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

By Claudie Benjamin

Since the mid-1970s, photographer Ebet Roberts has photographed musicians and bands in performances, in her studio, and on location, creating a stunning body of work that has often been described by her admirers as “capturing the decisive moment” of a particular performance or “capturing the essence” of a musician. For decades, she had worked uninterruptedly until the COVID-19 pandemic brought her work to a standstill. There was simply no way she could spend time safely in crowds, and most venues were shut down anyway. Ebet said that, fortunately, the sales of her prints picked up during this time online and through the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which represents her work. She spent long days during the last few years in her apartment at 245 West 107th Street (2780 Broadway) digitizing her massive archive of work and compiling a selection of 150-200 photographs for a book of her work on early punk musicians of the 1970s to be published at the end of 2024.

In a high school magazine article published by Hutchison School that Ebet attended in Memphis, Tennessee, the writer describes the breadth of the photographerʼs work:

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 sheʼs 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 sheʼs 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.  

Ebet began her career working long nights photographing musicians performing at the legendary CBGB and other gritty venues in the East Village and on concert hall stages and music festivals throughout Europe and the United States. Sometimes, her commissions have taken her into the arena of politics – like a very memorable trip to Burma, where she traveled on assignment to photograph Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ebet has also had a deep commitment to the mission of Farm Aid to support, through huge annual concerts and fundraising, small farmers and their production of sustainable food. Farm Aid organizers and performers “are like family.” Ebet was the official Farm Aid photographer from its launch in 1985 to 2020 and plans to resume photographing the 2024 Farm Aid concert. Ebet contributed half of the photographs in the 20th anniversary book “Farm Aid: A Song for America” which was published in 2005. Her support of small farmers is also evident in her own food shopping, which she does at the three UWS farmer’s markets in her neighborhood.

If you google ‘Ebet Roberts,’ not only is it breathtaking to recognize the number and variety of photographs she has taken of rock, punk, folk, and jazz artists, but it is staggering to see her gift for capturing the distinctive character of each performer.

See Below for Captions to Images within Slideshow.

She said sometimes she captures a mood she has anticipated, and at other times, a riveting moment happens so quickly “in a split second” that she’s not sure she has it until she processes the film. An example is a photograph taken of composer and pianist Philip Glass at his piano in his apartment. At some point, his cat reached down to the keyboard. Ebet captured the moment. Unintentionally, the image, one of her favorites, emerged in silhouette because she had not fully set up the lighting. The result became a classic photograph. Another example occurred when Ebet photographed the band The Cars in front of the Gramercy Park Hotel. When a woman jogger unexpectedly ran by in front of the posed band she captured the moment hoping she had managed to get the jogger in the photograph without obscuring the band. The spontaneity of this quirky event makes the group portrait distinctive.

Ebet started out as a painter and gradually transitioned into photography, immersing herself in the New York music scene. Although she has been among emerging and celebrity musicians for decades, she said the only artist she felt intimidated by was Bob Dylan because she had loved his music since she was young.

Ebet has loved living in her UWS neighborhood at 245 West 107th Street for almost all these years. It’s not only where she’s lived, but it’s also her photography studio. The way she describes activities both inside her apartment and one related to a view from her windows looking out on Broadway reveals both her ingenuity, lack of pretense, and sense of humor. She described her early days of developing film in her home darkroom after a night of photographing in downtown clubs and hanging the film up to dry until morning. “I had to print at night and was often racing to finish before sunrise because I hadnʼt figured out how to totally blackout the room. It was a crazy time. The enlarger was in the closet.” Then, in another apartment-related anecdote, she described her surprise at learning that the painter Alice Neal had lived in a building diagonally across Broadway at the northern end of West End Avenue. Ebet could see it from her window. Sometime later, when at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to see the Alice Neal show, Ebet overheard two women standing in front of a painting of Nealʼs. “They were trying to figure out where the building was and were amazed when I told them. ʻHow do you know?’ they asked.” Of course, it was Ebetʼs very familiar, much-loved view.

Image Captions in Order (All photos in slideshow by Ebet Roberts):

1. Bob Marley photographed at the Essex House in New York City on September 2, 1980.

2. David Bowie performing at Madison Square Garden in New York City on July 27, 1983.

3. Miles Davis performing at the Amnesty International benefit concert at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 15, 1986.

4. Patti Smith performing at the Asbury Park Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey on August 5, 1978.

5. Philip Glass photographed at home in New York City on January 19, 1987.

6. Tina Turner and Mick Jagger performing at Live Aid at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 13, 1985.

7. Tom Petty performing at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin on June 23, 1985.

8. Whitney Houston photographed at the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video shoot in New York City on March 13, 1987.

9. Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia on September 17, 2016.


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