The Beauty in Liner Notes: How I met Marc PoKempner

The Beauty in Liner Notes: How I met Marc PoKempner







I had a recent discussion with a friend about liner notes, those sometimes rambling essays (for lack of a better word) contained within the little booklet in a CD (compact disk – a rarity these days) or within the sleeve of a vinyl record. We jointly lamented the demise of the well written liner note or even its lack of existence in the of digital downloads (almost an old technology) and streaming. You might have to start with the query as to whether anyone listens to full albums anymore, but for purposes of this discussion, I assume they do. A back and forth led me to think about the time reading liner notes led me to meet celebrated photographer, Marc PoKempner.  He photographed blues musicians (Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and many more) and President Obama when he was just starting his political career.

Sometime in 2013, I was plowing through Chicago blues records with a vengeance. I can’t quite put my finger on the thread, but I think it started with a fascination with early Rolling Stones records. The thought was to get to the source material. The raw, real sound of the blues. My listening took me to familiar places of Chicago blues, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells, but also more blues inspired music like The Allman Brothers. I was listening constantly, but also checking books out of the library (notably a great biography of Chicago blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield – his story is compelling and the book reads like 300 pages of liner notes).
After spending lots of time with Muddy Waters (I strongly recommend “Hard Again” and “Breakin’ it Up, Breakin’ it Down”, two amazing mid-70s comeback records Muddy did with Johnny Winter, Joseph Cotton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Pine Top Perkins. Both have extraordinary liner notes), I turned to Junior Wells.
As I worked my way through Junior’s catalog, I found a disk called “Live at Theresa’s 1975.” In the booklet, there were wonderful photos taken in a little south side club (I have subsequently learned that the little blues “club” was just a basement in a multi-unit building on the south side of Chicago and it maybe held 40 enthusiastic, but liquored patrons). The photo credits in the liner notes credited photographer, Marc PoKempner (Interesting side note: on the disk, Wells sings happy birthday to PoKempner).
I dug a bit and found his book (titled “Down at Theresa’s – Chicago Blues: The Photographs of Marc PoKempner”) from which the photos were taken. I literally pumped my fist when I found the book. I spent a couple weeks entranced by the grainy photos and Marc’s description of how he took them (down to the Leica he used and how he lit the photos. He shot a Leica, which I still shoot and used it to take the photo of him above). On a whim, I emailed the contact address on his site and asked if I could meet him.

About a week or so later, he emailed and said he was in town and that we couldo meet at his home. It turned out, that he lives on the north side of Chicago, not far from my office and I immediately accepted his invitation. I showed up on a sunny January morning not knowing what to expect. I was greeted by barking, sniffing dogs, a gray haired photographer and his special lady. She talked to me about him briefly then left us to talk. He made me tea and we sat in his kitchen for 3 hours talking.
We talked about photography – he gave me a great tip for shooting portraits, musicians, he and Junior were friends (Junior sings happy birthday to Marc on that live album), and he loved Muddy. He talked about moving to Chicago from the east coast to attend the University of Chicago. He talked about the music scene in Hyde Park at that time. He willing answered my eager questions about Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, and Muddy Waters. He told me how he worked at the Chicago Reader as one its first (if not the first) photographers.  He shared his experiences as a photographer at People magazine (a spin off of Life Magazine) and even how the business of being a photographer in the reportage tradition had all but disappeared.

Near the end of our visit, he walked me through this apartment and showed me framed photos he had taken over the years. These were large (larger than 11X14) framed photos of Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, club patrons, and people in clubs. Some of the photos were from the book, others I had never seen. Finally, he walked me into a room that was covered with again, large framed photos, but all these were of a very youthful (full head of dark hair) Barak Obama. He explained to me that he had taken those photos on the South Side (of Chicago) during Obama’s first run for the Illinois State Senate. He also told me how he was lucky enough to be the only photographer to have such photos and that he is regularly paid for use of the photos whenever a book or show needs to illustrate that period of Obama’s career. With the Obama presidential library set to be built in Chicago, I fully expect Marc’s work to be featured.
If anything, I pay even closer attention to liner notes now. They are so few and far between and when they are part of an older recording, they are a window into the past.

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