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Grateful Dead Photographers Remember Capturing the Magic From the Pit, 25 Years After Jerry Garcia’s Death

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One reason photographers loved the Grateful Dead, among so very many others: the “first three songs only” rule for the photo pit took on a whole new meaning at one of this band’s shows.

“When you got three Grateful Dead songs, you could be in that pit for 40 minutes, if you’ve got the right songs,” says Jeff Kravitz. “You go shoot, like, Britney, that’s 12 minutes for those three songs. For the Dead, you could be in there 25 minutes… and Garcia’s not moving fast.”

When Kravitz first got to shoot the Dead in 1994, he found himself in the pit next to a more veteran photographer of the band, Jay Blakesberg, who was already renowned among Deadheads for his iconic portraits of the group after shooting them since 1978. Blakesberg and Kravitz shared their memories of being in out and of the Dead’s photo pit with Variety in advance of the 25th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s passing.

In 1977, a dozen years after the group’s founding, a then 15-year-old Blakesberg attended his first Dead show as a fan. He went on to attend all four annual Labor Day weekend shows from ‘77 until 1980. “I shot them in September ‘78 and then again in November of ‘78, the 24th of November,” Blakesberg recalls. “They did a special ‘Deadheads Only’ concert at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, a little 3200-seat theater. The only way that you could get tickets was you had to be invited via their Deadhead mailing list.”

Traveling between a Philadelphia college and moving to L.A. for work, Kravitz, a renowned entertainment photographer, didn’t experience his first Dead show until decades later. Kravitz recalled a story of his first attempt to shoot at a show, where he wound up in a conversation with Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally.

“I almost had a photo pass for that night. Then I told him I work at Rolling Stone and he was like, ‘What’s the proof? I want to see the proof. You have Jodi Peckman call me.’ I was fine until I mentioned Rolling Stone. Jodi Peckman didn’t call, but next time I went to the Dead, I brought a whole folder of photographs with all my bylines with them,” said Kravitz. “He’s like, ‘Why are you showing me this?’ I was like, ‘Because you questioned my veracity!’ He goes, ‘If you want to shoot the Grateful Dead, be down here with your camera in 10 minutes.’ I ran back, got my camera, went right back to the pit. I’m like, ‘Here I am, Mr. McNally,’ and he let me in the shoot. That was the day I met Jay shooting in the pit at the Dead show.”

According to Blakesberg, Kravitz shot “80 rolls of film” with a consistent camera shutter, enough to make him wonder if Kravitz was actually another photographer: Steve Granitz.

Garcia and the rest of the Grateful Dead, since the start of the band’s career, allowed fans to bring cameras to shows for opportunities to express their creativity. As Blakesberg’s career as a photographer followed the same trajectory as the band, he evolved from a teenage fan to an extensive documentarian of the Dead. “You know, with Garcia, it was about body language — the flourish with the hand coming up in the air or a big smile, lifting his leg just a little bit. There’s a few shots like that in those rare moments that you were able to catch Garcia like that.”

Later in his journey of shooting portraits of the band, Blakesberg also recalled watching Garcia slowly start to regress as 1995 drew closer, both through his own lens and on the stage. Specifically, he discussed photographing an ad campaign for Alvarez Yairi, the manufacturing company behind Bob Weir and Garcia’s acoustic guitars. Weir, however, would be the only one to appear, as Garcia arrived three days later; the photos were not used. He also noted how it carried over into Garcia’s musicianship.

“Later in life, when drugs consumed his ability to play with the sheer brilliance that he could… I don’t know if he was intentionally phoning it in. I don’t think that any musician really ever wants to be accused of that. But, I think that he was hindered by his drug intake. Unfortunately, that was the result, that there were a lot of performances that were not up to the par of who Jerry Garcia was,” Blakesberg said.

However, there were also many uplifting moments Blakesberg and Kravitz shared with Garcia before he died. Blakesberg shot one of his most famous portraits of the musician, with Robert Hunter beside him, sitting on a desk in the band’s small office. Kravitz met Garcia twice at a gym at the Four Seasons in Seattle, striking a conversation about legendary songs including “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen” and Wollensaks — a reel-to-reel tape device that Garcia used while attending bluegrass shows to practice as a musician in the early 1960s. “He was a taper, and that’s why he allowed the taping — because it was a tool that he used in his life,” said Kravitz.

