Review: Photo Exhibit Captures the Magic of the Blues at the Swedish American Museum

The latest exhibition at the Swedish American Museum, Great Feelings and Meetings, pays tribute to American blues music by showcasing the work of photographer Hans Ekestang who has been documenting blues musicians for the last 50 years. His passion for blues music has led him to attend blues festivals and concerts throughout Scandinavia, Europe and the United States.

On display are 75 photos taken from 1972 through 2019 that capture blues legends such as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Otis Rush, as well as contemporary blues artists such as, Mike Wheeler, Toronzo Cannon, Thornetta Davis, and Rhiannon Giddens.

Big Mama Thornton, 1972.
Big Mama Thornton, 1972. Photograph by Hans Ekestang. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The wide range of blues musicians photographed in the last five decades act as a testimony to Ekestang’s dedication to covering the blues. In many of the photos, Ekestang isn’t just documenting musicians performing on stage, but instead connects with them on a deeper level—there is a sense of intimacy in his work as we see their pain and joy expressed through their eyes and facial expressions. And seeing these intimate moments of them performing on stage can almost transport us back in time as if we are in the audience—we can hear the soulful voices of the singers, the steady beat from the rhythm section, and the searing sounds coming from the guitar.

It is worth noting that besides blues artists, Ekestang also took numerous photos of rock ‘n roll legends such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino as well as R&B greats like James Brown and Tina Turner.

Ekestang also captures private moments when the musicians aren’t performing on stage. There is a joyful shot of Little Richard hanging out with his bandmates after a concert; a photo of Fats Domino wearing a t-shirt as he relaxes in his dressing room; and a shot of Nina Simone looking regal and self-assured. There is also a great shot of Big Mama Thornton sitting behind a drum kit in 1972, some 20 years after she recorded the song Hound Dog, which went on to sell close to two million copies. Ekestang also captures an intimate moment of Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King sharing a laugh together on stage.

Otis Rush, 1992.
Otis Rush, 1992. Photograph by Hans Ekestang. Photo courtesy of the artist.

There are a number of photos of Chicago blues greats such as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush who not only made an impact on the Chicago blues scene, but also on the national and international level as well—inspiring British blues musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and John Mayall, to name a few.

Great Feelings and Meetings is a must-see exhibition because it not only pays homage to the rich history of the blues, but also reminds us how the blues continues to be a vibrant form of musical expression. Ekestang possesses that rare talent that all great photographers share—the ability to capture an elusive moment that in the end becomes a magical moment frozen in time.

Muddy Waters, 1974.
Muddy Waters, 1974. Photograph by Hans Ekestang. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Many of Ekestang’s photos have been published in the Swedish blues magazine, Jefferson, which is one of the longest running blues magazines in the world. His photos have also appeared in Melody Maker and other magazines and books. A companion book to this exhibition, Great Feelings and Meetings, can be purchased at the museum gift shop.

This exhibition will be on display through September 4 at the Swedish American Museum located at 5211 N. Clark. At this present time, visitors are required to wear a mask when visiting the museum—please check their website or call 773-728-8111 for any updates on visitor guidelines. Museum hours: Tuesday through Friday 10am to 4pm and Saturday and Sunday 11am to 4pm. Admission: $6 for adults; $4 for children, students and seniors; $15 for families (2 adults and 3 children under 18).

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Tom Wawzenek