When former Daily Beacon photographer Jed DeKalb (’76) began working for the state of Tennessee’s new photography division in 1979, newly elected Governor Lamar Alexander buzzed security to escort him out of the first meeting he was sent to photograph. The governor thought the meeting was a closed session, and he didn’t recognize DeKalb. The experience gave both men a memorable welcome to government in Nashville.
DeKalb stuck with his new job, eventually becoming the state’s chief photographer. However, his road to getting hired wasn’t easy either.
“Six months after I sent in my application and my portfolio, I got a rejection letter,” he says, so he decided to stick with his job in Illinois where he was working his second stint as a newspaper photographer.
Tennessee’s director of photography, Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Hood, called DeKalb and wanted to know why they hadn’t heard from him. “I told him I got turned down, and Robin said, ‘I don’t know why you got that letter. Somebody screwed up. We want to hire you. Are you still interested?’”
DeKalb has logged more than thirty years of service for a succession of five Tennessee governors in his time with photographic services. His work day may include photographing official appearances by Governor Bill Haslam, doing a tourism shoot for a small Tennessee county, or working with Photoshop to get his images just right.
DeKalb first became interested in photography watching his dad shoot rolls of 35-millimeter film during Christmas. When he was in high school, he started taking concert photos. By the time he attended UT, DeKalb’s interest had turned into his passion.
He photographed Elton John playing the Stokely Center and Bruce Springsteen playing at a small venue in Knoxville before becoming well known.
DeKalb’s friend, Bill Johnson, was a deejay who knew all the concert promoters. He would show them DeKalb’s photos from previous concerts, and they would give DeKalb tickets or a backstage pass to an upcoming show.
“I would get there early so I could get up front. But I’m 6’6″ so I could get what I wanted anyway,” DeKalb says.
He started calling his work Tasty Photos because he and his friends “would say things looked tasty when we liked them,” he explains. “The name just stuck.”
DeKalb would turn his photos into posters and trade them for albums at a record store on the Strip. “The store sold the posters,” he says. “I just wanted the music.”
After photographing multiple ZZ Top concerts, DeKalb eventually got to meet the band. Lead guitarist Billy Gibbons liked DeKalb’s work so much he bought some photos for his personal collection. The band later flew DeKalb to Canada where he shot the cover for their fourth album Fandango. Even though it was his biggest break at the time, DeKalb admitted later in an interview with UT’s Phoenix magazine, “The band chose the shot. It’s not the one I would have chosen.”
DeKalb wasn’t planning to expand his interests, but, “My roommate challenged me to take other photos besides concerts. That’s when I applied for the Daily Beacon and started doing journalistic photography.”
He talked his way into some plum assignments. DeKalb covered the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, traveled to Memphis to photograph George Harrison in concert with Ravi Shankar, and was even sent to Mardi Gras one year. “That was hard to explain to my parents, that I was on a mission for the school,” he admits with a laugh.
DeKalb also helped cover the Vols. “I loved watching Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld play basketball,” he says. “I loved football too, even though Stanley Morgan ran into me once on the sidelines.”
A class he took as a UT junior helped DeKalb realize that a career in photography would mean the most to him. “The teacher talked about hobbies and grades, and asked which direction do you see your interests and grades pointing you to? Even though I knew the answer, I tried a desk job. But being a salesman who made cold calls at my desk didn’t last long.”
DeKalb still describes his career choice as “a dream come true.”