Documenting the Art of American Roots Music

During October, music photographers who have captured the essence of musicians from acoustic traditions exhibited their work in American Roots Music at The Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York. Roots music, also commonly called folk music in the United States, are musical forms created without the use of synthesizers and electronics, incorporating early blues, country, folk, rhythm and blues. Music journalist Frank Matheis organized and curated the American Roots Music exhibit inviting twelve prominent and internationally renowned music photographers in this exhibit of black and white fine art photography.

We are all familiar with the folk music tradition led by world renown king of folk music, Pete Seeger. Fine art photographer and artist, Bibiana Huang Matheis, captured images of Seeger in concert and at his home. In the photo on display, Huang Matheis caught the moment when Seeger has one hand on his beloved banjo and one arm outstretched to the audience. Seeger’s expressive face is framed against the inky black background, capturing him in song.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger in concert by Bibiana Huang Matheis. (2008) copyright Bibiana Huang Matheis – website:

Bill Steber has documented blues culture in Mississippi for the last 20 years, chronicling the state’s blues musicians and traditions that gave birth to or influenced the blues. Steber’s documentary photography of guitar evangelist Flora Fluker perfectly captures her intense singing style.

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Bill Steber captured Guitar Evangelist Cora Fluker in Marion, Mississippi. (1996) copyright Bill Steber – website:

Many of the photographers that document the musicians also make music. Bill Steber performs with several bands and John Rocklin is the co-founder of the Honesdale Roots & Rhythm Festival, sings and plays guitar in several bands. Rocklin’s involvement with music started at a young age when his father took him to Washington Square Park exposing him to music. “I stood right next to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.” Rocklin met and soon became friends with Little Sammy Davis, a blues harmonica legend. Inspired by his photographs of the musician, he pursued art photography and went on to capturing music legends such as B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Odetta.

Douglas Baz is a freelance and fine art photographer residing in Dutchess County. The images in this exhibition are from a documentary project that he and Charles Traub photographed in Cajun Louisiana in 1974. A large exhibition and book of this work will be exhibited at the Historic New Orleans Collection Museum during 2019.

George Mitchell and Axel Küstner used a documentary approach to capture photography and field recordings of blues musicians; similar to a folklorists’ approach to documentation. Mitchell’s photo of Jesse Mae Hemphill on her porch shows that music was an everyday part of life. Axel Küstner is known as one of Europe’s blues experts. Küstner’s 1980 photo of Flora Molton sitting on a Washington D.C. corner performing to passerby depicts the essence of roots music – it is by the people and for the people.

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Flora Molton performing in Washington D.C., (1980) photographer Axel Küstner – all copyright belongs to Axel Küstner

The late Myron Samuels was a serious blues fan and photographer. Samuels was also a street musician playing blues harp at Portland, Maine area venues and farmers markets. His work in this posthumous exhibit includes photographs of Etta Baker, Ted Bogan, and John Cephas.

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal Enjoy!, October 5, 2018. American Roots Music was on display at The Howland Cultural Center, 477 Main Street, Beacon, New York;  October 6-28, 2018.

All copyrights belong with the photographers in this essay.


Meeting the Past – Artists Envision the Future

For the past three years, artist-curator Bibiana Huang Matheis invites the Hudson Valley regional artists to participate in the exhibit, “Meeting Past,” at the Akin Library and Museum.  There are many unique qualities about this exhibit, beginning with the site – an elegant late Victorian stone structure sited on Pawling’s Quaker Hill. The building contains historical and natural history collections year round, and the invitation to 82 contemporary artists to install their artworks among these collections energizes the space with new meaning.

Entering the building, look up and see Amy Manso’s vessels created from recyclable papers and plastics floating above your head. Her sculptural pieces are normally mounted as sculptural wall pieces, and the curator decided to suspend them at the same height as the period chandeliers.

photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis

Directly ahead through double pocket doors, the library awaits – artworks are discretely displayed on the shelves next to the collection. On the wall, Dick Crenson’s “The First Heist,” an installation of copper wire reminiscent of a delicate line drawing, complete with Adam giving Eve a boost up to reach the apple. The library also has blue velvet tufted sofas:  a felted fabric piece by Pawling resident, Pat Corrigan is displayed as a casual throw across the back of the sofa, just like at grandma’s house.

photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis
photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis

After exploring the main floor, head upstairs to the local history collections of the Historical Society Museum. Here we see photos of the people who lived here 100 years ago, alongside their treasured possessions, such as the engraved gold thimble from the Akin family.  Look closely inside the glass vitrines, though, because you will be on the treasure hunt of your life as you explore the artifacts alongside the artist’s work; for instance, Jeep Johnson’s melted glass and iron sculptures fit compatibly aside the rusted rail road spikes and branding irons.  Saddles on display from 1888 now have a backdrop of Joan Blazis Levitt’s luscious horse paintings, and Elisa Pritzker’s painted antlers sit side-by-side with China pieces owned by Harriet Taber Akin. Even the windows offer a view into the past, with Cindy Snow’s “Through Grandma’s Window” casually placed on the windowsill.  As you move down to the lower floor, don’t miss Rosalind Schneider’s shimmering tree paintings placed in an alcove, appearing like an altar in a sacred space.

photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis

Head downstairs to the lower level, which houses the Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum.  The overwhelming displays of minerals, vitrines with taxidermy animals, birds, butterflies and rocks now share space with specimen jars filled with meaningful items to Bibiana Huang Matheis, curator of this exhibit.  The jars entitled the “Soul of an Artist” contain Chinese porcelain and Virgin Mary statuettes bound together with golden thread. Placement of the objects into a bell jar creates a sense of precious preservation, causing the observer to stop and ponder why this particular object holds meaning.

photo: Scott Marston-Reid

The opening reception had a one-time opportunity to see the performance piece presented by Jeff Johnson – an enormous bell jar with a live human woman folded neatly inside the glass.  Her 10-minute performance stints during the evening stopped the crowds with a variety of comments, from brilliant to misogynistic. Ultimately, it may have been the horror of seeing another human relegated to the aging collections of unborn animals floating in brine, stuffed birds placed in glass cases that triggered the emotional response.

Anonymous photo by bathroom exhibit participant

Look for the music room, also located in the lower level, and step inside to hear Riva Weinstein’s installation of sounds collected from local places as you inspect the anthropological assortment of musical instruments.  This floor holds many beautiful pieces of art that speak with the objects that have been in this collection for decades, such as Leigh Williams’ honeycomb monoprints, and Liliana Washburn’s delicate paintings on Yupo Paper displayed behind glass, like much of the formerly living things now on display. While you are downstairs, don’t forget to visit the bathroom and see the “Three Mens” mini-gallery of bathroom photos featuring several decades of “Bathroom Photography” by Jeep Johnson, a sound installation by Dick Crenson, and featuring emerging documentary bathroom photographer, Scott Marston-Reid. During the opening, a camera was left in the bathroom for participants to take their own bathroom photograph – documenting their own creative vision of the bathroom.


The Akin Free Library and Museum is located at 378 Old Quaker Hill Road, Pawling.  Hours: Friday, Saturday and Sunday – 1 to 4PM. The exhibit runs through October 27.