Ebet Roberts ’63: Capturing the Decisive Moment

It is a Thursday night, early March 1977. Ebet Roberts ’63 is at CBGB, a dingy club located at 315 Bowery in Manhattan’s gritty East Village. She’s here to photograph a band, and CBGB* is considered the venue to see the up-and-coming punk and new wave bands exploding onto the music scene.
Roberts only carries a few things with her: her camera, a lens, and several rolls of Kodak Tri-X 35-millimeter film. She also carries something intangible: her instinct for capturing a captivating moment. At CBGB, this requires being focused and agile because the club is small, dark, crowded, and loud. The walls and bathrooms are plastered with a variety of stickers and tagged with graffiti that creates an atmosphere of chaos. At the peak of a performance, the room is frenzied. The tiny 10-foot-square stage is a no-frills riser made of plywood, only about two feet higher than the main floor, which is also plywood and uneven in places, making it precarious to walk on. The ceiling has exposed wiring, pipes, and bare bulbs for lighting. The club smells of cigarette smoke and beer. CBGB is the definition of a dive bar, but the club isn’t meant to be glamorous. Quite the opposite.

*Even though CBGB was the heart of the punk rock scene, the club’s acronymic name was somewhat ironic. The memorable white awning above the club’s entrance actually was emblazoned with two acronyms in bold red letters: CBGB and beneath that, OMFUG—which stood for “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers.”

Because she is shooting film, Roberts is judicious in the number of photos she takes. She won’t know exactly what she has captured on film until she returns home. When she does, around 2 or 3 am, she starts the second part of her job, developing the rolls of film she’s shot earlier in the evening and leaving them to dry. The next evening, when she’s making prints, she must work quickly before the sun rises because the makeshift darkroom in her apartment isn’t completely light-tight. Despite the frenetic environment of the club, these quiet hours in the middle of the night are often the most rewarding. She edits her photos carefully to find the one or two perfect shots that illustrate the essence of the band.

As she’s making prints, an image begins to appear magically on the silver gelatin paper floating in the developer. It’s a black-and-white photo with dark darks and bright whites. It’s a quartet caught mid-song: two guitar players, a drummer, a female bassist, all in their mid-twenties. In the center is a young man, in front of a microphone, mouth open wide, singing with passion and playing guitar. His name is David Byrne. The band is Talking Heads. This isn’t the first time they’ve played CBGB, but because they haven’t yet released an album, they are mostly unknown.

Talking Heads performing at CBGB in New York City on March 3, 1977. Photo © Ebet Roberts

Fast-forward to the year 2021. CBGB the club is no more and its space is now occupied by a designer men’s store, and Talking Heads are no longer a band, but both the club and the band are world-famous.

If you don’t happen to know CBGB or the Talking Heads, that’s okay. You’ll likely recognize a few of the countless musicians and bands Ebet Roberts has photographed over the past 40-plus years. Perhaps you’ve heard of The Police, The Cars, the Sex Pistols, The B-52s, The Cure, or the Ramones. They were relatively unknown bands in the 1970s, but eventually skyrocketed to fame. Or consider some of the iconic guitar players she’s captured: Pete Townshend of The Who, Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Tom Petty, and Frank Zappa. Then there are the superstars she’s focused her lens on, the artists who have defined different musical genres for the past 50 years such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, and David Bowie.

Quite simply, Roberts has photographed pretty much everyone who was anyone in music. She’s been in the front row at clubs, concert halls, and music festivals, as well as backstage, on tour buses, in hotels, and at parties.

Thinking about her early work at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City, another popular New York music club at that time, Roberts recalled, “I wasn’t thinking about it. I was trying to photograph the energy and the excitement and put that energy into my photographs. I felt like that whole scene had to be documented. I had no idea that it would ever become anything so important.”

Ebet Roberts at Farm Aid at the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, on September 16, 2017.

Well, How Did She Get Here?

One of the Talking Heads’ popular songs, “Once in a Lifetime,” features the lyric: “And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’ ” Roberts had no idea that she would become a photographer, much less a sought-after professional. Her route was indirect, but she found herself increasingly pulled toward it.

Her early years were spent in Europe because her father was a brigadier general in the United States Air Force. When he passed away, her mother, Cornelia Henning Roberts Kimbrough, a 1932 Hutchison graduate, decided to return to Memphis. Ebet enrolled at Hutchison in the fifth grade when the school was located on Union Avenue.

To quench her interest in art, Roberts took classes on Saturdays with Billy Price Hosmer Carroll, a well-known Memphis artist and a 1939 Hutchison alumna. After Hutchison, Roberts studied briefly at a small junior college in Washington before transferring back to the Memphis Academy of Art, which was rechristened as the Memphis College of Art in 1985. Her concentration was painting. “The Art Academy was an amazing school,” she said. “There was an interesting balance of new instructors coming in from New York, as well as a lot of traditional artists. It offered the best of everything.

