Ronee Blakely by Jeffrey Scales.
It was the fall of 1978, during the period that I was transitioning from concert tour manager to full time photographer. I was periodically working as a freelance stringer in Hollywood for the New York’s Village Voice newspaper.
I had spent a lot of time in New York City throughout the 1970’s while on various music tours. During one of my stays I was introduced to photographer James Hamilton who introduced me to his colleagues at the Village Voice for whom he was a staff photographer.
One of the first assignments they called me for was to photograph musician/actress Ronee Blakley. She had made a name for herself with her huge singing voice, and her brilliant performance in Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville.
The shoot was to be an environmental portrait in her apartment in the Sunset Tower on The Strip just down the street from the famed rock and roll hotel, The Continental Hyatt House, or “The Riot House” as it was known back in those days because of the antics of famous bands that would trash the place when they stayed there.
I arrived with all my lights and equipment prepared to do an environmental portrait of Ronee in her apartment, which was the specific assignment from the photo editor. We had an immediate connection, and after about an hour of conversation, and an hour of making photographs in her home, Ronee said she had always wanted to get some photographs of herself by the Inglewood Oil Field off La Cienega Boulevard a few miles south of there near Baldwin Hills. We quickly packed the gear into my 72 Chevy Nova, and headed off to the oil fields. It was late in the day, and we needed to get there while there still was light.
Telecaster in hand throughout, Ronee was fearless once we arrived. After we hopped the fence to get in, she charged right up to the oil rigs, even climbing atop one them with her guitar in hand as I made photographs. She was a subject that needed almost no direction; in fact it was more me who had to keep up with her inspiration, and to partner with her on a great idea. At one point I asked her to move forward of the rigs so they would fall out of focus, and it was right then that I made this photograph. The light and everything was really just right, I knew I had the image we wanted.
When the images came back from the lab I went over to meet with her to go over the edit. Both of us were really pleased with how they came and agreed that this was one of the best shots of the group. She was even kind enough to tell me she thought the photographs were much better that what she had from a recent shoot she did with Richard Avedon. For me this was the ultimate compliment, since I had spent years closely studying his work.
Oddly while the people at the Voice liked the shot as well, I was shocked to find that when they published the photograph they cut out the oil wells in the background. This was long before Photoshop and it looked like they just did it with scissors or something. I cannot fathom why they would do this, or even how they felt altering a photograph in this manner was even ethical. But that’s what they did. Since it was a done deal, there was nothing to be done about it. The only course was to become more of a stickler for how my work would be presented in the future.
Ronee and I still remain friends to this day. We got together a couple years after this shoot and just for fun and did another photo session by her house on the beach in Malibu where she and Wim Wenders were living at that time. We worked from sunset until dawn on this shipwrecked idea, and I still remember the wonderful absurdity of being out on the beach in the middle of the night with a whole strobe set-up drinking Wild Turkey, and making some great pictures. Just for fun.