Joseph A. Rosen photographs the hands of blues musicians in his book, Blues Hands.

Can You Recognize Blues Legends From Just Photos of Their Hands? 

Can You Recognize Blues Legends From Just Photos of Their Hands? 

Behold
The Photo Blog
Jan. 7 2016 10:54 AM

The Hands of Legends

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Richie Havens, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 2007. “Richie gained fame as a singer-songwriter and a folk musician, but there was always a lot of blues in his music. He is perhaps best known for his performance at Woodstock, where he was the first act to perform.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

Every photographer who shoots musicians occasionally shoots the musicians’ hands. But few have considered them as extensively as Joseph A. Rosen.

In Blues Hands, which Schiffer Publishing released in October, Rosen uses photographs of hands as a window to the blues, a musical genre he’s loved since he was a teenager. During college, Rosen started photographing blues musicians, as any fan would, and would make prints to get signed. Three decades later, his freelance career had left him with an impressive archive.

“While I was editing one day a photo of Jimmy McCracklin’s bejeweled hand and another of the hand, bass guitar, and cigarette of Cliff Belcher, both ‘jumped out’ at me. I knew then that I had a theme and a thread that I would follow. Hands tell a story,” he said via email.

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Buckwheat Zydeco, recording studio, Woodstock, New York, April 2005. “Stanley Dural Jr., aka Buckwheat Zydeco, is a great friend and a great musician.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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Ruthie Foster, Bradenton Blues Festival, Bradenton, Florida, December 2012. “Ruthie is a small woman with a big voice.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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Frank “Scrap Iron” Robinson, Legendary R&B Cruise, October 2009. “ ‘Scrap Iron’ is a good friend and a real character. He spent thirty years on the Chitlin’ Circuit as Little Milton Campbell’s road manager. He watched the door, the money, and Milton’s back.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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Earl Salley, North Atlantic Blues Festival, Rockland, Maine, July 2012. “He plays the rubboard, or frottoir (the Creole/Cajun name from the French frotter, to rub) and has been known to challenge members of the audience to drink a shot of Tabasco sauce.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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The photographs in the book are close crops of fingers on fretboards and keys as well as wider shots whose focus, nonetheless, is hands. The earliest, of ragtime pianist and composer Eubie Blake, was taken in 1982, and the most recent, of the Blind Boys of Alabama, was taken in 2014. Rosen has traveled the world making these photos, including as far as Iraq and Kuwait, when he documented the 2008 Bluzapalooza tour. 

Bedecked with rings or creased with age, hands are indeed an expressive canvas for a musician’s personality and experience. That may be best exemplified by Rosen’s photo of the weathered hand of the Delta blues singer and guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Born in 1915, he was known as the “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen” and was still performing a few months before he died in 2011. 

“He was [nearly] 96 when I took this photo and still sharp as a tack, remembering details from a portrait session ten years earlier and catching up on mutual friends. Six months later he passed away. This hand IS history.”

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Maxine Brown, photo studio for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, New York City, 1994. “Beautiful and ageless, Maxine Brown personifies soulful elegance.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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Eubie Blake, New York City, May 1982. “I took this photo at a press event where Blake was presented a video disc player and the first stereo video disc of the Broadway musical Eubie! He was well into his nineties at the time and sharp, funny, and ‘salty.’ ”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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James Brown, the Savoy, New York City, 1983. “His live performances were legendary for their energy and showmanship. I am glad I got to see and photograph him perform while he had all his powers, as in this photo.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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Honeyboy Edwards, Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale, Mississippi, April 2011. “While still in the South he performed with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Williams, and Sonny Boy Williamson. And along with them, he migrated north and was present at the inception of modern electric blues.”

Copyright Joseph A. Rosen, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.