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A once in a lifetime photo shoot of Johnny Cash


A once in a lifetime photo shoot

By Michael Curran
In the Talking Heads 1981 song, “Once in a Lifetime,” there is a memorable line, which poses the query, “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Had young, 20-year-old photojournalism student, John Soden known the importance of his upcoming meeting with destiny that Oct. 22, 1971 evening, he might have asked himself that question once he became part of the Johnny Cash concert at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.
Soden was a rock-‘n’-roll aficionado and wasn’t overly familiar with Cash the country, rockabilly icon, nor the other acts that were scheduled that October night – Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family (second generation), which included Cash’s wife, June Carter, her sister Helen and their mother Maybelle.
The budding photographer was familiar with the Cash tune, “A Boy Named Sue” but not much more.
Sometimes, friends enter your life at just the right time to make fortuitous circumstances become a highlight of personal history. And it was such with Soden.
A sidekick, Bob Huntington, the university’s radio station manager, asked Soden if he would like to ply his photography craft at the forthcoming Cash concert, while he interviewed Cash and others for the air waves.
Soden readily accepted – it was a chance to go to the concert free and take in the evening’s entertainment.
“I thought, oh boy, I’ll be in on the action,” he remembered. “I might be able to get some cool shots. I didn’t realize at the time how important that photo opportunity was going to be and just how big Johnny Cash and the other acts were.”
A few days before the event the two received their passes and off Soden went, with his 35 millimeter Nikkormat FTN camera with a not-too-big 105-millimeter (two power) lens.
“Upon my arrival I asked Cash’s stage manager if it was alright to discreetly shoot Cash and the performers from the shadows,” Soden recalled. “He told me it was OK as long as the acts didn’t complain. I felt privileged and suddenly my nerves were on high alert. I was exhilarated.”
And the scene was set for Soden’s epic photo shoot.
“When the two-hour event began, the lights went down to an almost pitch-black level,” Soden recounted. “I didn’t dare move until my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit scene for fear of tripping over the power cords and electronic equipment strewn about the floor.”
The fledgling cameraman began to shoot.
“I felt I was part of the action,” Soden reminisced. “The excitement made my hands unstable and it was hard to hold my camera steady. I had to keep telling myself ‘Hold the camera still’ and stay mindful of the task at hand.
“After a while, though, I thought I was getting some good stuff from as close as six to eight feet away.”
In all, Soden took 69 pictures of the night’s concert. But how well would the negatives look? That would be the next hurdle to clear.
“When I developed the negatives they looked somewhat underexposed,” Soden said. “But the faces were perfect when I made some prints.
“Only a few got made because of other assignments and school commitments and eventually I put them in storage because I thought they might be old news.”
March 1973, Soden graduated Southern Illinois University and two weeks later entered the U.S. Navy Reserve spending three months on active duty before moving to New York City.
The Cash negatives remained with his mother in California, where they had been sent after Soden’s college graduation. And there they stayed until the photographer moved to New Mexico in 1996 bringing his unknown photography treasure with him along with his other possessions, which overshadowed the forgotten pictures from the Johnny Cash concert.
Last summer the Ruidoso, N.M. cameraman rediscovered the prized cache of Cash negatives.
“They were in great shape,” Soden said. “They looked as though I had just taken them a week ago. My first thought was I would print them in my darkroom the first chance I had. But my plan had to wait for six months until I finished a movie project I was committed to.
“I was finally able to make prints this last winter. I had to wear a coat because my darkroom was cold but it was well worth the annoyance because each finished photograph came out better than the one before. The negatives were clean, unscratched and free of dust. And with newer printing materials – plus 20 years or so of additional photo printing experience – I was able to make beautiful prints.”
Thus far, Soden has made a dozen large copies of the best photos from that long-ago, once forgotten concert. Today those prized memories of the famed musician hang in Soden’s gallery.
“My hope is that the publication of these pictures will remind everyone how special Cash and the other performers in that concert were,” Soden said. “Even though I’ve shot pictures of other luminaries, I truly feel the photographic opportunity of Oct. 22, 1971, was a career highlight. It solidified what I wanted to do in life.”  


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