Oakland Blues : An Interview with Michelle Vignes

Born in France in 1926, photographer Michelle Vignes moved to San Francisco in 1966 and spent the past several decades documenting some of the most influential social movements in North America. Her photographs include series on the Native American occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971; the American Indian Movement's 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee; Vietnam War protesters burning draft cards; Black Panthers; daily life in Mexican pueblos; and gospel music.

She’s also explored Oakland’s rich blues culture, documenting the music scene throughout the 1980s at numerous clubs around the city, including Eli’s Mile High Club, Shalimar, and the Deluxe. Her aim in the project was, as she puts it, “to take pictures not of the musicians, but of the music.” In a description of her method for the blues series, she adds: “I ended up using a flash consistently; the strobe of the flash and the music syncopated with the blues rhythm.”


Kenny Playing Sax at the De Luxe Inn in Oakland, 1983. Dorothea Lange Award Purchase

Vignes’s work has been informed by the years she spent working at Magnum Photos in Paris, where she was a photo editor with Henri Cartier-Bresson. She went on to work as a photo editor at UNESCO in Paris before moving to the U.S. Her photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, including Time, Life, Vogue, and Newsweek.


Vignes is the recipient of the Chevalier des Arts des Lettres by France's Minister of Culture and the Oakland Museum of California's Dorothea Lange Award for distinguished work by a woman photographer. In 2003, Michelle Vignes’s archives were acquired by UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Other photographs—including some of Oakland’s blues clubs—are in the collection of the OMCA, and appear below. (They can also be seen on the Museum’s brand-new collections website.) 

I recently sat down with Vignes at her home in San Francisco to talk about her experience photographing Oakland’s lush music scene.—Marie Doezema


THE OAKLAND STANDARD: How were you received at the clubs as a photographer?


MICHELLE VIGNES: I came with my camera around my neck. That’s how I do it usually—I don’t like to be categorized right away.


OS: So you were subtle. And then people got used to you?


MV: That’s the main thing. They didn’t even see me anymore.


Michelle Vignes photo

Couple Dancing at Shalimar Club in Oakland, 1983. Dorothea Lange Award Purchase

OS: How long did you work on the blues series?


MV: It was stop-and-go. I started in the early ’80s, stopped many times and went back many times. It became such a part of me. I flashed a lot but I had never used flash before. That was the only way to shoot in the dark, but [before this project] I didn’t like it, so I perfected my technique by making all kinds of attempts—good tries and bad tries. Some of the most personal pictures are taken with a flash.


Michelle Vignes Photograph

Having a Good Time at Eli Mile High Club in Oakland, 1983. Dorothea Lange Award Purchase

OS: And how did the people you were taking pictures of react?


MV: They took me in. Now if I go and I don’t take a picture with the flash, I feel like I betray myself—I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.


OS: Because you won’t get the kind of picture you want?


MV: Because the flash became a part of me.


Michelle Vignes photo

Mississippi Johnny Waters at Home in Oakland, 1983. Dorothea Lange Award Purchase

OS: What inspired you to start the project?


MV: The music. The sensuality of the music, and the joy I got from the music. I’ve always loved blues.


OS: Was it an intimidating subject?


MV: It was intimidating because one of the photographers I admired most did pictures of the blues for a magazine before he died. He had always insisted on taking me to blues clubs to take pictures.


OS: Who was this?


MV: Tony Ray-Jones, an English photographer. He died very young. I said to him, “Oh, I go to blues clubs for the music, not for the photography.” I couldn’t conceive how I could mix both. But it happened.


OS: What changed?


MV: The way that I was taken in.


Photo by Michelle Vignes

Feeling the Blues at Shalimar in Oakland, 1982. Dorothea Lange Award Purchase

OS: How did you start to establish relationships with the musicians?


MV: By becoming friendly with them and forgetting myself as a photographer. I don’t know how to explain that, but I do it pretty well—I forget myself, forget who I am, why I’m just the photographer. I change skin or something.


OS: Is it more like disappearing or transforming?


MV: I disappear in their eyes, not mine. I get so taken over by what I’m doing that I forget myself and what I’m doing, why I’m there. I sank into blues. The mood, the music, the people. They gave me a lot. If you don’t resist people, they’re open.


Photograph by Michelle Vignes

Beverly Playing the Blues at Eli Mile High Club in Oakland, 1982. Dorothea Lange Award Purchase


All photographs by Michelle Vignes, from the collection of the Oakland Museum of California.