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'Soul. R&B. Funk.' Features A Decade Of Photos From 'The Best Seat In The House'

Bruce Talamon has photographed Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Barry White, Bob Marley, Patti LaBelle ... the list goes on. A new book shows his work from 1972-1982.


Other segments from the episode on August 7, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 7, 2019: Interview with Geena Davis & Maria Giese; Interview with Bruce Talamon.



This is FRESH AIR. Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Barry White, Bob Marley, Patti LaBelle are just some of the many performers our guest, Bruce Talamon, has photographed on stage and off. A book collecting his music photos from 1972 to '82 is titled "Soul. R&B. Funk."

Talamon got his start doing photos for the black-owned LA newspaper Soul. That helped lead the way to freelancing for Jet and Ebony magazines, photographing musicians for record companies and becoming the photographer for "Soul Train." Talamon went on to shoot still photos for various movies, working with people like Eddie Murphy, Paul Reubens, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Talamon covered Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid, where he met his wife, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates. Talamon spoke with guest contributor Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I have to say I'm amazed at the access you got. So when you look at photos, there's, like - there's Patti LaBelle - this is one of my favorite photos - with her feet up on a conference table or Stevie Wonder late, late night at Roscoe's Chicken (ph). This is something I wonder about, is getting that access. There's a photo of Donna Summer.


GLINTON: Minimal makeup. She's got her knees - bare knees pulled up against her. And she's essentially looking down...

TALAMON: Right. Right.

GLINTON: ...The barrel of the lens at you, at the viewer.


GLINTON: And it is so sweet and intimate. And this seems early in your career. How does this photo come about?

TALAMON: Well, this was an interesting - this was - Casablanca Records and Filmworks, her record label, was promoting an album that was coming out in 1977. And they wanted to reach this - you know, this black audience. And they would do this sometimes to the black press. They would give what were called handouts where they'd have another photographer shoot it. And, you know, some Hollywood glamour photographer would shoot it. They'd almost even write the story.

And quite frankly, you know, a lot of black newspapers and groups would not have the manpower. They couldn't go to a concert. They couldn't - you know, they couldn't be there. So they would take these handouts, and they would print them. And Regina said...

GLINTON: And this is the editor of Soul Magazine.

TALAMON: The editor of Soul said, if you want to reach my audience, you have to allow my photographers and my writers access. And so they reluctantly said, oh, OK. You've got 20 minutes. Well, we had set up - on the day that that we were supposed to shoot Donna for the cover, we're there three hours early. Well, who walks in but Donna Summer? And she looks at the setup. And, you know, they had told her that it was going to be, you know, 20 minutes in and out. And she looks, and she says, oh, you brothers are serious. She stayed for four hours, Sonari.

Maybe six months later, when Ebony magazine, which was the big African American magazine of record - they said, do you have a photographer that you work with? Because they were going to defer to her. And she says, yes, Bruce Talamon. That Ebony cover was my first national cover. All right? So, you know, from there, a lot of things happened after that.

GLINTON: You transitioned at some point to work for another Chicago legend, Don Cornelius, the founder of...

TALAMON: "Soul Train."

GLINTON: "...Soul Train." And in the book, you tell an anecdote that I really love. And it's of Don Cornelius, and he's standing in shadow with James Brown. And I love this photo not necessarily because the photo is so great, because the story behind it is so great. For those who don't know, Don Cornelius starts "Soul Train," and he runs it for over 30 years. He's a music entrepreneur who was a Chicago DJ. And there's this, like - there's this moment where James Brown, who is a God of rock 'n' roll, R&B and everything, is standing next to Don Cornelius. And he's surprised by all the stuff that's happening around him.

TALAMON: First of all, when I look back at that photograph, you've got James Brown, and you've got Don Cornelius, two black men who were at the height of their powers and their careers in 1973. They're sitting there on the set, or actually standing on the set, in between shots. And that's one of the things sometimes that's a little subversive about being a photographer - you can get close, and you can listen, and you can hear things. You know, I've always felt that that was sacred, and you don't tell, all right? Now that they're both gone, I think I will share it. During the break, James Brown was noticing, you know, that everybody was deferring obviously to Don.


