He rode his bike down dirt roads and saw workers in the cotton fields and neighbors sitting out on Coca Cola crates. He'd smell catfish. And he'd hear music.
"I spent my summers in the Mississippi Delta from the age of 4," says Allison, now a Tucsonan. "There was a juke joint on the property. ... To be in a juke joint, (you'd see) people shooting craps, eating spare ribs, drinking and dancing." And the music had a flavor all its own, one that Allison came to appreciate. "I learned to love the blues, so I really wanted to capture that," he says.
Allison began photographing the area in the mid-'70s. "I saw old buildings and Coke signs. I saw a certain beauty to that and wanted to capture the landscape and the swamps. I'd go to a cotton gin and take pictures of the workers or go to a catfish farm and take pictures of catfish heads. Catfish and the blues go hand in hand. I captured the blues culture.
"In the early '80s, I had my camera everywhere and attended the blues festivals. People knew me as Mose Allison's son," he says. The senior Allison is a Grammy-nominated musician whose career spans 50 years. His songs are a "fusion of rustic blues and jazz" and have been covered by Van Morrison, The Who and Eric Clapton, among others. His father's status always gave the younger Allison backstage clearance.
From 1975 to 1995, Allison photographed numerous musicians at juke joints and festivals, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Lonnie Pitchford. He says he has "a few thousand photos," including landscape photographs. But it wasn't until late last year that Allison began to display his work.
"It all started when a neighbor saw a photo (of a blues musician). He convinced me that I needed to catalogue the photographs digitally. ... The scanner I bought came with software where you can play with colors and use filters. I love animation and computer graphics. So I said, 'Let me see how this works.'"
With a master's in telecommunications from NYU, Allison knew what to enhance in his photos. "I have a good eye. I don't move things or add things in. I just work with what's there in the picture. ... I made a (collection) of 40 to 50 digitally enhanced photos," says Allison.
His friends were enthusiastic with the results. "People loved them. Everyone who saw them was excited. ... I started to enlarge them professionally," he says.
Allison's first showing was in December during a two-week exhibition at Hotel Congress. After seeing a call-to-artists notice earlier this year, Allison brought a few photos to Murphey Gallery at Saint Philip's in the Hills Parish. "Then I got a letter saying, 'You've been selected to show in May,'" he recalls.
The Ultimate Blues Photo Collection: Photographs From the Mississippi Delta by Photographer John R. Allison continues at Murphey Gallery, 4440 N. Campbell Ave., through May 31. The exhibit includes approximately 20 16-by-20 images in custom frames. Allison can even create new images if you want to match the colors of a photo with your sofa.
Allison has digitally enhanced approximately 300 photographs and wants to continue to exhibit his work at other galleries in the area. He'd also "love to do a coffee-table book."
But until the galleries and book agents contact Allison, he will be busy with two other projects. As writer and co-producer of the film FDNY Dream Bike, Allison is working on getting the film shown on television. A distribution deal was just formalized.
According to fdnydreambike.com, the documentary highlights the story of Gerard "Biscuits" Baptiste, a young firefighter assigned to FDNY Ladder 9 who perished on Sept. 11. The surviving members of his unit and the motorcycle community restored a derelict motorcycle Baptiste bought weeks before. The film premiered at the Loft Cinema last year and played in Manhattan in September, garnering a three-star New York Times review.
Allison's other project is helping to promote his father's upcoming concert in Tucson. Mose Allison performs at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 Scott Ave., at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 14. Lisa Otey opens the show. Call 622-2823 for tickets, $18 orchestra and $15 balcony.
The younger Allison praises his father's music and says, "His playing is becoming more and more sophisticated. He reaches through generations. Rock performers reach their peak in their 20s or 30s, but he's getting better."
Father and son seem to be modest about their creative abilities. At first, the younger Allison was skeptical when friends said he should show his work. And the elder Allison "never had a look-at-me mentality and doesn't brag about anything," says his son.
"My father followed his ears," continues Allison. "He is still in search of the perfect performance. He just wants to play another night at a little jazz club somewhere. He never lost his roots."
While life in Tippo has faded into memory, father and son keep the spirit of the region alive. With music by Mose and photos by John, the roots of the Mississippi Delta live on.