The Digital Journalist
The Delta Blues Musicians
June 2004

by Gail Mooney

I started photographing blues musicians years ago while on assignment for the National Geographic Traveler magazine. In particular, while shooting stories in Chicago and Memphis, I gravitated to the "blues" clubs and festivals and became fascinated with not only this music genre but the musicians themselves and where they came from. Their music told the stories of their southern culture and a time in America when rural life was migrating toward an urban existence. I would listen, I would shoot, and sometimes I would capture a feeling in that "moment in time" that a still image offers.

Pinetop Perkins

© Gail Mooney
About 3 years ago, I attended a seminar at the Photo Expo given by the Blue Earth Alliance, entitled "Shooting from the Heart". That seminar rocked my world. It was then that I decided to pursue my interest in these musicians, in terms of a personal, photographic project. I also knew that I needed to approach my project in a multi-media format. My idea was to combine the two mediums - still environmental portraits along with video interviews of the musicians. Ultimately, I wanted to create an archive of their thoughts and stories while they were still around to tell them. Being that the youngest was in his late 60's, I felt an urgency to get started. My project was selected for sponsorship by the Blue Earth Alliance, which has allowed me to seek funding under their non-profit status. To be honest, I have received very little funding to date, as money has been scarce the last few years. However I have proceeded, using mostly my own funds, and taking it a bit more slowly as a result. I have met many roadblocks along the way, some where I didn't except them. Many "experts" have told me that "the story has been done" or that "the greats are already gone". I suppose both those statements have a bit of truth to them, but I didn't let it discourage me and I stayed the course. Can you imagine if a song was only recorded one time, by only one artist?

Sam Carr

© Gail Mooney
To date, I have photographed and interviewed seven musicians. We haven't just talked about their music - we've talked about their childhood and growing up in the Delta and the good times and the hard times. We talked about their generation and in the end, I hope that I have captured these thoughts for future generations. There are still some musicians that I would like to include, and I am still trying to get the doors opened so that I get time with them. Access has sometimes been my biggest challenge, although it has gotten easier as I have gained trust in this "community".

Technically speaking, this story was meant to be multi-media. Shooting both stills and video was really the only way to tell this story. Everything was shot digitally, including the stills which made editing easier. I shoot with the Canon XL1 and I have to say that I was amazed at how it performed in some of the extremely low-lit situations. In the beginning of the film there is a cut of Willie "Big Eyes" performing - the lighting is purple in color. I remember shooting that - it was hot and very dark. The sweat was stinging my eyes and I could barely see an image through the viewfinder. I was just winging it, hitting the focus button every so often and hoping that I was getting something. When I saw the tape, I couldn't believe it - not just the color but also the resolution - I could feel the heat of the moment, all over again.

Ultimately, my goals are two fold. I would like to set up a traveling exhibition, showing both the photographic prints as well as a video kiosk running the interviews and performance footage. More importantly, I am seeking additional funding so that I can duplicate and distribute copies of the work to schools in Mississippi and Chicago. And of course, I hope to continue adding to my project to include other musicians. In a way it really has no end.

I want to thank the Blue Earth Alliance for sponsoring my project and for giving me the inspiration and initiative to pursue this project. I encourage anyone who has a story that they would like to pursue, to contact them. I'd also like to thank all the Platypus gurus for their guidance, knowledge, criticism and support. And to David Snider for teaching me valuable editing techniques and for his appreciation and respect for the still image when used in this new medium. I think the last few years have been a tough time for many photographers. I feel fortunate that I have added new skills to my craft and I am grateful for everyone's guidance in that pursuit.

© Gail Mooney

Gail Mooney has been shooting for over 25 years for magazines, advertising and international corporations. Some of her clients have been: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Travel & Leisure, Hong Kong Tourist Association, I Love NY, and American Express. In the last few years she has added video to her skills and is producing multi-media projects.