Leon Kagarise, who died in 2008 at age 71, was a Baltimore audio engineer who was also a pure amateur—an amateur photographer, amateur record-collector, and most of all a fan—who followed country musicians he admired when they performed at rural amusement parks, at a little outdoor open stage in Maryland, and a farm in Pennsylvania Amish country. The names are big—Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Hank Snow—but the events are small.
The color photographs that Kagarise snapped with his Zeiss Ikon camera are candid, casual, and artless, yet they capture the artistry and image-creation of these musicians with serious, sometimes stunning, precision. There aren't any pictures in the new book that collects his work--Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives 1961-1971 (Process Media)--that will haunt or frighten you the way any number of photo collections of early rock and rollers such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others can. Pure Country is like leafing through a family scrapbook, if your family included June Carter standing in the woods late at night, glowing in a white shirtwaist dress with ruffles, red high heels and perfectly bobbed hair, looking at the camera as though she was ready to kiss it. You know that famous photo of a sneering, hopped-up Johnny Cash giving the camera the finger? Leon Kagarise didn't take that picture, or anything like it; in fact, Kagarise probably would have burned such a photo as soon as he developed it, abashed at its vulgarity. Yet his photo of Cash on page 53 of Pure Country—a Cash in right profile, onstage at the New River Ranch in Maryland, leaning into the audience strumming his guitar, his hair combed in a short, neat pompadour, his trademark black clothing on this evening a simple black business suit—captures Cash's smolder as well as any song he recorded.
A vanished world is summoned up in these photographs; a world in which men and women who sang about heartbreak, dissolute despair, unhappy marriages, and shameful affairs offered up hard lives as the norm and as no excuse to not say thank you to the fans and sign autographs for hours after a performance. Hank Snow's country-industry image was that of the genial Singing Ranger, the smiling Canadian who half-crooned, half-yodelled his melancholy as upbeat inspiration. But take a look at Kagarise's photo of Snow caught offstage in Sunset Park, PA, in 1964—his face uncharacteristically masked by big brown Ray-Ban sunglasses, his face a blank mask, his hairpiece looking like hard molded plastic atop an endless forehead—and you see Snow for the first time as a tough little sonofabitch who was struggling to keep racking up hits while Nashville was starting to ignore his hard-twang music in favor of "countrypolitan" string sections, even as he and the rest of the industry tried to comprehend what the Beatles and "All My Loving" and "I Saw Her Standing There" meant for the future, and Kagarise's photo suggested that that future required dark brown shades.
The washed-out colors of Kagarise’s pictures of lesser-known acts like the Stonemen—a raucously funny, tremendously passionate family talent-show act--or the mountain-music boys Jim and Jesse, or the pious, curvy sex-angel Connie Smith… all of these images contain quiet explosions of contradictory messages: intricate harmonies about messy lives; formally-dressed artists taking pains to assure their audiences that they're no different from them. To look at Hank Snow in Pure Country is to hear him sing "I Don’t Hurt Anymore" and know that the title sentiment is an artful lie: that he can still feel great hurt, and see that he knows the people listening to him has that hurt in them as well. Leon Kagarise seems to have been exhilarated every time he captured the complexity of the relationship between artist and audience, music and image, hurt and joy.