TALAMON: And at one point, you know, he asks him, who are you with? Well, what do you mean, James? Well, who are you with? Who's backing you on this? And it wasn't until I was putting this book together that I realized that I might have captured an important little historical footnote in black music. Don knew what James meant. And Don, you know, said, it's me. It's only me behind - you know, who's doing this. But James Brown was asking if Don was being assisted by backers who were primarily not of the colored persuasion. And the answer was, James, it's just me.

GLINTON: That's a moment of real realization, right? It's like, oh, we can - not only can sing and dance, we can do the whole thing.

TALAMON: We can - as they say, we can four-wall it because, you see, what that meant was Don paid for everything, and then he went out and sold it, and he owned his product. This was not Don going to ABC and making a deal. Nobody wanted to make a deal with Don back then.

GLINTON: There's a photo in the book...


GLINTON: ...Of Isaac Hayes with a saxophone chain mail vest is the only thing I could call it, sort of in his "Shaft" era glory.


GLINTON: Isaac Hayes, you know, wrote the theme to "Shaft" and was a singer-songwriter and musician.

TALAMON: This is my first R&B photo that I took. And...

GLINTON: You're up in his grill. Like, how do you get there?

TALAMON: (Laughter) I was two feet away from him. How do you get there? Stupidity, not understanding that you're not supposed to be there, not understanding that two security guys could have picked me up and tossed me out. But they didn't. It was the end of the show. I actually got up on the stage, was crawling around these boxes, the road cases, you know, that the instruments are in. And he was actually playing at that moment. So there I was.

GLINTON: And there's a photo in the book of a young Bruce Talamon standing near Isaac. I mean, you are - you're under the piano almost.

TALAMON: I'm - yeah. I'm two feet away. And I just knew that that was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life.

GROSS: You're listening to the interview our guest contributor Sonari Glinton recorded with Bruce Talamon. His music photos from 1972 to '82 are collected in the book "Soul. R&B. Funk." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our guest contributor Sonari Glinton recorded with Bruce Talamon. His book "Soul. R&B. Funk." collects his photos of musicians from 1972 to '82.

GLINTON: It's clear looking through the book that you have a relationship with these artists, right? And if the positive side is the intimacy, then you have to develop trust. What are the trade-offs, then, you know, to get this close, to get this intimate? As someone, you know, who's a journalist, I think, well, are there trade-offs? Are - hey, Bruce, don't take this photo. Hey - like, what do you have to trade - what did you have to trade?

TALAMON: I was never asked to put my camera down. One of the things I learned early was that you not mess up the vibe and maybe don't get too close. You know, you can always put a longer lens on, you know. Pay attention; it's all around you. And if you're in the room, the shot will come. But you have to pay attention. You have to be aware of everything that's going on. One of the things that a couple of people told me was that they liked the fact that I didn't burst into a room and just start photographing. You have to lay back. Just wait. I've used that, and it's been good for me.

GLINTON: How do you not mess up the vibe? That - you say that's the key, is, like, I knew not to mess up the vibe. But how do you not mess up...

TALAMON: Well, I mean...

GLINTON: ...The vibe on a...

TALAMON: You know, in other words...

GLINTON: With cool people. These are people you might think are actually cool. How do you not mess it up?

TALAMON: Oh, they were very cool. They are very cool. Look - there's a lot of folks walking around with cameras; there's only a few photographers, all right? And you got to learn, you know, how you go about it. There's a certain style to it. And, you know, you learn from, you know, people like Gordon Parks, or you learn - you know, Bob Willoughby or David Douglas Duncan. These are the people that I looked at their work and I basically put myself to school, you know.

And I would look and I would see how they would tell a photo story and how you would use your lenses. And quite frankly, the photographer who had an impact on me was - one of the ones - was Jim Marshall. He of the rock 'n' roll...

GLINTON: Yeah, the rock 'n' roll photographer. He took a - like, my favorite photos of Mick and Keith, etc. Yeah.

TALAMON: Right, in 1972. But, I mean, you know, Janis and Jimi at Monterey and then later at Woodstock - and he used a Leica camera because a Leica doesn't make that loud clack, you know? It's a much quieter shutter that you have. And also, it's unobtrusive. It's smaller than a Nikon or a Canon. And the lenses were just superb. And it almost sort of disappears in your hand, so there's not that red flag of, oh, he's got a camera.

