by Celia Ridley
editor’s note: I’ve known Celia for 6-7 years now and in that time she has gone from taking portraits of friends and family to recently opening up her own photography business. Several years ago, she had the opportunity to do a shoot with a musician I loved when I was a young teen and when I found out, I asked her to share her story with us.
Knowing the right person at the right time can be accredited for my luck in getting to photograph Shawn Phillips, not only once, but twice! I remember my husband came down out of the attic caressing an old album to his chest and announced that Shawn Phillips was coming to Tyler to play a private concert at Ray’s house. (Ray is a co-worker of my husband, and he and his wife Wendy are close friends of ours). My exact response was “WHO???” He went on to explain who Shawn Phillips is and how Ray grew up with him in Ft. Worth, Texas and the two have remained close friends since high-school. My husband is 6 years older than I am, so I thought, OK!, I’m going to get to meet some old hippie who can play the guitar. This might be fun!
The time frame of this private concert was a few months away at this point so I honestly would have forgotten about it if it weren’t for my husband counting down the days and telling me as much background on Shawn Phillips as he could. I had to admit, he seemed to be a fascinating guy!
The big weekend arrived and my husband and I were invited to Ray’s for a private dinner the night before the concert with another couple. There were 7 of us in all. My husband was beside himself with excitement. Album cover ‘Collaboration’ in hand, we traveled over to Ray’s; Shawn’s music blaring in the car.
Once there, we were introduced to a thin, older gentleman with a very long pony tail, eyes that sparkled and danced! I was immediately drawn in by his presence. Over the course of the evening, he entertained us with story after story. I was drawn to his every word! Besides being a famous musician, he served for many years as an EMT in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, then went on to be a crew member for the National Sea Rescue Institute. I mention this because of one story he told sticks out in my mind. He was working a shift as an EMT when he responded to a call about a very drunk and high lady who was escorted out of a local bar for disorderly conduct. As Shawn arrived on the scene, she was causing quite a ruckus! He had to tackle her to the ground to subdue her. She looked up at him and got very still, then bolted out “WOOOOMMMMAAAAANNNN” . Everybody at Ray’s died laughing but I didn’t understand what was so funny. Wendy had to explain to me (in private) that she was belting out a verse to one of his more famous songs!
That seemed to be the perfect balance between Shawn’s love of service and his love of music. I found it very surreal to be in the presence of a man who livedin England with Donovan and Paul Simon, taught George Harrison a thing or two on the sitar, sang back up with the Beatles for Lovely Rita and taught Joni Mitchell how to play a guitar. Well, I could go on and on! Did I mention that his father, James Atlee Phillips, was a published mystery writer that wrote 22 novels?
The following night was the big show. We were expecting 35 people for this private gathering. Since my husband helped Ray and Shawn set up the stage in the living room all day, then I of course being the official photographer ( I really was! ) got to sit front and center.
This was the first time I had the pleasure of hearing, in my opinion, what really great music was. I was blown away. I had a hard time remembering that I was supposed to be taking pictures. I’d never heard anyone who’s voice flowed smoothly through 3 octaves. He songs defy categorization; they are intense, moving, passionate and thought-provoking. How is it this incredible talent could have published 20 albums and yet I’d never heard of him? I’ll tell you how. He would never play the game… as he put it. He refused to sell himself out to the big names in the music industry. He refused to categorize himself.
It would be another year before Shawn came back to Tyler. He wanted to perform a small, intimate concert in our local park. One day, I was online and just mentioned in passing that I would have the opportunity to hear Shawn Phillips play in our local park and that this time I was the excited giddy one. The editor of this website who hails from Quebec, Canada was flabbergasted. She was a huge Shawn Phillips fan from when she was a kid. She practically begged me to take photos and it became clear to me that Shawn’s music had affected so many people around the world.
Although I’d never done live music photography, I decided to take the challenge if Shawn would allow it. He was more than courteous. He gave me complete artistic license. I’ve since learned some artists give the photographer a mere 3 minutes before the show to take their photos? Heck, I could even stand behind him and show him playing to his audience.
As I stood there, I was able to see how the audience takes his music very seriously. They listen to every word. I was worried they would not appreciate my distraction of standing up in front of them. As it turns out, there were many cameras clicking away. My job though, was to show Shawn, giving his all, leaving his soul on that stage. I took photographs of him singing, playing one of his 6 guitars, of him telling the audience background stories of almost every song he sang. I found it very profound that on a wall next to me on the side stage, symbols were scribbled that matched his philosophy of Health, Love and Clarity.
At the party after the show, back at Ray’s, we thought Shawn and his crew would never get there but it turns out about half the people of the 300 in attendance lined up to get their cherished albums and CDs signed. When the finally got back, Shawn needed to eat. You see, he does not eat at all on the day he performs until the show is over. He doesn’t drink alcohol either as he is very disciplined with his voice and wants to make sure he always gives the best performance he possibly can. During the party Shawn’s music was playing (of course!) and I found myself standing right next o him when one of my favorite songs (yes, now I have favorites) came on. I turned to Shawn as if we were the only two in the room, and said “Now, this is my favorite) and with a huge grin on his face, he turned to me and said “City to City”.. yeah, that’s a good one!
My adventure doesn’t include camera make or model, f-stops or ISO settings but it does include a simple message. To grow as a photographer, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. It is easy to create this invisible bubble around ourselves and do what we have learned to do well, that everyone expects of us and that we know all will agree is good but we can easily paint ourselves into a corner. when a challenge knocks on your door, as it did for me, unless the task is truly one where you know it is beyond your capabilities (for now anyways), then look a the opportunity as a stroke of luck to re-awaken your creativity, to explore new avenues and lead you in directions that will nourish your senses and turn your life into an exciting and continuous adventure both as a photographer and as a human being.
Celia Ridley is a Family photographer from Tyler Texas. Please visit her website here:
When Opportunity Knocks by Celia Ridley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.