On August 9, 1995, a month after the final Grateful Dead show at Soldier Field, the word that Garcia had passed away spread around the world. Blakesberg heard the news break right away over the radio while driving back home, and started to prepare his photographs to send as tributes to music magazines.

“It was a big half-page photo of everybody, that was candlelit in a circle. I think the next day I went to the corner of Haight Ashbury. There were scraggly old hippies hanging out and things attached to trees and chalk sidewalk things that people had written on the corner,” Blakesberg noted. “I was shooting and developing film and FedExing it out to Rolling Stone and dealing with other magazines saying, ‘What do you got? We’re doing a tribute issue.’ This is back in the day where we sent black-and-white prints and colored slides to magazines.”

Kravitz, on the other hand, was returning from a Fiji honeymoon that day and didn’t hear the news until he was picked up at the airport. He flew up to San Francisco upon hearing that a tribute was taking place.

“I went during ‘Fire on the Mountain’ because they set up this whole stage area where everybody was putting flowers and stuff. I had a backstage pass and you were able to go anywhere up there. And I went and stood where Jerry would have been standing if he was playing that song to that crowd,” said Kravitz. “I watched the crowd react to the song and tried to channel in my head what it was like for Jerry to look out and see this colorful party happening in front of him. You know, I had this whole experience where I was putting myself in his place for a minute and soaking in the crowd and the vibe and the amazing music they’re playing through the P.A.”

After the Golden Gate Park tribute, one of hundreds or thousands of gatherings in which fans across the globe mourned, many who immersed themselves in Garcia’s music moved forward with life — new jobs, starting families, but still having a love for the memories and music. It wasn’t until 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s formation — when the remaining members (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann) reunited for their “Fare Thee Well” concerts.

The “Fare Thee Well” reunion tour spanned five shows that summer, two in Santa Clara and three in Chicago. Although members of the Grateful Dead had played together in several bands after Garcia’s passing, notably just as the Dead, “Fare Thee Well” reinvigorated the band’s timeless history for old and new fans alike.

Blakesberg, as the official photographer for “Fare Thee Well” at show promoter Pete Shapiro and the Grateful Dead’s request, coordinated a shot from Kreutzmann’s drum risers of the band thanking the audience on the other side of the stage. That photograph, along with others in Blakesberg’s portfolio as a Dead photographer, served as the inspiration for his book that coincided with the 50th anniversary.

“I knew there was no way they would do that for me, so I sort of made up a little story. I brought it to all the managers first. They said, ‘This is great. We’re in. Now go convince the band.’ I said, ‘I want you guys to come out and greet the band. You’re going to do a bow at the end of the night and you’re going to thank everybody then. I want you to come out and thank them for 50 years of music as an “I’m not worthy” and pump your fist and connect with the audience, before you play that last show.’ They came out and I said, ‘Then you’re going to turn around and thank the 10,000 people behind the drums and I’ll be up on the drum riser.’ They all said, ‘Wow, that’s great, we’ll do it.’ That’s the cover of the Fare Thee Well book,” said Blakesberg.

The Grateful Dead’s legacy didn’t end there, either. That same summer, John Mayer, along with Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart, formed Dead & Company — with Mayer paying tribute to Garcia as the new band’s lead vocalist. “It’s all gonna be part of the tale of the Grateful Dead and the way that people celebrate the music. That’s the amazing thing about the music — the music is going to outlive the guys that are playing it,” said Kravitz.

Yet Blakesberg, although forever connected to the music and having a role in the Dead’s history, noted that his official Grateful Dead archive will close when the “core four” officially stop making music — but will save a new, separate photographic chapter in case spin-off groups like Dead & Company continue on with new members one day.

“Many of the most important moments in my life, these profound moments, were with the Grateful Dead or Deadheads — people that were at my wedding, people that were my friends, when my children were born, the career that I’ve had, the photographs that I’ve taken, the documentary aspect of photographing members of the Grateful Dead starting in 1978 all the way up till today,” said Blakesberg. “People are like, ‘When are you going to stop shooting this band?’ I’m like, ‘When Bob and Phil and Mickey and Billy stop making music completely and they are retired.’”

In a way, the sound truly has outlived the makers, especially Garcia himself. It’s the groups like the Dead and Dead & Company, and even Furthur and RatDog, that have honored and kept the Grateful Dead energy and jam band scene alive and well. The photographs shot by Kravitz and Blakesberg have captured memories in place, for lifelong fans and strangers to stumble across another glimpse of Garcia’s soul, no matter how many decades pass.