Commercial photographer Lou Bopp’s series ‘Portraits of the Blues’ pays tribute to the blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta through a series of striking, honest portraits. I spoke with Lou about the project, and his experience photographing blues legends like Big George Brock and Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson.
Having always been “enamored with the culture of the south,” Bopp gradually became interested in the blues through following the influences of classic rock; bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones drew heavily from a blues background. Exploring blues as a genre, Bopp says he quickly realized that the once-prominent community of blues musicians was quickly fading as older musicians passed away or stopped playing, and younger musicians were focused on other genres like hip hop and R&B. Bopp says this realization “lit a fire” under him, and he started taking long weekend trips to Mississippi to find and photograph musicians.
Bopp started his search at Ground Zero, a Clarksdale venue owned in part by Morgan Freeman. Bopp is quick to state that while it isn’t a true "juke-joint," it was his jumping-off point for finding the blues presence; “when you go down there, you don’t know any better, and [Ground Zero] is usually where people end up.” Discovering Red’s, a “real juke-joint” down the street, Bopp says he started making connections to the community. Bopp points to Roger Stolle, the owner of Cat Head, a blues and folk art store, as a valuable resource for meeting musicians. Later working with Stolle on documentaries and a book, Bopp says he was “really the main guy that hooked me up with people from the outset.” Beyond Stolle, Bopp says he “networked [his] way around Mississippi,” meeting and photographing any musicians he could find.
Spanning several years, ‘Portraits of the Blues’ is an intimate series, shot without the normal production setup and crew Bopp usually employs for his commercial work. Shooting on location and without assistants, Bopp only took one or two cameras on the road with him. Discussing the contrast between this personal project and his regular work, Bopp says, “for everyone I [photographed], I wanted to shoot them with one lens, one camera, all natural light; I was just going to bounce light around: no assistants… I just wanted to get back to my roots.”
While not every musician was initially interested in the project, Bopp says his decision to offer monetary compensation to each subject helped convince those who were wary. Bopp notes that most of the musicians he encountered were extremely gracious with their time.
I asked if his subjects had been surprised at his interest in photographing them, or his ability to track them down. Laughing, Bopp remarks that some of the very obscure musicians may have been surprised but, for the most part, he says, “It seems like nothing surprises them. I mean, it doesn’t matter who you are, you know, I could have been Annie Leibovitz; I don’t think it would have made any difference in the world.”
Speaking about his experiences meeting and photographing bluesmen, Bopp says there were very few portrait sessions that weren’t memorable in some way. “Every one of them [was] enlightening. Literally everyone, every location I went to, I’d get amped up about. Even if it’s somebody’s house… I’m a culture junkie so I love seeing behind the scenes. That’s one of the things I love about photography. I’m showing more intimate, behind-the-scenes, people-in-their-environment portraits. Because every location is just so rich down there and some of the living conditions are definitely not for the faint of heart, but I appreciate locations and living conditions and seeing what people do and how they live.”
Bopp recalls photographing bluesman Pat Thomas at his father’s grave, which bears the inscription:
Give me beefsteak when I’m hungry, whiskey when I’m dry, pretty women when I’m living, heaven when I die.
“His father was a very notable musician back in the day… I wanted them to kind of speak to each other.”
Bopp says that, while he is no longer actively working on ‘Portraits of the Blues’, his work on the project has created numerous photographic opportunities in Mississippi. While he shot ‘Portraits of the Blues’ on his “own dime” he notes, “From the one personal project, I’ve had lots of other projects come from this.” Bopp says the attention the project received resulted in a campaign for Mississippi Tourism, directing TV spots and shooting a documentary-Moonshine and Mojo Hands.
Surrounded by music during this project, Bopp says that oftentimes, “in the juke-joints down there, there might be 20 or 30 people in a little bar in the middle of a field at 3 in the morning and it’s just… for me… it’s what it’s all about. I’m in places where I’m the minority; it’s just the coolest thing and everybody’s just jamming and happy.”
You can find more of Lou's work on his website.
Images courtesy of Lou Bopp.