Icons of rock: Show at Marin JCC displays three Jewish photographers’ shots of music legends

What is it with Jewish Deadheads? Jewish rock photographer Bob Minkin, who used to work with the band, isn’t quite sure.

“I can’t speak philosophically about it, why so many Jewish people like the Grateful Dead,” says Minkin, of Novato.

“But there really seem to be an inordinate amount of Jewish Grateful Dead photographers.”

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead performs at Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University in 1987. photo/bob minkin

The three photographers featured in the Osher Marin JCC’s new exhibit, “Rock of Ages,” were chosen because they are local, Jewish and renowned. But it just so happens that all three have varying degrees of association with the Dead.

“Rock of Ages,” on display at the JCC through Jan. 18, includes pieces by Minkin, Richard Pechner and the late Bruce Steinberg. The show includes large format prints of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Dave Matthews, the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie, Janis Joplin, and of course, the Dead. The Marin History Museum Music Center is co-sponsoring the exhibition.

Steinberg, who was born in Brooklyn and died in San Francisco in 2007, shot a memorable series of Joplin in the 1960s. The images led to him being signed to Warner as one of their staff photographers and album cover designers.

He designed dozens of album covers over the years, including one for the band It’s A Beautiful Day, which featured the Dead’s Jerry Garcia as guest guitarist. And as an accomplished blues harp player, he even did musical backup for It’s A Beautiful Day on their album  “Marrying Maiden.”

Steinberg’s contributions to the JCC show include vintage photographs of Janis Joplin and Tower of Power.

Pechner’s most famous image in the exhibition, taken in 1974, is of the Dead’s legendary PA system known as the “Wall of Sound.” Piled high with amps, the stage is strewn with band members during sound check, before the crowd has arrived. The image is one of the most reproduced photographs of the Grateful Dead.

“Great photography is often about putting yourself in the right place, knowing what to do, and sometimes, an element of luck,” says Pechner, who lives in San Rafael.

Janis Joplin photo/bruce steinberg

For him, the right place was on the road with the Grateful Dead. Pechner grew up in Novato and had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Rodef Sholom, where his family was one of the first to join. He headed to Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s shortly after high school graduation and began attending San Francisco State University.

There he became friendly with groups of activists and musicians, eventually quitting school and assisting the Dead as a roadie, helping set up and break down their stage show. At this point photography was just a favorite hobby, something he’d enjoyed since being gifted a Kodak Box camera by his parents at age 10.

At first he was nervous about taking photos of the band, as photographers weren’t always greeted kindly. The band had little interest in being photographed or the trappings of fame.

“It wasn’t necessarily a glamorous situation for us,” Pechner says. “Some bands had a more romantic image, but the Grateful Dead was a hard-working band.”

That soundcheck shot, the one that he’s now sold a hundred times over, was one of the first images he took of the band.

“Working for the Dead was a life-changing opportunity,” he says.

He ended up working with the Dead for four years but quit his job as a roadie and photographer for the band when, he says, the drug culture that surrounded them became too much for him.

The “Wall of Sound,” the Grateful Dead’s legendary PA system photo/richard pechner

Pechner fled to Mendocino County as part of the back-to-the-land movement and began organic farming. Since then he’s continued photographing musicians — including Ray Charles and Bo Diddley, the latter shot at San Rafael’s New George’s club in 1986. He also has worked as a field producer for documentaries, including Disney’s upcoming “Hidden Beauty,” and he currently volunteers as one of the San Francisco Giant’s “ball dudes.”

Pechner and Minkin crossed paths during the 1970s when they were both photographing the Dead, Minkin says. They also have another connection — both have children that have attended Brandeis Hillel Day School. Pechner’s son and daughter attended the school. Minkin’s son, who is currently at the school, will have his bar mitzvah at Congregation Rodef Sholom next week.

But while Pechner was a teenager snapping photos in the Bay Area, Minkin grew up photographing bands in Brooklyn.

His first camera was a square Kodak Instamatic, purchased specifically so he could have a souvenir from concerts. The first show he photographed was New Riders of the Purple Sage on Nov. 29, 1974 in New York City. Since then, he estimates that he’s attended 40 to 50 concerts a year.

In the spring of 1977 he met the publisher of music publication, Relix Magazine, and began shooting live concert photos for the then-newsletter. He since has shot photographs for Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Time and other publications, including retrospective books.

In the late 1970s he took a trip out West, spending three days on a bus to see the Dead in San Francisco. He then followed the band for some time, photographing them live along with other acts and in 1990, Minkin and his wife decided to move to the Bay Area.

“We wanted to be where the Grateful Dead were,” he says, “and this area had a lot of music mythology — Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin — it was larger than life in my mind.”

The couple, which also has a 16-year-old daughter, started their own graphic design business, Minkin Design, with a niche in music marketing. Minkin became the graphic designer for the Dead, designing some 15 album covers for the band during the 1990s and early 2000s.

He’s shot over a thousand concerts of more than 150 performers, including the Allman Brothers and Frank Zappa.

“A big part of this whole experience for me has been about meeting people,” he says. “I’ve forged lifelong friendships with people through music and photography.”

Though he never met Steinberg, he knew his fellow photographer’s work from the cover of a Hot Tuna album that Steinberg designed and Minkin had purchased as music-obsessed teenager.

“I’m tickled to know I’m a show with him,” Minkin says. “It’s exciting to be featured with these guys.”  

“Rock of Ages” is on exhibit through Jan. 18 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. For details, visit www.marinjcc.org.