Jacob Blickenstaff is a New York-based music photographer who worked with Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings extensively since 2009. Here, he shares archival shots of the dearly departed star. Jones’ posthumous album with The Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman, was released by Daptone Records in November.
With a lot of other musical subjects, you wait for the opportunities to show them in the best moments. In a fleeting gesture, they might reveal themselves subconsciously. But Sharon Jones beamed who she was right at you, from the first minute to the last. It was more about rising to her level of commitment and the way she gave herself over to the music. You had to keep up with her. She was going to give you a lot, but you had to act fast in order to gather and distill as much of that energy into a photograph as you could.
As many of her friends and bandmates did, I loved Sharon. I think my deepest motivation was to be a witness of who she was and reflect it back to her in pictures. I’m proud to have worked on several album covers and publicity portraits for Daptone, but a deeper personal current ran beneath it all. We weren’t close socially, we didn’t correspond or talk on the phone, but I always felt an intimacy when I was around her, and she seemed to understand what I was doing. I remember meeting her backstage after not seeing her for a while and she said matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s Jacob with the pictures.”
February, 2009, Highline Ballroom — Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings performing. This was the first time photographing them and I was lucky to catch them in a smaller room.
December, 2009, Brooklyn Bowl — As a regular part of Sharon’s show she’d invite people up to dance with her. Sometimes her dancing partners were a little awkward, but she loved the interaction and the exchange of energy directly with fans.
August, 2012, Williamsburg Waterfront — This image really captures her sassy command of the stage. I remember the excitement of shooting from the stage; it allowed me to sense the relationship of her with her audience and when the band was locked in with her I could sync up with their energy and document the experience from within.
March, 2013, New York — This was from a promotional portrait shoot commissioned by the label. The work stayed in the can for several years, as right after this Sharon got her cancer diagnosis and took the better part of a year for treatment. Someone had the good sense to go out and buy some flowers, which really softened up the image. By default, I always directed Sharon to look tough, but being more comfortable with each other I became aware of a very sweet side of her, and remember the quiet intimacy of that day.
February, 2014, Beacon Theater — I didn’t really know about Sharon’s spiritual dimension until the time of this picture. I learned that leading up to a performance, Starr Duncan (left) and Saundra Williams (right) would often say a prayer together with Sharon, which was an important part of focusing the emotional energy that she would bring to her performances.
December, 2014, Apollo Theater — Sharon, and nearly the entire Daptone roster, returned to the Apollo Theater for three nights, for the “Daptone Super Soul Revue.” My most personal memories of Sharon are being one-on-one with her in her dressing room. I’m very humbled that she’d let me in to that space. I felt fully accepted, and I hope she felt fully seen.
December, 2014, Apollo Theater — A sequence shot on film. Her performances were so physical, I was always looking for the subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) of her body language.
December, 2014, Apollo Theater — Sharon doing what she did best: working a room.
December, 2014, Apollo Theater — A multiple-exposure image. With a big group like the Dap-Kings, it’s hard to get all of them in a live photo and at the same time do justice to Sharon’s energy. But Sharon and the Dap-Kings have a very symbiotic relationship, they rose to match Sharon’s performance, and Sharon operated at her peak because of their musical excellence. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
December, 2014, Apollo Theater — Sharon was always humble, but in this case was deservedly proud over the news. The day of one of the Apollo shows, it was announced that Give The People What They Want was nominated for a Grammy.
March, 2015 — This is an outtake from the album cover shoot for It’s a Holiday Soul Party. She was never a diva on set, but I remember that at this point of the shoot she was improvising lyrics to the effect of: “Let’s get this damn photo over so we can eat lunch.”
February, 2016, Madison Square Garden — The band was opening for Daryl Hall and John Oates. In the green room, around her band, management and close friends, she was a very playful and funny person.
February, 2016, Madison Square Garden — Sharon as seen between Joey Crispiano (left) and Gabe Roth (right).
July, 2016, Tinley Park, Illinois — An unglamorous dressing trailer in back of a very hot, outdoor venue in Indiana. This one’s hard to talk about because it was the last time I had a private moment with her. I was in quiet awe being there with her as she transformed for the stage. She was speaking quietly about wanting to leave behind as much as she could musically for her fans, her band and her label. She was pushing for everyone else from a place of deep-selflessness and generosity.
July, 2016, Tinley Park, Illinois — On tour with Daryl Hall and John Oates, the Dap-Kings convinced Oates to perform an obscure single he had cut as a teenager in Philadelphia called “I Need Your Love.” The band learned the music and they rehearsed it at soundcheck to perform that night as a duet. It was a moment of pure fun for the band and Sharon.
June, 2016, Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival — When I came to this show, I wasn’t sure if I was going to photograph it or just hang out. Sometimes it’s easy to rest and think that I’ve made enough pictures of Sharon performing, but there was something special about this show, Sharon and the band were just ferocious. It was an important lesson: if Sharon can push herself like that every time, then I should get off my butt whenever I think what I’ve already done is “good enough.”
June, 2016, Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival — After the show, Sharon (Jones) met with Sharon (Van Etten). This photo reminds me that every musician that I’ve talked with about Sharon has a tremendous respect for her. Almost universally, they knew she was the real thing and how much it took to do what she did.