GLINTON: Oh, he's got - and a big camera with big lenses on it.

TALAMON: And a huge camera, and a camera that goes, chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka (ph). No. You don't - you know, you don't do that. You don't fire off 20 shots in - you know, backstage in the dressing room, you know?

GLINTON: You know, I - you know, you tell a story - your first professional photograph, actually, you take a photo of Miles Davis when you're...

TALAMON: I was a college student. And actually, that wasn't really a professional job. That was just Bruce wanting to go down and get a better position and a better seat. I mean, I was sitting at the feet of Miles Davis.

GLINTON: Oh, so you're at a - you go to a concert to see Miles Davis.

TALAMON: I was at a concert in - I had bought a camera in Berlin. I was on an exchange program for Whittier College. And I had bought a camera for $150 - all my little money that I had at the time. And I used up all my little - for those of you who don't remember, American Express traveler's checks. But I had my little American Express traveler's checks, and I wrote them all out and bought the camera.

We were at the University of Copenhagen. And Miles was coming to play at Tivoli Gardens, which is a big venue in Copenhagen. And the brothers wanted to go see Miles. So we go, and we were in the cheap seats because we didn't have any money. And I decided to go down to the front. Well, I walked down to the front, and an usher stops me. And he says, you have to go back to your seat. And I said, well, actually, I'm from Jet magazine, an American publication - looked the man straight in the face and lied.

GLINTON: (Laughter).

TALAMON: Sorry, Mom. But he said, OK, and then allowed me to proceed down. And during the concert, I photographed Miles. I was - I don't know - two or three feet away from him. And he's in the front - or, you know, front part of the stage. And there came a moment when the photographer - the Danish newspaper photographer took - Miles was doing a solo. He had the mute on the solo. It was intimate. It was quiet. It was subtle, and the photographer fires off with a Nikon motor drive right in the middle of the solo. And...

GLINTON: But then that's - that would be like, click, click, click, click, click.

TALAMON: Click, click, click, click.


TALAMON: Miles didn't say a word. He just emptied his spit valve on the guy. And that's...

GLINTON: That is gross. And Miles Davis...

TALAMON: That's pretty gross. But then he turns, and he looks at me. And he says, you can stay. Oh, baby, I was done, OK? I was, like, floating on air. And, you know...

GLINTON: And just to be clear - I want to say when I say that that's gross, the spit valve is - when you're a performer, like, the spit collects in...

TALAMON: Right, exactly - in the trumpet.

GLINTON: ...The trumpet, in the horn. And so - and a lot of it can collect. And you can see musicians, when you're emptying them on the side of the stage - and they have places for it. So to do that is possibly one of - I mean, can you - I mean, I just...

TALAMON: The point was that he - the artist was insulted. And also, the guy - he could have gotten - you know, you didn't need to do that, OK? As a chronicler or as a recorder of this moment, I learned, you know, stay out of the way and don't mess up the vibe. And so, you know, there we were. And that's something that I've always - I mean, it's taken me to many places.

GLINTON: Bruce Talamon, thank you so much.

TALAMON: You are welcome. Thank you.

GROSS: Bruce Talamon's book is called "Soul. R&B. Funk: Photographs 1972–1982." He spoke with our guest contributor Sonari Glinton. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about debunking a conspiracy theory. Our guest will be investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, who uncovered what he describes as the previously unreported role of Russian intelligence in creating and fostering one of the most insidious conspiracy theories that arose out of the 2016 election; a conspiracy theory that was promoted by some of Donald Trump's allies. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: It's a pleasure to end today's show with some good news. Our producer Heidi Saman has brought Remi Rafat Tannenbaum (ph) into the world. Baby and mother are doing great. It was wonderful witnessing her pregnancy. And now we all look forward to seeing the next chapter of her life as a new mother. She's only been gone a few days. She worked until nearly the last minute, but we miss her already. We look forward to her return and to meeting Remi. Congratulations to Heidi and her husband, Joel (ph).

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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