Interview by Tom King, with William Burroughs Communications' almost official photographer, Jon Blumb in Lawrence, Kansas, 2013.
If the Burroughs estate has an official photographer it is Jon Blumb. When particular documentation was called for, Blumb was usually James Grauerholz's first call. Blumb's essay on Burroughs is included below.
Blumb: I knew William for 10 years. Our first meeting was in 1986 when I came over to pick up paintings to be photographed. I had been recommended by mutual friends and had worked on many exhibition catalogs. Burroughs was showing his visual art so much those days.
The first assignment? A stack of art. He wanted me to take detail shots from several works on paper which he would use for collages. We worked in the backyard.
I knew he liked photography but I didn't realize how involved he was with it personally, throughout his life. He took a lot of pictures. We related on that level and we both enjoyed firearms and shooting targets.
The portraits I made were usually candid, no set-up. I didn't want to overstay my welcome. Occasionally there was a formal situation or a recording or video session.
William was recording several of his crime stories for a music video for the band Ministry. The lighting and video crews had constructed an intimate setting but there was so much activity that I had only a brief window of perfect focus. William was usually at ease in these situations. He was so much like one of his own story characters when he did readings. He became the disembodied voice of control on the radio.
I think this is a humorous picture. William was out for an important event but something else was tugging at him, maybe Happy Hour. He kept rummaging in his security bag, a little gym or bowling bag he always had with him on his outings. No-one was sure what he kept in there but there was probably weed and some vodka and Coke.
James made sure that William had what he needed to thrive and be happy.
This picture was taken in May 1995 at the second iteration of Red House when they moved to West 31 Street. William had just finished reading from Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Everything went very well, we went outside for some portrait shots. At some point, I asked James to join in.
The first time I set up a shooting range for William Burroughs, I went out to the farm early and set up targets on a board, an improvised table, and lawn chairs. When I brought William to the spot later that afternoon, he sized up the distance, commenting, "Hell, Man, I'm not gonna shoot ‘em ‘way out there! Move ‘em up closer—most gunfights are just across a room!"
He enjoyed shooting a full array of firearms from .38, .357 magnum, 9mm, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 long Colt, and .454 Casull. The more energy expended and recoil produced, the better! William liked to see and feel the results of his endeavors, from being physically pushed back by a firearm to examining the targets and touching the holes with his fingers, as if he had an intuitive system of scoring targets in which he merely had to touch the holes while his mind tallied up the scores.
That magnum theme came to be familiar in my dealings with William Burroughs. While the range might have been close, the content was large-bore. His gusto extended into his writing and art, as well. William always enjoyed art and photography, and had been active in both. When called upon to photograph new art works, I was amazed at the volume of paintings he would make in a week. They were not simply a pastime, but a serious obsession.
I met William while photographing his art. Having specialized in photography of fine art for years, it was a different scene to observe as William exhibited, published, and sold a large volume of his art. The reviews and attention came from a different audience, not the mainstream art establishment. Writers, editors, and musicians were interested. Collectors were buying William's art. It was entertaining to see artists' and critics' jealous reactions to William's notoriety. Soon I was invited to photograph him at voice and video recording sessions. I knew I was lucky to have access to photograph William without formality, and we enjoyed shooting together.
William often enjoyed speaking in the vernacular, skillfully using poor grammar to drive home a point or a mood, just like his tough-guy characters. Being present at recording sessions was an enjoyable benefit of my work. It was a rare chance to hear him use his theatrical voice to interpret the written word.
William lived unpretentiously and had many friends. Lawrence residents were flattered that he had chosen to live among them, and returned the favor by giving him generous amounts of privacy and respect. The week of his death, a few reporters showed up in town trying to dig up stories, but ended up frustrated by the treatment they were given by reticent Lawrence residents.
It seemed to many friends that William would live indefinitely, partly because he had outlived many of his contemporaries. When he died in August of 1997, it was a shock to his friends who were used to his energetic personality. It was natural for me to document in photographs his funeral and the final journey to his family's cemetery plot in St. Louis. Many of his friends were in a prolonged state of mourning, and I deliberately did not publish the funeral photos immediately. Now I feel that it is appropriate to show these photographs from the end of William's life.
William's death reminded me of the painful fact that people and opportunities will not be available forever. We must enjoy them now, while the time is ripe and the chance is at hand.
William was a collector of experiences, ideas, books, and weapons. He was an innovator with a creative, visual mind. To him, life was a fascinating journey. William identified with the spirit of the following quotation, attributed to Plutarch in 56 B.C.:
“It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.”
- Jon Blumb December 2004