Bob Free pauses, raises his camera, and then snaps a picture of the artists on stage at the California Bluegrass Association’s Grass Valley Festival. It’s a scene he’ll repeat as many as 10,000 times during the four-day event.
Free’s passion for photography now gives him access to some of the most famous names in bluegrass and other music genres as he’s asked to document all sorts of festivals and events near his home in Grass Valley, California.
“The CBA Father's Day Festival has been going on for, I think, 46 years, and I've been going for about 40,” Free recalls. “I had dabbled a little bit with a point-and-shoot camera, taking some photos, and one of the people on the CBA team saw some of my photos and asked me to be on the team a couple of years ago.”
Free’s fascination with photography goes back to when he was around eleven and began taking pictures with film cameras. He says he never got serious about it until he retired from the hydroelectric industry. “Now I'm retired, and it's pretty much my full-time avocation.”
His love of bluegrass began many years ago as well.
“It was 1976. I went to this little club called the Inn of The Beginning in Cotati, California, down in the Bay Area, and I saw the original incarnation of the David Grisman Quintet with Tony Rice and Darol Anger. And I was about 10 feet in front of Tony as he played Clarence White’s D28 guitar, and I was just immensely hooked. And I have been ever since.”
While many of us appreciate the sound of bluegrass, Free also relishes the visuals associated with the music. Forty-seven years after his first exposure to bluegrass music, the sights it generates still fascinate him.
“It’s the interplay between the artists and their expressions and how there's an unsaid meter between them, and they just know when to take a break,” he explains. “And you also see it just in their body posture, or in a subtle foot tap or a motion with the neck of an instrument or something. I just love watching that.”
Free’s accessibility to the musicians he shoots is one reason his photos are so compelling (his work has appeared in The Bluegrass Standard). To get access, he first must establish rapport with them.
“You can’t just go up and stuff the camera in their face and start shooting,” he explains. “When you're backstage--especially if you help them load in--you want to befriend not only the artists but the tour manager. Just let them know that you have a professional air and you're not going to get in the way. Then, you ask them what they want or don't want and be willing to work with them. Just melt away if that's what they want. But sometimes they ask you to go on stage and take pictures from behind them.
“I also always befriend the sound guy so I can stand wherever the tech booth or the sound platform is. I can get a little bit up and use a long lens and get a full-length stage-width shot.”
Free’s volunteering keeps him busy, shooting for many non-profits and arts organizations. He also loves nature photography and is passionate about hummingbirds. He’s captured scores of breathtaking images of the fascinating creatures.
He’s also delighted to have documented in photos many of the young artists who have grown up in the California Bluegrass Association.
“There’s The Gooding kids that The Bluegrass Standard did an article on recently and AJ Lee. I've seen Molly Tuttle grow up. The Watkins Family Hour (siblings Sara and Sean Watkins) was here not long ago on my stage, and I got to shoot them. That was pretty cool because I watched them grow up, too.”
Free uses professional equipment and expensive lenses. But he has advice for those who might be shooting with their phones. First, you should “zoom with your feet” and get as close to your subject as possible.
“But the most important thing is to know the equipment, know the controls on it, know what it's capable of, and then try to capture what you see in your mind's eye. If you're sitting there fumbling around with a camera or a phone or something at that precise moment when you're trying to capture something, chances are you're not going to get it the way you want it. Just be prepared.”
There’s one more piece of advice from the guy who might take 10,000 images during a festival weekend.
“Take a lot of shots, don't be afraid. It's digital. It's not film. Take as many shots as you can.”