“When I graduated from the Art Academy in 1968, I bought a camera to photograph my paintings,” Roberts recalled. “I always loved taking photographs but never thought of it as an art form. I started taking photographs just for myself, and I continued after I graduated.” When the Academy recruited a young photographer named Murray Riss from the Rhode Island School of Design to start a photography department, Roberts decided to stay on in Memphis for a year to continue learning about making photos.

Afterward, she took a yearlong detour to Colorado, but Roberts said it lacked a vibrant arts scene and didn’t feel right to her. She gravitated to New York with the intention of continuing her painting. She worked part-time at the Guggenheim Museum to pay her rent and then started waitressing at a jazz club.

She began using photographs in her paintings, made paintings from photographs, and even painted on photographs. She was interested in exploring lithography, too, a printing technique that usually requires a large press, and applied to attend workshops at the Penland School of Craft near Asheville, North Carolina. While she was there, she realized, “I kept gravitating to their photography workshops. When I returned to New York, I felt that I should be painting, but I kept wanting to take photographs.”

“I Don’t Do This for a Living”

Who knew that doing a favor for a friend could end up defining a career? Roberts certainly did not, so when a friend asked her to photograph his band, she initially declined. “I love music, but I had no interest in taking photographs of musicians or shows,” she explained. Her friend was persistent though, and she finally agreed. Then he asked her to come back and take more photos, which she did.

“My friend’s band was opening for a band called Mink DeVille. The lead singer’s name was Willy DeVille,” Roberts recalled. “When I saw that band, I was completely blown away, and I wanted to photograph Willy and his wife, Toots, who were real characters.” When she followed up with Willy and asked if she could photograph them on the street or in their apartment, he suggested that she photograph their show at Max’s Kansas City instead.

“It was not what I wanted to do, but I finally said to myself, ‘Okay, just go from A to B and maybe you’ll get to C,’ ” Roberts recalled. While she was photographing Mink DeVille, Willy asked her to come backstage and take some photos. It was there that a woman approached Roberts and said, “I work for Capitol Records and these pictures are great. We have to see them."

This photo of Willy DeVille of Mink DeVille and his wife, Toots, at Max’s Kansas City in New York City on January 14, 1977, was the start of Ebet’s career. Photo © Ebet Roberts

I was standing there saying, ‘I don’t do this for a living. I’m not a professional photographer at all. These photos are an art project for myself.’

Fortunately, the Capitol Records executive would not take no for an answer.

“I didn’t want to show her the contact sheet [a positive print of the negative images from a roll of 35-millimeter film] because they had rejects on them,” Roberts explained. “I didn’t have confidence in my photography, but I finally called her.” Roberts printed only the photos she wanted to share. “They licensed some of those photos and started hiring me. I said to myself, ‘Well, this is interesting.’ ”

At the same time that Max’s Kansas City was buzzing at Park Avenue and 18th Street, so was the CBGB scene roughly one mile to the south. The two clubs had slightly different acts and vibes, and some would say a bit of a rivalry, but Roberts was able to glide easily between the two. Eventually, her waitressing job ended, and Roberts realized that if Capitol Records continued to hire her and she could do two or three jobs a month, she could support herself.

There was never a point where I said, ‘Oh, I want to be a photographer.’ I wanted to document the CBGB scene, but it felt like a detour from painting.

Nevertheless, she continued photographing bands at CBGB and then those bands might tell The Village Voice, a popular weekly tabloid newspaper, or Trouser Press, a monthly music magazine, to call Roberts for photographs, which resulted in those publications hiring her directly.

"My clients were growing. It escalated without me doing much. I mean, it was a lot of work, but at the same time, I wasn’t looking to expand it,” she said. “I was trying to support myself and do what I loved. I had one camera and one lens when I started. I would get paid for something and go buy another lens. I had no clue what I was doing. I learned everything from doing it wrong, making mistakes.”

She did continue to learn from those who excelled in the field. She recalled a workshop she took at the International Center of Photography with John Loengard, a photographer for LIFE magazine and later its photo editor. “He gave assignments every week, and we would bring in photographs to critique. He said, ‘I don’t care about the technique. Don’t let the technique get in the way of the image. This class is about content. Nobody in this class wants to look at boring photographs, so please don’t bring them in.’ It was a great way to look at things. I mean, ‘why are you taking these photographs?’ ”

What About the Decisive Moment?

The more one looks at Ebet Roberts’ photographs, the more one realizes that they are not exceptional just because we’re looking at a famous face. Yes, subjects like Prince or Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols or Michael Jackson had an aura that was uniquely their own, never to be seen again.

It is the decisive moment that Roberts captures.

It’s instinctual. It’s timing. I knew when I got something and when I didn’t. There’s no lag in time. Somebody goes from looking one way in one second and the next second, everything has changed. It’s capturing a moment that conveys the emotion.

Ebet Roberts on the streets of New York City, camera in hand. Photograph by Nina Wurtzel, NYC

These days, people may take dozens or even hundreds of digital photos on a camera or a smartphone to net a few good photos. When actual 35-millimeter film was being used, some photographers relied on a motor drive to automatically advance the film, but Roberts did not. She said, even with a motor drive, you could still miss that magic second. Or you could be changing film, which was why she shot sparingly.

