Keith Kujath of Hattiesburg has combined two of his passions into one avocation, and now he has found a mentor that provides him the inspiration in both of his endeavors.
Kujath is a music maven, with collections of guitars, albums, recordings and – thanks to his mentor, Dick Waterman – the largest individual collection of Waterman photos. A certified clinical perfusionist by profession, Kujath bundles his love for photography and his knowledge of music, both performing and producing, to capture the essence of a stage or musical performance.
Waterman, on the other hand, is an 84-year-old former photographer living in Oxford who recorded the birth of the blues with his camera. With friends back in the 1960s like Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Bonnie Raitt, he chronicled the early performers and how they influenced music.
Kujath said Waterman’s influence cannot be understated.
“In 1964, he was one of the people who located Son House and convinced him to take up the guitar again,” he said. “Behind the scenes, he took many photos with his trusty Leica and often processed rolls on the road in motel bathrooms.”
Kujath’s introduction to Waterman was somewhat accidental. Kujath visited his friend, J.T. Tisdale, and went to the Double Decker Festival.
“(Waterman) had milk crates of these stacked under a 10-by-10 tent – hundreds of photographs that were already matted and shrink-wrapped,” Kujath said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
One photograph stuck out for Kujath as he looked through the crates.
“I saw that one, I play Marshall and I know who Eric Clapton is, obviously,” he said, pointing to the print of Clapton and Buddy Guy in 1968. “I looked at the picture and said, ‘Who is that standing next to him?’ It was Buddy Guy. So (Waterman) comes up and said, ‘I remember when I took that picture. We were getting ready for the show.’”
Kujath bought the photo and two more, and he never forgot Waterman and his photographs of early blues players.
“I didn’t think I was going to see this guy again,” he said, thinking about Waterman. I had heard of who he was, but I didn’t really know who he was until I got home.”
Kujath said he didn’t bother to frame those first three photos at first.
“They sat around on the mantle, then Double Decker came around again,” he said. “I went up there, and same thing. I got to hang with him and talk with him about how he shot the pictures.”
Waterman’s photographs are iconic, in the people he captured and the circumstances of their music. He also remembers the circumstances surrounding most photos.
“Dick obviously takes great pictures,” Kujath said, holding up a photograph that shows Howlin’ Wolf and Son House relaxing in someone’s backyard. “This one obviously has been cropped hard; I didn’t think about it. They had never met each other, so this is obviously backstage. Dick said they were doting over each other and hugging up on Son House.”
Then Waterman walked up to Kujath.
“Dick said to me, ‘I remember when I took that picture; I was standing next to Muddy Waters,” he said. “Muddy was there with a young guitar player from his band on his left side, and Mick Jagger and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones were on his right side. So, Muddy’s young guitar player said, ‘Who’s that old man that Wolf’s doting over?’ So, Muddy took his guitar player, jacked him up against the wall and said, ‘He was the king when I was coming up, do you hear me? The king.” Jones chimed in and said, ‘Yeah, he’s the one who taught Robert Johnson how to play.’ So, the Stones knew more about Son House than Muddy’s own guitar player.”
Kujath said he has also connected with Waterman through photography when one of his neighbors mentioned a photograph.
“Ken McCarty was my neighbor and every morning I went to my mailbox,” he said. “I got my B.A. in history and he was the tenured history professor at Southern Miss. His wife was English as a Second Language teacher. They are really, really cool people, and I liked talking to him every day at the mailbox.
“He came to the mailbox one day and said, ‘You like music, don’t you? You play guitar?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Do you know who Mississippi John Hurt is?’ I said, ‘Ye-e-e-ah.’ He said, ‘Well, we had to pay some crazy guy in Oxford a lot of money to use his picture for our journal.’ I said, ‘Oh, man, I was just up to Double Decker.’ He said, ‘You wait here.’ And I said, ‘No, you wait here.’ We both went into our houses and he came out with the Journal of Mississippi History. I came back with the same photograph (that was on the cover) and said, ‘Well, he’s not crazy; he’s got hearing aids and it’s hard for him to hear you.’”
Kujath has continued his love for concert photography with local performances and as a volunteer photographer at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He said he has become known in the Pine Belt for his photography.
“I’m here on this little stage and it’s a real, real luxury to get that close, knowing that I know how to run sound and I know what not to kick over,” he said. “I can help run sound if they need it too. Those guys are great too. They know me; they’re friends of mine. I’ve developed a hard drive full of pictures of semi-famous people that have played here. I wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere else. It’s kind of like a training ground here.”
Kujath said he also knows the performers well enough that he can get some interesting reactions.
“One time they had a band from Atlanta playing ‘The Chicken,’” he said. “Jaco Pastorius made that song famous. It’s been a thing for bands lately to try playing ‘The Chicken’ and they butcher ‘The Chicken.’ But, this band came and stuffed it. They played it so well. But, the bass player had a five-string bass. So, I yelled to him, ‘Jaco didn’t need no five-string bass to play the chicken.’ He laughed at me and I got the picture.
“Making people laugh makes a good photograph, because sometimes you get the ‘stink eye.’ I’ve gotten the ‘stink eye’ from famous people too, like Steve Howe from Yes and Carl Denson. I have a file on my hard drive for ‘stink eyes.’ It’s great when you get the ‘anti-stink eye.’”
In addition to the techniques for shooting concert performances, the technology has changed in a rapid way, Kujath said.
“It’s kind of exciting,” he said. “Some of my favorite photographers like Anton Corbijn, who does U2 stuff, says this is an exciting time now because anybody can buy a digital camera. Even cellphones today have a harder lens on it and macro, so it can do concerts and flattens food for photographs. I took a lot of pictures for Town Square Café and did a lot of their food. They asked me, ‘Where’s your professional camera? Why don’t you use that?’ I said, ‘This is the lens that you need for it.’”
New camera technology takes a lot of the challenges to photography, Kujath said.
“What it does is it makes it harder because all it leaves is everybody has nothing but their creativity or their eye,” he said. “It’s like Andy Warhol wanted to remove all technique from his art and still make it art. I think that was the impetus behind a lot of the stuff that he did. It’s kind of like that now, but all it leaves is if you have an eye for composition, I guess I have that going for me. And, I used to know what film looked like, so that’s my shtick – Taking a picture that’s digital and making it look like it’s film.”
Kujath’s trips to Oxford have continued and he has connected with Waterman while he was there.
“When I went back to Double Decker to pick up my prints – I think it was four years in a row – I got to know him better because I would stay there the whole time and listen to his stories,” he said. “I knew I didn’t have enough skill to be his darkroom technician; I wanted to volunteer as that because at that time he needed one. I have heard that the house is full, full, full to the brim with stuff that hasn’t even been processed. Can you imagine what might be on there?”
Buster Wolfe is senior staff writer for HubCitySPOKES after reporting on Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana teams for more than 45 years. To contact him, call (601) 268-2331 or write to buster@Hub-