David Gahr (1922-2008)
It wasn't necessarily that I'd upset Gahr (though I probably had)--that pretty much constituted normal patter for Dave, who, then 84, was close to deaf and fairly fed up with the world as a whole. To speak with him on the phone almost required that you repeat everything two and three times and at the top of your own voice. I must admit that, because of this dynamic combined with Dave's constant reminders that publishers are only out to screw you, my initial calls with him usually left my hands shaking.
When he learned that the Paul Nelson project was to be my first book, he said: "Well, you picked a doozy! The most beautiful man of all--and it won't sell!" Then, laughing at his own audaciousness, he allowed, "In Minnesota it'll sell a few."
This morning Clinton Heylin e-mailed me from the UK to let me know that Gahr, who lived here in Brooklyn, had passed away over the weekend at his home in Park Slope. His health had apparently been deteriorating over the last several months. He was 85.
When I finally met Dave in person last September (the 12th--Leonard Cohen's birthday), he was kind enough to invite me over to his huge, four-story house to pick up some photos he'd taken of Paul Nelson and which he'd agreed to let me use in the book. Over the next couple of hours, he escorted me floor-by-floor (and then down into the basement) and showed me just a fraction of his amazing photographs. Each floor was like visiting another era in American culture, with each room providing storage for photos organized by subject and year.
Rolling Stone and Sing Out! are just a couple of the many publications that ran his work. He photographed Dylan (from the early Sixties until just a few years ago) and Malcolm X; he was the first photographer to shoot Bruce Springsteen--and had over 4,000 images to prove it (among them the cover shot for The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle); Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, and John Lennon were just a few of his more notable subjects.
Slowly leading me up the stairs to the next level, he'd encourage me to sit down and take a rest; in his kitchen, he poured us coffee and told me some of his tales. Like the time he was hired by Time magazine to photograph Arthur Miller in his apartment, but Marilyn Monroe, dressed in a terrycloth bathrobe, answered the door instead. Taken aback, he said not to worry about the camera around his neck--that he was there to photograph her husband, who, Gahr learned, was sick in bed with the flu. "You must grow very tired of photographers," he told her. "Well," she said, "there are some photographers I love." At that point, she revealed to him that she had a favorite photo of Miller that she carried with her always: she reached into the breast pocket of her robe and showed the photo to Gahr. It was one he'd taken of Miller many years before.
About the many record covers he shot, he said: "Most of them aren't worth shit. They're just pictures. When I get a stunning one, it's so rare." He told me about one he'd taken of Gladys Knight that he was particularly proud of: "Every so often one or two things are really at the top of your toil."
And about growing old, he promised me: "Fifty to seventy should be your best years."
The last time I spoke with Dave was a couple of months ago. He said that he had a few more photos of Paul that he wanted me to see, but that he had to find them first. "Then I'll call you," he said. This morning I shared the bad news with Dave's old friend--and Paul's, too--Jay Cocks, who summed it up this way: "Gahr was terrific. I'll miss him. Music will miss him."