Fragments of Johnny Cash

I never met Johnny Cash in this lifetime, but in a way, I feel I know him well. Shortly after his death, a friend of mine was hired to produce a pictorial biography about his life. After remarking, “I don’t have much time or a big budget, but I still need some great images,” he asked if I would do him a favor and create photographic still lifes of what Johnny had left behind. Spending days intimately walking through Johnny Cash’s life… his personal notes, poems to his wife, unfinished lyrics, sketches, photos, guitars, correspondence, passports, calendars, albums, clothes, bible scripture tests… memories and clues to nearly every piece of his life… didn’t really feel much like a favor at all. So I agreed.

As promised, I was left alone and given total access to “be creative.” Staying focused and on task was difficult. The amount of material was vast and my mind wandered like a school kid in class. I was so hyper-focused on the subject matter, the assignment seemed meaningless.

At first I felt a little uncomfortable… like I shouldn’t be reading his personal notes, handling his guitars, or messing with his stuff… like his boots or blue jumpsuit from San Quentin! But then I realized Johnny kept all these things for a reason. Collectively, they represented him… his memories, thoughts and special moments on earth. Some were fragments… personal pieces of a complicated puzzle, clues from an unconventional life. Many of his notes, sketches and lyrics were scribbled out on random sheets of paper, crossed out, rewritten, edited, and often left unfinished. It was these pieces that I connected with most. The fragments… ideas he had worked on but never finished. The idea seeds… the work in progress… the unsolved mysteries that we all carry with us throughout our lives… hoping to someday find them a home.

It’s easy to focus on the tangible successes and failures in someone’s life… I guess that’s why it’s commonly done. But to me, those fragments tell a much better story… a real story about a person’s passionate struggle to understand and connect the dots. And in Johnny’s case, his random fragments revealed these things and more. Regardless of what history says, this much I know… aside from his legendary status, Johnny Cash was a sincere person who experienced many trials and tribulations. He worked hard and pushed himself to be his best. He dug down deep inside himself and was a truth seeker. He loved his wife, June, his fans and his god.

After my second day of shooting, the curator (who was also a good friend of Johnny’s), asked me to join him and his girlfriend for dinner. As you might guess, the conversation was centered largely on Johnny. I asked many questions and he shared many wonderful, personal and intimate stories about the man in black… they all confirmed my intuition. Then I shared my impressions about Johnny and showed some of the photographs I had taken. After complimenting my work, he smiled and said, “You connect with Johnny… he would have really liked you.” What more could be said? I’m sorry we never met in this lifetime… but in some mystical way, I feel we have.


One Response to “Fragments of Johnny Cash”

  1. Kelly Abbott on March 10th, 2010 9:09 pm

    Mike ,
    Loved the insight on Johnny Cash. I too am a big fan of the man in black. He had quite the journey while he was alive. I always wished I had the gift of music ? Unfortunately most artist suffer a lot of ups and downs on their way to stardom. I can imagine what ah you must have felt being privy to his things. Great job on the photo’s of a famous ones life !

    Thanks for letting us also be apart of a legends journey.

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