a giant in blues photography

Jefferson Blues Magazine – Jefferson in short – is a well-known Scandinavian journal. Being issued with its first number already in May 1968, it is the oldest now existing blues magazine in the world. Since the very beginning, several photographers have provided blues pictures to Jefferson. One of them, Hans Ekestang, has won special stardom as legendary blues photographer. He early entered the circle around Jefferson, and started to deliver an impressive flow of world-class quality pictures from the Swedish blues scene and from blues journeys abroad, especially the USA. His pictures have, among other things, contributed to the excellent reputation of the magazine internationally. Jefferson owes a lot to Hans Ekestang.

Born in 1952, Hans grew up in Solberga in Hägersten, on the south side of Stockholm. Music caught his interest at an early age. As a little boy he heard rhythm’n’blues, and was hooked up with artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino. A bit later, in the beginning of the 60:ies, several English bands appeared on the music scene, playing rock music with a blues feeling; bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. They made a strong impression on young Hans, as did English ”blues father” John Mayall. Hans also began to discover the original, ”black” blues, and found an early favourite in Muddy Waters.

In the local music school he learned to play guitar. Already at the age of 11 he performed solo on scene in his ordinary school, ”Kämpetorpsskolan”. His father, who died the year after, was happy to be able to watch that. Hans also performed with the local music school’s guitar orchestra. At one concert with the orchestra, in the ”Kungsträdgården” in Stockholm, around 1966-67, his proud mother was standing in the audience, far back, taking photos with a wide-angle camera. Not a very good idea! Her son turned out to be a small dot on the photos …

Hans didn’t choose to become a professional guitarist. Still, he has continued to play – mostly at home – on his alltogether five guitars. The reason was that his mind had taken a growing focus in another direction: photography. This was forthcoming to be combined with his equally rapidly growing interest in the blues music.

Hasse EkestangPhotography career
After attending a couple of photo courses in the 60’s, Hans went to a hairdresser, letting his long, trendy mods-hair be cut off by the scissors. He had decided to become a photographer, and for that he needed to look presentable. What he had in mind was an employment with the well-known photographer K.W. Gullers, who had his studio in ”Norra Kungstornet” in the Norrmalm area of Stockholm. The proper short-cut 19 year old youngster made a good impression and was hired. To begin with as an errand-boy and copyist. Soon enough, however, he was trusted by Gullers to do more challenging things: or how about, for instance, to take photos of Formula 1 races with famous Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson in Anderstorp in 1973? Things like that suited Hans very well, and he stayed with Gullers for eight years, until 1979. He learned a lot of things, and became a high skilled press photographer, with a specialty in ”catching the moment”. Gullers fully recognized his talent and has described him to have ”the unique competence to capture the moment in the flight” and that he knew the art ”of how to get to the frontline and even in the most difficult situations be able to take first class press photos … a feature which is extremely rare”.

After the novitiate learning period with Gullers, Hans was at age 27 ready to become his own company, and worked among other things as a photographer at a freelance basis for the Local Traffic of Stockholm for 30 years. During this long period, he has made a monumental effort in documenting the Local transportation system of Stockholm and its development with all changes. In total he has taken tens of thousands of photos; for instance pictures of all the stopping-place sheds in the vast area of Stockholm (many of which no longer exist), photos of royal inaugurations of new stopping-places, photos of the art in the underground railway, and so much more. The photos are now transferred to ”Spårvägsmuséet” in Stockholm. In 2007 a lot of them were exposed under the name ”Stockholmsbilder”. The exhibition went on for almost a year.

Hans is proud and happy to have been able to work professionally as a photographer ever since he left his employment at Gullers. The life of a freelance artistic photographer is not a piece of cake! Encouraging, though, is a scholarship he recently was awarded, making possible a trip to the USA.

At the end of the 60’s Hans happened to see a label with contact information on Jefferson, on a LP convolute in a record store. This immediately caught his interest and he contacted Claes Hedman – founder and first editor of Jefferson – suggesting that he could serve as a volunteer for Jefferson. Hans was already familiar with photographing of artists, mainly at rock concerts. Hedman was enthusiastic about the idea, and Hans sent him some pictures for a teaser.