What about all the distractions—the music, the lights, the unruly crowds? Interestingly, she believes that the waitressing job at the jazz club she took to pay the rent early on in New York helped train her for that challenge. Much like the clubs and concert halls she would later call her workplace, waiting tables in a jazz club could be chaotic. She believes that experience taught her to concentrate and focus on her work despite everything going on around her.

It’s also notable that a majority of Roberts’ subjects were men or bands made up entirely of men, but she said she didn’t find that intimidating. The only exception might have been Bob Dylan, but she attributed that to being a huge fan of his and always wanting to photograph him. “Other people who were just as famous didn’t faze me, but that made me nervous meeting him. I basically wanted to make whomever I was photographing feel comfortable so that they would trust me.

I grew up confident in my own abilities. I had no awareness that things were different, or that women were considered inferior by some. I grew up with this feeling that everything was equal. I think Hutchison had a lot to do with that. It gave me real strength as a woman.

She knows that sometimes she got hired because she is a woman and might have been considered easy to work with, but that she also didn’t get asked to go on the road as much with bands. Soon after the band The Cars were signed and Roberts had finished a photoshoot with them, the lead singer, Ric Ocasek, called her. It was a Monday and he asked what she was doing on Thursday. He wanted her to travel with them on their European tour. “As much as I loved traveling with The Cars, it was bizarre, because I didn’t meet any women for a month.”

Despite living in New York, she has stayed in touch with Hutchison through the years. In 2014, she was awarded the Distinguished Alumna Fine Arts Award, and in 2017, she visited with Hutchison’s digital media class to talk about her career. Continuing the family tradition, her grandniece is a current seventh grader at Hutchison.

Do what you love and just keep doing it,” she suggested. “Do what you can to support yourself while you follow your passions because it’s so fulfilling.

Ebet Roberts at her photo exhibition called "Los Destellos del Sonido" (The Flashes of Sound) at the National Auditorium in Mexico City, Mexico, on February 8, 2012.

An Opportunity to Reflect

Roberts has spent over four decades photographing the biggest names in the music world. Her name is synonymous with immortalizing incredible musical moments.

She’s also proud of her work as the photographer for Farm Aid, which she has worked at since its inception in 1985. The annual benefit concert, founded by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, raises money for family farmers in the United States. The first concert raised over $9 million for farmers.

Roberts has continued to work, although in the past few years she was choosing what she wanted to photograph. Like so many others, her work stopped in 2020 when the pandemic caused the cancellation or postponement of most concerts and public events. The bright side is that she’s had some time to finally focus on putting together a book of her photos documenting the New York punk scene that she was so intimately a part of.

“I always thought it would make a great book, so I’m finally doing it,” she said. “I was always too busy, but someone approached me about doing the book, and I guess the pandemic helped because it gave me time to stop and focus on it.”

The following photos are © Ebet Roberts.

Pete Townshend of The Who | Shea Stadium | New York City | October 13, 1982 | Photo © Ebet Roberts.

Aretha Franklin | Radio City Music Hall | New York City | July 6, 1989 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Blondie | My Father’s Place | Roslyn, Long Island, NY | June 1, 1978 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Prince | Roseland Ballroom | New York City | October 2, 1988 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

David Bowie | the Spectrum | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | July 21, 1983 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Bob Marley | One Love for Peace concert | Kingston, Jamaica | April 22, 1978 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Whitney Houston | “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video shoot | New York City | March 13, 1987 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Stevie Ray Vaughan | The Pier | New York City | June 26, 1986 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Miles Davis | Amnesty International Concert | Giants Stadium | East Rutherford, New Jersey | June 15, 1986 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Stevie Wonder | Madison Square Garden | New York City | December 7, 1979 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

Patti Smith | Asbury Park Convention Hall | Asbury Park, New Jersey | August 5, 1978 | Photo © Ebet Roberts

To view more of Ebet Roberts’ photos, visit: http://www.ebetroberts.com/.

Ebet Roberts’ work has been syndicated and exhibited worldwide and is included in MTV/VH1 television specials, music anthologies, posters, advertisements, galleries, and private collections of rock, jazz, and classical musicians, including Bob Marley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., the Ramones, The Cure, The Pretenders, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bon Jovi.

Roberts’ photographs have been reproduced in innumerable publications, including Rolling Stone, SPIN, GQ, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, People, USA Today, and The Village Voice, and are also in the permanent collections of The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Seattle’s Experience Music Project, The Grammy Museum, and The Hard Rock Cafe. They are also featured prominently in these books: Blank Generation Revisited; This Ain’t No Disco: The Story of CBGB; Frozen Fire: The Story of the Cars; Punk 365; Farm Aid: A Song for America; The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock, and have been included in Rock Stars by Timothy White; Written in My Soul by Bill Flanagan; The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’N Roll by Anthony deCurtis and James Henke; Empty Places by Laurie Anderson; Rock and Roll at 50 by Life Books; and Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955–Present by Gail Buckland.

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