Jim Marshall’s infamous photo of Johnny Cash: ‘It shows John’s individuality,’ the photographer said, ‘but the gesture was definitely done in jest. This was not a serious shot.’

Jim Marshall
February 3, 1936-March 23, 2010

marshallA legendary grump, Jim Marshall was also an indisputably great photographer, whose images of ‘60s legends remain among the most indelible images of an incredible decade in rock history, and who was busy shooting the latest generation of artists up to his death in a New York City hotel, apparently of natural causes. He was 74 and left no immediate survivors. Born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, he began delving into photography while in high school, then pursued it professionally after finishing a tour of duty in the Air Force. He remembered the start of his career being a moment when he gave John Coltrane a ride and Coltrane returned the favor by allowing Marshall to shoot nine rolls of film. After moving to New York, he was hired by Columbia and Atlantic to photograph their artists in the studio, which found him sitting in on sessions by both Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. He was also the only photographer granted backstage access to the Beatles’ final full concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966. After returning to San Francisco in the late ‘60s, he produced most of the work that yielded legendary images, especially of the reigning royalty of the Bay Area scene, including the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana and Janis Joplin. He also shot the Rolling Stones on the 1972 tour that is widely regarded as the band’s peak as a performing unit. He also shot album covers, with some 500 bearing his images. Among his many classic shots is of Johnny Cash extending his middle finger to the camera, which was used in an ad suggesting the gesture was Cash’s response to a music industry that was looking to dump him on the scrap heap of washed up artists. But Marshall always insisted the photo was capturing Cash’s sense of humor. “It shows John’s individuality,” he said, “ but the gesture was definitely done in jest. John’s got a great sense of humor, and this was not a serious shot.”

Jim Marshall’s shot of the Grateful Dead graced the cover of Rolling Stone, September 17, 1970 issue

Looking back on Marshall’s enduring work, its power to captivate, even mesmerize, seems best summarized by a statement made by fellow photographer Anton Corbijn at the 2005 MOJO Honours List ceremony. Presenting Marshall with the MOJO Image Award, Corbijn said: “I like myths and I like truths, but above all I love someone who can capture both in one photograph.”—David McGee

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