live in the moment and preserve that moment whenever possible.
American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart will be on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, May 9 through November 2. For more information visit www.fristcenter.org and www.martystuart.net.