Wet plate portraits honoring overlooked blues musicians in the South

Elevating the artists who laid the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll.

Boot Hanks with guitar in a field
Boot Hanks (James Hanks), 2014Timothy Duffy

Timothy Duffy founded The Music Maker Relief Foundation 25 years ago as a way to preserve, recognize and provide support to the people behind the musical traditions of the South.

“Most of these people are unseen and silent, even though they created the greatest music that America has,” Duffy says. “The blues, jazz and gospel, still drive in the south, and are our greatest musical export to the world.”

Many things about the music industry has changed since then. When Duffy started his non-profit organization people were still buying music—record sales translated into financial support and exposure for the artists that The Music Maker Relief Foundation aims to serve. So Duffy had to get creative.

David Bryant Holding Cora Mae Bryant Guitar
David Bryant Holding Cora Mae Bryant Guitar, 2017Timothy Duffy

In 2013 Duffy picked up a copy of John Coffer's book, The Doers-Guide to Wet-Plate Collodion Photography, and taught himself the old photographic practice. Shortly after he began photographing blues, jazz and gospel musicians throughout the south using the technique.

The images were published in book last month by the University of North Carolina Press titled, Blue Muse: Timothy Duffy's Southern Photographs. A solo exhibition featuring 30 original wet plate collodion tintypes from the book opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art yesterday.

Dave McGrew with full beard
Dave McGrew, 2016Timothy Duffy

Duffy says it was important to capture the musicians in their environments, which often meant traveling to remote areas of the country, utilizing his mobile darkroom, and shooting outside of his studio. Duffy worked with a variety of strobes so that he’d be able to shoot at night time despite the low ISO of the collodion.

It takes Duffy about fifteen minutes to make a plate, but he says that each portrait session typically lasted 4-6 hours. But in some cases it can take much longer—photographing Robert Finley in Bernice, Louisiana took a few weeks, partially because it was important for Duffy to photograph the community that surrounds an artist.

Dom Flemons and Vania Kinard holding hands
Dom Flemons and Vania Kinard, 2016Timothy Duffy

“In blues music artists are singing about is their community—I thought it was important to get some of those folks.”

Ultimately Duffy says he hopes his portraits will elevate the importance of these often-overlooked musicians.

“Usually we just take and forget. Elvis Presley, take the songs of the black folks and become a rich rock star,” Duffy says. “That's fine, but my point is, to show where it came from and to celebrate them.”

The work will be on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art through July 28.

Freeman Vines shirtless with instrument in a field
Freeman Vines, 2016Timothy Duffy
Ironing Board Sam playing the piano
Ironing Board Sam (Sammie Moore), 2015Timothy Duffy
Little Freddie King with his guitar
Little Freddie King, New Orleans, LA 2014Timothy Duffy
Algia Mae Hinton's Hand
Algia Mae Hinton's Hand, Middlesex, NC 2015Timothy Duffy
Pat Mother Blues Cohen with feather hat
Pat Mother Blues Cohen, Hillsboro, NC 2015Timothy Duffy
Pipe Organ Guitar Accordion installation
Pipe Organ Guitar Accordion (built by Sammie Moore circa 1920), 2016Timothy Duffy
Robert Finley at Home playing guitar
Robert Finley at Home, Bernice, LA 2016Timothy Duffy
Sharon Jones with solemn face
Sharon Jones, 2016Timothy Duffy
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