Jim Marshall: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide Whose Work Will Never Die

The Beatles © Jim Marshall Photography LLC

They don’t make ‘em like Jim Marshall (1936-2010) anymore.

Not unlike Allen Ginsberg, Marshall – known mostly for his iconic photos of rock stars – was not just present. Still, at the center of numerous peaks of American culture, from the early ‘60s, San Francisco immortalized via Kerouac books and live Miles Davis albums to Bob Dylan’s babyfaced Greenwich Village days, the summer of love, Woodstock, Monterey Pop, the Beatles’ 1966 adieu at Candlestick Park and much more.

Marshall, with a tinderbox of a personality, and a love for guns and drugs, was given access to capture, and also experience, intimate moments, now cemented in music-geek lore. Jim was just feet from Johnny Cash and Dylan when they performed “Girl From the North Country” together. He was close to such massive moments not just because he was a great photographer, but also because Marshall’s subjects (from John Coltrane to Janis Joplin) felt a kinship and a sense of faith.

“People trusted Jim Marshall,” Graham Nash once said, “and it showed in his work.”

`A new coffee-table book, called Show Me the Picture, juxtaposes some of Marshall’s best-known photographs – like Cash at his hallowed Folsom Prison and San Quentin performances and Marshall’s shot of the Allman Brothers that ended up on the cover of the At Fillmore East album – with a biography of Marshall and quotes from dozens of people who knew him well.

Show Me the Picture’s most important revelation is how Marshall was able to take his initial talent – finding, and sharing, the true poetry in human moments he found on the streets of New York and San Francisco – and translate it into work he could sell for substantial money: true poetry in the human moments on stage and behind the scenes that featured famous people who otherwise seemed superhuman.

“He was an addict, and he was my man-child,” former Marshall assistant Amelia Davis says in Show Me the Picture. Marshall was arrested several times on weapons charges and struggled with substance abuse. His explosive personality, along with his talent, gave Marshall a mythic reputation, not unlike many of the stars his photographs immortalized.

Watching Dylan’s profoundly illuminating and hilarious 1965 press conference, which was televised on San Francisco’s KQED, recently for about the 20th time, I noticed Jim Marshall in the front row, taking photos and smiling knowingly at the Beckett-like absurdity of the event. Marshall was born five years before Dylan and, despite his career traversing numerous transformations of American culture, his somewhat old-fashioned appearance stayed essentially the same through the years. Even in 1965, before the appearance of the rock stars Marshall filmed became outlandish, it was clear the photographer knew that remaining somewhat incognito would enhance his ability to capture important moments.

Marshall could be verbally abusive to his assistants and was hooked on cocaine even into his later years, using booze and downers to stay relatively level. Michelle Margetts, who had a tumultuous romance with the photographer, once told the much older Marshall, “You are a rock ‘n’ roll suicide that never died.”

No book could capture Marshall’s hazardous personality or storied legacy in total, but Show Me the Picture is a fantastic snapshot of his personal life and heroic, historical talent. In the book’s final pages, we learn that Marshall – just before he did die – received a photograph of then-president Barack Obama standing next to a framed print of one of Marshall’s Coltrane portraits, with a note from the president: “I’m a big fan of your work…and Coltrane!”