Before Annie Leibovitz would shoot Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the cover of “Rolling Stone” -- and long before she’d take intimate portraits of John and Yoko -- there was another woman behind the lens, humbly reimagining what it meant to photograph musicians at the same time that those musicians were reimagining what it meant to play rock & roll.
“Her Aim Is True” -- the story of rock & roll photographer Jini Dellaccio, who shot the Sonics (who are playing at Belly Up on May 10), Neil Young, the Who and the Rolling Stones, among many others -- is the first feature-length documentary from filmmaker Karen Whitehead, and it screens at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park on Thursday, May 7 [watch the trailer here].
Backed by executive producer Eddie Vedder, who caught wind of the film during a successful round of Kickstarter funding, “Her Aim Is True” connects the iconic photos you know with the woman you don’t -- and her incredible story.
Director/producer Whitehead, who comes from a BBC news and current affairs background, brings that story to light, where it’s amazingly never been. Through original interviews and recovered footage and photos from decades past, she knits together Dellaccio’s narrative: the overlooked piece of history in rock & roll photography, how a middle-aged woman with her self-taught eye was able to look at young, raucous rock stars in a new way -- and make us do the same.
Whitehead talked with SoundDiego about how Dellaccio was able to fit in with punks and put them at ease, what it meant to get Dellaccio's story out before the photographer passed away in July 2014, and what didn’t make it into the film.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: Where did “Her Aim Is True” start?
Karen Whitehead: I was actually working on another project. From a friend of a friend I became aware of [Dellaccio’s] photography on the Internet. There was a little video that had gone viral, in which [’60s band leader] Merrilee Rush was onstage at Jini’s 92nd birthday party at the Crocodile in Seattle -- and she said, “Thanks, Jini, for making me look so incredible in all those photos.” And I’m saying, "Well, who’s Jini?" So we started looking into it. I couldn’t believe that there was this woman doing some really pioneering, iconic photography with these bands -- and no one knows about [her].
So really where it started with me is my basic principle in documentary filmmaking: I was really curious, and I was intrigued. But I was also indignant: Why don’t we know about her? Why isn’t her name up there with other women who’d done work in this field? I got in touch with [Dellaccio’s trustees] and discovered that Jini had an incredible life and amazing stories to tell. I thought it was inspiring. I thought we need more stories about women and these experiences, especially when they’re involved in what was a man’s game.
I had filmed quote “old” people before -- Jini is not her age [laughs]. She was incredible. I was fascinated by the unique vibe of that music scene, but I thought that telling it from her perspective, that’s what drew me in. All that creativity and her no-fear mentality would come through in her story. She was just there in the middle of it all, among these garage bands. She respected who they were and their music. I think that was a very critical moment in rock photography, because she really made you feel something about her subjects and what they’re trying to do with their music. I thought she was revolutionary and deserved to be acknowledged, her contribution to photography in that scene.
HLS: It’s amazing. She was really a trailblazer in so many regards, and she never seemed aware of it -- or maybe the fact that she was a trailblazer didn’t necessarily matter to her. She was just comfortable.
KW: She was so at ease in a world where she was trailblazing for women. She was not a typical vision of a feminist. You look at the ’60s and on and the women’s liberation movement and everything, all those things going on in the late ’60s -- and yet there’s this very quiet woman in her middle age, hanging out with these wild kids who are about barely 20, who are really hard edged. They really were punk before we had a name for that. And you look at her and think, "How did that work?" [Laughs] The way she would feed them and chat with them... You can’t believe it, can you? My image of women and rock photography started with Annie Leibovitz. That was my idea of rock photography -- that was 1970-ish. But we look at Jini’s images, and you’re like, "Whoa, what’s going on?" Because that’s almost a decade before.
HLS: Your Kickstarter for the film was fully funded just shortly before Jini passed away. You must feel like you gave her story a voice, even after she died.
KW: Well, the great thing is that because of the incredible community around the film, it was a collaborative situation where she saw a rough cut of the film. And then she came to the Seattle International Film Festival, and I was on the red carpet with her. She was able to sit in the audience. She saw people responding to her story, talking about how inspired they were afterward. I think that she was never looking for fame or anything. For her, it’s all about the creativity and love of people. Although it was obviously very sad when she passed, it was wonderful that she knew we were going to be released, that the film would get a worldwide audience, and I told her about our commitment to do arts education screenings. This rock period really was a great way to talk about her as an artist and her creativity, and what drove her, especially as a woman in her 50s.
HLS: She really comes across in the film as this warm, unassuming woman who just takes everything in stride so beautifully.
KW: She really was very true to herself, and I think that’s a lesson for all of us, a life lesson for us, really. She told me the story [from] when she started doing fashion photography -- this was cut from the film -- but one story she told me was when one fashion model came back after she’d shown her portfolio in Hollywood. And [the agent] said, “He’s a very good photographer. Who is that?” The assumption always is that it’s a male! Jini reinvented herself several times, but she just did it -- she just carried on and did it. It’s a fascinating thing. There’s a lot that we can all get out of that actually -- men and women.
On Sunday, May 10, you can catch the Sonics -- one of the first bands Dellaccio worked with -- at Belly Up.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.