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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Watching Pete Seeger Listen...

It's been kind of fun the past few weeks illustrating the update of my exposure book (Exposure Photo Workshop: Develop Your Digital Photography Talent) because I've had to go through a lot of older files looking for specific types of images--like concert shots. I found some great shots of Sonny Rollins (see previous posting) and a few other performers and the other night came across a folder full of shots of Pete Seeger in concert. The Seeger shots were taken at a concert during his "Pete Seeger at 89" concert tour about three years ago; the concert was produced by my friend Walter Wagoner as a benefit for the noncommercial FM station WPKN where I have done a show for more than 20 years.

Pete was joined that night by several guest performers, including his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Guy Davis and I have a number of nice shots of Pete singing alone and with some of these other musicians. My favorite shots though are the ones where Pete is sitting at the back of the stage listening to the others perform. The look on his face--an expression of just utter enjoyment and total concentration--is wonderful. During the entire concert, more than two hours long, I don't think Pete ever took this expression off of his face. He was obviously having a great time. And as much as I tried to keep a photographic eye on the others when they were performing, I found my attention drifting back to this master singer and storyteller who, even at 89 years old, was still enjoying the stories and the songs and no doubt still learning new tricks from performers less than half his age. Perhaps that intense desire to learn and to enjoy life is what has placed him among the greatest folk singers in history. He could not have known it that night, but his enjoyment at being inspired entered my camera and gave me so much more than mere concert shots.

At a concert once in Tennessee, I told Pete that the area in front of the stage was too packed for me to shoot, and asked him if he minded if I sat on the backstage steps and shot from there. He said, "Why don't you just sit on the stage and shoot from there?" And so I did. That show was held in a tent and the tent was just a few feet (literally a few feet) away from some railroad tracks. During the show Pete sang "Freight Train" a song by the great songwriter Elizabeth Cotten who--amazingly enough--once worked as a housekeeper for Pete Seeger's parents (and who lived to the age of 102--so apparently there is something healthy about singing folks songs). I don't recall if it was during the show or just as it ended, but a freight train went by while the tent was still packed and it was almost as if it were on cue. The whistle blew, the wheels rumbled and Elizabeth Cotten's song came to life. When you hang around people with magic in their souls, magic things happen. Twice now that has happened when I was lucky enough to be around Pete Seeger.

Photo notes: I shot this photo with a Nikon D90 camera with a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom lens. Exposure was 1/50 second at f/5.6 and the white balance was set to tungsten, ISO 1600. I converted the photo to black and white in Photoshop CS3 and then toned it using the b&w conversion tool.

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