Book Review: Jeff Fasano “Americana Portrait Sessions”

Vanderbilt University Press, 2023

Jeff Fasano didn’t become a professional photographer until he was 40 years old. He is now, probably, the most well known photographer working in Nashville today. “Americana Portrait Sessions” is his first photography book and it shows, in no uncertain way, just why he has been able to establish himself so well in Music City.

This is a quite exceptional collection of photographic portraits. Mary Gauthier, in her excellent foreword to this book, comments on Fasano’s skill as an observer and that his photos are “a reflection of the heart of the man”. She is one hundred percent right on both counts. Fasano has that ability that all the great portrait photographers possess; the ability to get inside the soul of their subjects and show the depth of that person’s character in a single shot. There are so many outstanding portraits in this book that it really is quite mind blowing and, with each one, you come away feeling you know just a little bit more about that individual.

Jeff Fasano with Kris Kristofferson, Los Angeles, California

Fasano himself is quite an inspiring character. In his early thirties, he realised that his corporate career in New York wasn’t making him happy and didn’t bring his life any fulfilment as he wanted it. So, he set about changing things. On his father’s advice, he didn’t give up his regular job straight away but dedicated all his spare time to honing his craft as a photographer, making sure that he would be ready when the time did come for him to strike out on his own. He says, in his preface to this book, “I listened to my heart when it asked me to. I found my passion. I found a vehicle for my self-expression and a deep love for creating it. And thus have been able to receive what has appeared on my path, because I made a commitment to my dream and to myself. I am living that dream – still committed to it – and you can too. I now understand that I am truly blessed!” Of course, if you want to become a great photographer it helps if you have an eye for great composition, which Jeff Fasano clearly does, but he also has a really powerful feel for the use of light and shade in his pictures and it’s this that makes his portraits stand out so well. If this is what he gained from the years he spent learning the practicalities of photography then it was clearly time well spent.

From the first look at this book it has you hooked, as the publishers have used one of Fasano’s strongest photographs as the book’s cover. The portrait of Keb’ Mo’ that adorns the front of the book (and is repeated inside) is a simple study of the man, set in the corner of a plain room, sat on a simple wooden chair, but his guitar seems to glow in the shot and your focus is pulled tantalisingly between the guitar and the face of this musician, as it so often is when he’s playing. For a static shot, there is so much life and energy in this picture and that’s what you get throughout this collection of photographs.

The War And Treaty. Nashville, Tennessee. All Photos by Jeff Fasano

I was particularly grabbed by the portrait of husband and wife duo, The War and Treaty, who I knew next to nothing about and it’s a picture that makes you want to discover more about them, a beautifully stylised shot set in a bleak, bare brick room with a softly revealing ray of light coming through a slightly ajar, slightly battered doorway. It’s such an intriguing picture you can’t help but want to know more. Edd Hurt, in his essay that introduces this collection of portraits, makes the point that Americana music draws from such a wide variety of musical styles and that Jeff Fasano’s portraits directly reflect this diversity that is so important to the genre. To expose how his subjects “appear as human beings who also happen to be stars and artists”. Hurt goes on to say of Fasano’s work, “You can read his photos as his attempt to unlock the mysteries of the human condition as they manifest themselves on the eternal road musicians travel”. Hurt’s essay nails the essence of Fasano’s photography, just as the portraits in this collection show the diversity and complexity of the musicians working across the range of roots music, and what they all bring to Americana.

I’m With Her. Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins. Nashville, Tennessee. All Photos by Jeff Fasano

Fasano favours simple backgrounds, often just using a single backcloth or a minimalist domestic setting to ensure that the focus of his shots are all about the people. There is a really impressive selection of portraits within this collection, including our very own Billy Bragg and Nick Lowe. Others include the likes of Sheryl Crow, James McMurtry, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, David Crosby, Rhiannon Giddens, possibly the best picture of Alison Moorer I’ve ever seen; the list is a very long one, there are over 200 portraits in this book and every one of them is simply stunning.

Allison Moorer. Nashville, Tennessee. All Photos by Jeff Fasano

In these days of cellphone selfies and quick snapshots, it’s refreshing to get a book that celebrates the true art of photographic portraits. You can only wonder at the hours of work that have gone into assembling this collection. But it’s not just a collection of very good photographs; this collection really should be seen as an historic archive. To go back to the points Hurt makes in his essay, Americana music is all about diversity. Not just about diversity of music and the different disciplines the music draws on – country, blues, folk, rock, but also diversity of ethnicity, gender, age. All of that is reflected in this collection of portraits and you can see just how this music we all love embraces the widest possible collection of people. Just as photographers like William P. Gottlieb and Herman Leonard are always associated with pictures of Jazz musicians it’s likely that Jeff Fasano will now always be associated with his portraits of Americana artists.

In “Americana Portrait Sessions”, Jeff Fasano has produced a set of portraits that will go down as some of the defining images of Americana artists. This book is a thing of rare beauty.

“Americana Portrait Sessions” is available in the UK via Eurospan Books. More information about Jeff Fasano and his photography can be found on his website.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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