- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) - She and the three friends she was with each took a piece of her camera and hid the pieces inside a pants leg or elsewhere on their person. They were smuggling Stephanie E. JenningsCanon into Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena for a concert by The Grateful Dead, so she could photograph the famed San Francisco improvisational rock band. The date was June 26, 1988.

Jennings, then a University of Alabama student, had shot plenty of bands in Tuscaloosa, including college radio stars R.E.M. This was her first time shooting The Grateful Dead though. And her first time seeing them in concert. She had started listening to The Dead’s music because the guy who lived next door to her in Tuscaloosa was into them “and I was totally into him, so I sent away for tickets and invited him to the show,” she recalls now. Coming up on 30 years since her first Dead show, on a recent muggy afternoon Jennings is seated on a comfy chair in her South Huntsville home. Her fluffy cat Sampson, named for the Dead song “Sampson & Delilah,” is chilling on an adjacent end table.

That summer day in Pittsburgh, Jennings came away with a few keeper photos of the band, including singer/guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. But outside the arena, she got a ton of shots of the band’s Deadhead fans and the hippie-party parking lot scene. “What I loved about the show was that I felt totally comfortable and at home,” Jennings says. “I’d been to hundreds of concerts you know but I never felt so at ease getting up and dancing and enjoying myself. It was just like everybody was one. And that was it.”

Jennings would go on to attend and photograph around 150 Grateful Dead concerts, she estimates now.

After graduating from Alabama in 1989, she moved to Philadelphia to manage a photography company. The Dead were scheduled to come back to Pittsburgh soon. But at another of the band’s shows she’d attended after that first one, security had made Jennings take her camera back to her car, even though tickets for that concert indicated cameras and recording equipment were allowed inside, she says.

Frustrated by getting rebuked by security, Jennings wrote a letter to a mailing address she found for the Grateful Dead, asking how she could get her camera into the show. “And I got a call one night,” Jennings says, and it was like, ‘Hi. I’m Dennis McNally, I’m the publicist for the Grateful Dead. What can I do for you? Well I’ll have a photo pass for you at the gate.’ I had no idea what a photo pass was.”

When it came time for The Dead’s next Pittsburgh concert, Jennings drove over from Philly, recruiting a friend from elementary school she hadn’t seen in years to go with her. They arrived at the venue, but there was no photo pass for Jennings, causing them to miss opening act Crosby, Stills & Nash. Eventually security went and found McNally for her. He’d simply forgotten about her photo pass and welcomed Jennings and her friend to come inside the venue, showed Jennings where to shoot The Dead from up front for three songs. Since Jennings still didn’t have a photo pass, she didn’t want to leave the backstage area because she didn’t think she’d be able to get back in. At some point a man came over, introduced himself as Cameron Sears, the Grateful Dead’s tour manager, and asked what she was doing backstage. Jennings told him. Then, Sears invited her to come take photos at The Dead’s show at Washington’s RFK Memorial Stadium.

She went to RFK, shooting some 500 photos of the band with her Canon camera - and remember, this was in the era of film and manual focus. “I got to sit on the stage,” Jennings says. “And there’s Brent (Mydland, keyboardist) and Jerry and it was raining and the stadium was full. It was pretty amazing and very surreal. How is this happening?”

The Grateful Dead were not the most photogenic band in the history of rock. McNally recalls taking his sister, a big David Bowie fan, to see a Dead show in 1974 and afterwards her assessment was, “Well, it was OK but they’re not very visual, are they?” McNally says, “I was almost yelling at her, ‘What do you want? Garcia to play the guitar with his tongue or something?’ In that sense, it’s very much parallel to jazz. For the photographer, what you’re looking for is that certain moment when there’s an expression that you can capture. And it’s much more subtle than, with all respect, great band, The Rolling Stones where Keith’s doing the splits and Mick’s running around. But with the Dead what you see is people making music. They’re not performing in the common sense.”

McNally says The Dead arrived at an epiphany early in their career, during the LSD-enhanced Acid Test parties of the mid-60s. Unlike most bands’ concerts, The Grateful Dead themselves wouldn’t be the show - their audiences would. “And that will rearrange your molecules a little bit,” McNally says with a laugh. “So what the photographers are doing, is trying to capture is lightning in a bottle. And Stephanie was one of the best at it.”

Jennings‘ most famous photo, a black and white image known as “The Flying Jerry,” captures that sort of moment: Garcia onstage at Giants Stadium in 1992 with a mischievous grin on his face and his gray hair blowing in the wind, as he plays one of his custom Doug Irwin electric guitars.

In photographing musicians, Jennings says she looked for an “expression and body movement and something as they’re signing, that connection of when I feel things. So when somebody looks at the picture they feel something. And they remember the picture.”

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