Johnny Otis Show photo by Hans Ekestang
Johnny Otis Show. Photo: Hans Ekestang

This was the beginning of a long era of cooperation with Jefferson. His first cover photo was of Big Joe Williams, published in No 17 of Jefferson. As a thank Hedman gave him a one-year subscription for Jefferson, the only time he received compensation for his blues photography! All of Hans’ other photos have been given for free to Jefferson, and Hedman, and various editors after, thanked him and were very pleased. Hans was not looking for money: he thought the mission was simply fun and put his soul into it. His love for the blues and the art of photography became a lifelong interest. In addition to photographing blues artists at numerous places in Sweden, he went to Chicago in the 80’s, documenting his blues idols there. He was very fond of the Chicago blues; and still is. He also visited the jazz festivals of Antibes and Montreux, where many famous blues artists performed, particulary in the 70’s. The 1974 festival in Antibes was a great success, with names like Muddy Waters and Freddie King – both being in absolute top form – and Johnny Otis Show with a brilliant parade of R&B artists. Hans was operating in the frontline as usual, and could provide his travel companion Jörgen Sandin with a series of now legendary pictures, used in the enthusiastic report Jörgen wrote in Jefferson No 26. As a blues photographer Hans perhaps was hottest in the 70’s, but his commitment has never faded.

Son Thomas photo: Hans Ekestang
Son Thomas  Photo: Hans Ekestang

– I have basically continued with blues photography throughout my whole career; it has become a life project of its own. It has also served as an input to the everyday professional photography; a separate project.

Freddie King Photo: Hans Ekestang
Freddie King  Photo: Hans Ekestang

– How much time and money I have spent on blues photography I have never dared count. But it has always been on my own initiative and interest, and worth everything. It has become a passion to take pictures of blues musicians.

Lil Ed. Photo: Hans Ekestang
Lil’ Ed  Photo: Hans Ekestang

Future projects
Quite a lot of his blues pictures are placed in Jefferson’s photo archive, but even so much more of them Hans keeps at home in the attic, waiting for to be sorted and compiled. A project for the future. Many of them have never been published. The goal is to release a book with his very best blues pictures.

– I’m trying to realize my life project: a documentary photo book with blues artists; in addition to live on stage including portraits, backstage, reportages, supplementary things, details, and so on. But I have pretty high demands regarding this book. I want to get it done the way I prefer and it is not so easy in Sweden.

It will take a lot of effort for Hans to choose which pictures may qualify for the book in this big collection.

– I have no ranked ”top list” to go after. All pictures have their value in different ways. However, there are a few pictures that show up frequently: that is, among others, Muddy Waters in Antibes 1974 and Tina Turner from the early 70’s. But it has certainly been tens of thousands of blues pictures during the years; actually, how many I don’t know myself. But once I get the time and opportunity to publish my book, I will go through the whole blues archive.

Over the years it has been possible to get a glimpse of his blues pictures on several photo exhibitions in Sweden, and some of them have also occured in the international arena. The first blues picture, he got published abroad was in an English blues book, 1975. Also, several medias have had reportages about him. He has achieved the status of legendary premier blues photographer

The art of photography
It’s always interesting to hear a photographer’s view of what characterizes of a good photo and how to shoot it.

– For me photography very much deals about how to mediate a feeling, especially with respect to blues pictures. The challenge is also to mediate a moment; to be able to see it, and capture it correctly. To some extent talent is necessary, but you can develop your ability a lot by taking photos frequently, by being very self-critical and thorough, and take time necessary to build skills. You’ve got to devote yourself to your task to become good. It’s also about being able to see the general picture when taking a photo; what is it that I intend to mediate? It’s a lot about emotion and experience. When you look at my blues pictures, I want you to get the same feeling and experience I had when I took them.

– I have no direct role models in the photographic art form, but I have studied a lot of pictures through the years, and I guess I have formed my own style and skills. Experience means a lot, as said before, and I have really got a lot of experience since 1971. I’m familiar with most things in photography, that’s for sure.

Website: www.ekestang.se

By Birgitta Larsson

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