A new documentary film chronicles the captivating highs and catastrophic lows of American photographer Jim Marshall.
American photographer Jim Marshall died peacefully in his sleep in 2010 at the age of 74 — probably the least likely end to a tumultuous life fueled by drugs and rock & roll. A natural born provocateur, Marshall understood the power of art to transform our lives. In his hands, the camera became a tool for activism, a recorder of history, and a means to salvation.
Whether photographing Johnny Cash during his historic San Quentin and Folsom prison concerts during the 1960s or traveling with Joan Baez on voter registration drives through the South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Marshall was anchored in his work. Photography gave him purpose, put him in community, and was a way to show love — things that sometimes slipped away when he found himself alone.
In those moments, Marshall looked for ways to escape, his efforts to self-medicate often snowballing into catastrophic acts of self-harm. “A lot of creative people get really stuck in addiction because they are so sensitive,” says photographer Amelia Davis, Marshall’s longtime assistant and sole beneficiary of Marshall’s estate. “They connect with people on such a human level that they want to numb themselves out because it is overwhelming, especially when you are doing it 24/7 like Jim. Photography was his life so when there was downtime, he started feeling all these things and it was too much for him.”
Davis, who witnessed and often bore the brunt of Marshall’s tumultuous addiction, does not shy away from addressing the darker chapters of his life in the documentary film Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, which was just released on Apple and iTunes. Featuring appearances by actor Michael Douglas, musicians Peter Frampton, Graham Nash, and Kamau Kenyatta, photographers Anton Corbijn and Bruce Talamon, the film chronicles Marshall’s journey through the counterculture to become one of the most influential music photographers of all time.
Understand Your Man
As a first generation Assyrian-American coming of age in 1950s California, Jim Marshall always felt like he was on the outside looking in. Growing up without a father, he struggled with deep issues of abandonment, and turned to alcohol, drugs, guns, and fast cars to deal with his rage and grief. It was only when he bought his first Leica in 1959 that Marshall could quell the demons nipping at his heels.
Marshall began visiting jazz clubs in San Francisco’s famed North Beach, where he taught himself how to make pictures with a manual camera and fixed lens of Black musicians performing in a low-light environment. He bought film in bulk and rolled it himself, always taking extreme care never to waste a frame.
Today we honor jazz legends like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Nina Simone as genius — but in their time, they suffered the horrors and indignities of racism and segregation alongside the entire Black community. “When Jim discovered photography, he wanted to use it as a tool to shine a light on people and issues that were not receiving the attention they deserved,” Amelia Davis says. “Jim had a natural ability to open people’s eyes to what he was feeling and it’s important for photographers to understand that you have that power.”
One Piece at A Time
Although Jim Marshall had an adversarial nature, the moment he picked up a camera, he became a staunch ally. Whether photographing Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison — the founding members of the 27 Club — Marshall understood the fundamental humanity beneath the breathtaking talent and dizzying fame. In Marshall’s photographs we don’t just see artists or celebrities, we see people with their guard down, open and unafraid.
“They exposed themselves to Jim. They showed their vulnerability and allowed him to photograph it — and that is so rare,” says Amelia Davis. “Jim could be very chameleon-like depending on the persons he was with, and he would mirror them so that they were at ease. If he was with a country musician like Kris Kristofferson or Greg Allman, Jim could sit on the back porch, drink beers, and shoot guns. He became a part of their world and could relate to them on a personal level, and that was such an intimate way to connect no matter their background.”
Davis, who just returned from traveling the country for a series of film premieres, observes how closely audiences connected with Marshall, who is featured at length speaking candidly in archival footage. “I think what draws people to Jim is that he was so real,” says Davis. “He just put it out there like, ‘This is who I am. You either like me or you don’t. I don’t give a fuck.’ His personality resonates and it comes out in his photographs. He’s showing you what he felt.”
I Walk the Line
Throughout his life, Jim Marshall took up for the underdog because he understood what it felt like to be underestimated and always forced to prove your worth. Most people know him as a rock and roll photographer, but as Show Me the Picture demonstrates, he was so much more than that. Marshall was complicated and conflicted, desperate for love while pushing people away. He was aggressive and alienating, yet deeply respectful and reverential when in the presence of those who stood in truth.
It’s a principle Amelia Davis understood, one that gave her the power and presence of mind to tough it out with Marshall during the last 13 years of his life. “I saw that he had this body of work and I didn’t want to get lost,” she says. “I wanted it to be shared with the world and that’s why I stayed. We developed an incredible bond and he allowed himself to be vulnerable around me knowing I wouldn’t hurt him and I wouldn’t leave. I don’t think he had experienced that before.”
After Marshall’s death, Davis inherited his estate and has spent the past decade on a mission to bring his work into the public eye. As editor of Jim Marshall: Show Me the Picture – Images and Stories from a Photography Legend, Davis crafted a masterful journey through Marshall’s expansive archive that could only be done by an insider who knows that we cannot separate the message from the messenger. What makes Marshall’s work so remarkable is Marshall himself, a man who in so many ways embodied the schism at the very heart of America’s Culture Wars, which began in the 1960s when these photographs were made.
Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall is now streaming on Apple and iTunes.