Tuesday, January 8, 2013

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The photo on the left shows a young Joe Jackson; on the right, Suzi Quatro. The photos were recently shared with me by PermaRec reader Tom Common, who describes himself as "an antiques dealer specializing in postcards, paper, and photographs." He won't tell me where he's located, but his story, and the story of these photographs, is an intriguing one. I'll let him tell it in his own words:

Around the year 2000, I went to a local flea market. One of the dealers had a large box full of photographs. There were hundreds of folders of color and black-and-white photographs, most of them accompanied by negatives. Most of the photos were of rock musicians (mostly bar bands, but the photos looked very professional, like the photographer had been hired to do publicity shots), plus there was a little bit of personal family stuff and another large group of train pictures.

I quickly negotiated a price, paid, and asked the seller where he had acquired the photos. He told me that he had gone to a garage sale in a suburb and that a woman had sold them to him.

When I got home, I sorted through the photos and I was amazed. There were photos of bands that I remembered from the 1970s, interior shots of famous local bars with the employees, and shots of musicians practicing and relaxing backstage. In addition to photographing local bands, the person had seen shows by big-name acts like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Todd Rundgren, etc. The photographer had also attended some of the huge stadium concerts. He did not have as much access to those shows, but they are pretty good shots considering the equipment he had.

The train photos were also interesting, as this person traveled all over the state documenting trains and stations. The family photos were the smallest part of the collection, and there were no family names or other identification.

I organized the photos as best I could (some had been removed from their folders and mixed up). And I attempted to identify the bands, using what little info was included on the envelopes. Then I put the collection on the back shelf for a while, always wondering who, what, and why.

Fast forward about five years. I was listening to a local college radio show, and a guy from a band was being interviewed live. He was in one of the bands that had been photographed. I called the show and spoke with the guy, explained the situation, and arranged to meet with him at a coffee shop.

On the scheduled date, two guys showed up to meet me. They introduced themselves, and it turned out that one of them was a photographer. I had brought along some of the photos I'd purchased at the flea market, and I showed the photos to them. The photographer guy said there were only three people doing this kind of work at the time, and he said he was pretty certain it was "John Doe." I asked about John Doe, and the guy said that he believed Doe had ended up in prison.

After the meeting I went home and did a bit of internet research. Sure enough, John Doe had been incarcerated, but he was out on probation.

Doe had been in prison at the time I bought the photos, My best guess is that his wife sold the photos. I think the reason there were so few family photos is that the wife kept most of those.

In any event, the photos of the bands are an important document of a specific time when rock music was the life blood of my hometown. I know they could be crafted into a fine book. I also know I would have to get in touch with all the people in the bands and find out stuff about the fans and behind-the-scenes people. But I am unskilled at the business of book publishing, and I have concerns about John Doe's role in all of this. I have not yet attempted to contact him.

I have talked to a few people and their reaction has been mixed. I honestly do not know how to proceed. Can you offer me any advice?

As I explained to Tom, I'm no attorney, but my layman's understanding of copyright law is that the original photographer -- whether it's John Doe or someone else -- still holds the copyright to the photographs, and that the photos therefore can't be published without his permission or compensation. But Tom should really consult a legal professional on that point.

What I do feel qualified to comment on is the question of whether Tom should contact John Doe. Tom hasn't shared John Doe's real identity with me, or the details of his criminal record, so I can't offer fully informed advice here, but my general feeling is that Tom should go ahead and contact him. Just because someone's an ex-con, that doesn't make him a bad or dangerous person. If he's out on parole, then he's supposedly paid his debt to society. And he may have an emotional connection to those photos, which he's probably assumed are gone forever.

As I've said before, I'm a storyteller, so my instinct is always to connect the dots and follow where they lead, even if they lead in some potentially uncomfortable directions. I hope that's what Tom ends up doing. If you have other advice for him, feel free to post it below, and/or contact him directly. He's eager to hear feedback (and not just of the squealing electric guitar variety).


  1. hi Paul --

    Great story, and I hope we can see the other photos. I think you are right about your PermaRec reader not having the legal or moral right to publish these photos for profit, but I suspect there is some "fair use" angle that could let the prints/scans be shown online, if "Tom Common" wants to gauge interest, use the web anonymously to contact the photographer, and/or identify the people and places depicted.

    And I agree with you about contacting the photographer (aka John Doe) -- whatever comes of this will be way better if done with his permission and cooperation.

    Great stuff!

    your fan, JJ

    PS: btw, did you know that the AdChoices banner on this comes up as:

    "Search Arrest Records
    1) Enter Any Name;
    2) Hit Search
    3) Get Full Arrest Records!


  2. This reminded me of another complicated story of 1970s rock photos and personalities, played out online after the ~2009 death of Willy DeVille: