In 2013, Sharon Jones was forced to take a hiatus from performing after she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. A new documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, follows Jones in the first seven months following her diagnosis.
Jones says that while extensive surgery and chemotherapy took a lot out of her, her desire to make music never faltered. After finishing chemo, recovering from the surgery and getting clean scans, she returned to the stage with The Dap-Kings in 2014.
The cancer has since returned, but Jones wants to continue making music. “This cancer is here, and I have to take the chemo,” she says, “but I want to perform. I just want to be able to get onstage and move.”
Photo: Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings kick off their delayed 2014 tour at the Beacon Theater in New York. Jacob Blickenstaff/Starz Digital
The son of a “photojournalist to some degree,” Jacob grew up
around cameras, picking them up with some intention for the first time in high
school and college. Similarly, Jacob has been a lifelong musician, having played
in school bands from elementary to high school as well as having studied in
NYU’s jazz program.
More than that, though, Jacob has been a longtime
appreciator of musical design, with vivid memories of the allure of album
artwork, even back as a child.
“I remember very clearly being in middle school and high
school going to the local record store in St. Louis and realizing that you
could buy used vinyl cheaper than used CDs and certainly cheaper than new CDs.
So as I sort of flipped around in the record bins, I just fell in love with the
design that was involved with the album covers,” Jacob said. “Especially with
jazz records there’s always great photography on the front and also on the back
in terms of the sessions and recording studios and stuff. That was always
really intertwined with my interest in the music, the visuals.”
Looking back, it was pretty inevitable that all these
interests would eventually collide for Jacob, so it should be no surprise that
he has found himself a career photographing musicians.
“As I looked to pursue photography as work and a
career, where my interest was directed was always back towards music, because I
think that was a really big part of me since I was a little kid,” he explained.
“It was just applying this visual thing back into the musical thing, which is
still the one constant that I hold onto with my work.”
Appropriately enough, just as music helped trigger the
photographer within Jacob, it’s his photography that has brought back out his inner
“I kinda stopped playing [music] seriously before I was ever
that good, but I think I had a good sense for it – I had a good understanding
of it and I had a good level of experience playing with other musicians and
understanding what they get excited about and what they care about,” he said.
“I think it just gives me an ease with musicians when I work with them. It
places me a little bit more on the inside. I think also the other part of that,
as a record collector, as someone who has been just interested in all kinds of
music and reads musician biographies and histories, it gives me a real common
language of talking about more obscure things or the more esoteric ends of
music knowledge which really are all musicians talk about when they’re left to
“I think musicians live in a pretty enclosed world – it’s a
tough life, it’s very demanding on all sorts of levels, so I think when someone
can kind of come and be on the inside of that it takes away a lot of stress and
allows everyone to relax.”
Beyond bringing that relatability, Jacob’s musical impulses
continue to influence his work and the way he approaches photography in many
other ways. For instance, he feels that photoshoots are to a photographer what
a recording session is to a musician, so he prepares for them with the same
mindset that a musician would take into the studio.
“I always leave room for improvisation and things that we
discover in the process of shooting… [but], it is good to prepare. I think of
it very much like a recording session where you would want to have the ingredients
or the pieces all lined up and figured out: you would want to know how much
time you have, you want to know which kind of cameras and technical things
you’re going to use… you want to have a few locations in mind as a starting
space,” he explained. “So you plan, but you also use those pieces however you
can in the process of it, because I think there’s usually a point where both
parties loosen up and to discover an idea together
“And I think that’s also a very musical thing – it’s like
how a band would work out a song in a rehearsal or in a recording session. I
mean, musicians – I don’t think – ever go in with an exact idea of how a song’s
supposed to come out in the end. They’ll practice it, they’ll think about it,
they’ll do a demo and listen to it, but I think that [the] in the moment
creative element always has to be there.”
Just like with a recording session or a concert, Jacob sees
a successful photoshoot as not always coming from having a concrete plan, but
rather an openness to work together – and to play off one another – to get
the job done.
There was also a strange admiration for boys who did not do their work, but still managed to pass exams, while girls who consistently did their assignments lacked ‘sparkle’. It is a small wonder that girls dislike science and choose other subjects to study at university when their efforts are consistently devalued.
Women and science careers: leaky pipeline or gender filter? Jacob Clark Blickenstaff