had lived in Europe a good part of her young existence, but came to Memphis when she was 10, not even imagining there was a punk-powered cultural shift that would change her life.
The young student in the 1960s was possessed of a love for art and culture steeped in the cultural diversity of her travels. She attended Hutchison (class of ’63), loved painting and drawing, and took art classes on Saturdays. It was natural for her to enter what was then the Memphis Academy of Arts where she graduated in painting.
The study of photography would not become an option until the next year when Murray Riss established the photography department in 1968. Roberts studied with Riss anyway, developing her skill and interest. She explored photo collage and manipulated photos and lithography and worked on combining processes. She was also thinking about going to New York.
“I've always been drawn to New York,” she says. “It offered not only art but a lot of cultural diversity, which I really seem to thrive on. That's what pulled me there.”
So, she went, wanting to paint and photograph. She certainly didn't have the expectation she'd set the world on fire with her work, but fate will have its way. She was asked by a musician friend to come take pictures of his band, which was opening for Mink DeVille at CBGB’s. Roberts happened to be eager to take photographs of Willy DeVille and his wife, Toots, both particularly memorable characters in a late-1970s New York music scene where characters were everywhere.
Willy told Roberts, "Come to Max's [Max’s Kansas City club], bring your camera, take pictures, and then come back stage and take more." Roberts agreed, got some photos, and in no time was getting attention. "This woman came over," Roberts says, "and said 'Hey, I work for Capital Records. We just signed Willy this week and these pictures are great. I have to see them.' I literally stood there arguing saying, 'I don't do this for a living, this is just ...'"
Her protestation went nowhere. Her photographs, on the other hand, took off.
"They started hiring me for their licensing stuff and then hired me for their other artists," Roberts says. "At the same time, the whole scene was happening, '77 at Max's and CBGB's. I just wanted to document the whole thing. That's how it escalated and then I started doing a lot of work with the Village Voice
and a small music magazine called Trouser Press."
And did she know that she was documenting a significant time in music and culture? "I had no idea, none whatsoever," Roberts says. "It just felt like it had to be documented because it was such an amazing scene. But I really didn't realize it was a game changer. I remember working with The Cure for, I think, for a week, when they made their first trip over. The shows were mostly deserted and I was just thinking the band was absolutely great but never in a million years imagining they were going to be huge."
But in short order, Roberts was in the thick of it, recording the musical luminaries that everyone was talking about and listening to. Her photos were in Rolling Stone
, The New York Times
, USA Today
, The Village Voice
. Her work is in the permanent collection of The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Seattle's Experience Music Project, The Grammy Museum, and The Hard Rock Cafe.
Being around all that celebrity didn't faze Roberts. "I was much more interested in the photography than anything," she says. "I liked photographing musicians and artists because they're interesting and I was comfortable around them."
The biggest challenge was often that the more well-known the artist, the less time she had to be with them. "Taking photographs is a two-way process," Roberts says. "I like getting to know somebody and let them know something about me so that they could trust me, that they could be open. But sometimes I'd just have five or ten minutes."
But if that's all the time she's got for a shoot, she makes the most of it — just as she made the most of the unexpected opportunity that changed her life from that of a struggling artist waiting tables to a world-renowned photographer and chronicler of American culture.
Roberts will give an artist talk at Memphis College of Art during a Baccalaureate service on Friday, May 10th from 3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. It’s open to the public, but seating is limited. "Antepenultimatum: The Spring BFA Reception" will be held following the lecture, with a slideshow of the artist’s work in Callicott Auditorium.