Remembering Photographer Jeff Tinsley
Jeff Tinsley was larger than life—a warm-hearted, gregarious, and talented photographer at the National Museum of American History for twenty-nine years. Jeff first experienced the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. When he got a job as a photographer at the museum a year later, he was thrilled to discover that photographing the Festival would be a part of his job.
He photographed the Festival every year until 2005, when he developed a brain tumor and took a disability retirement. He responded extremely well to treatment, causing Jeff to be a sensation with his doctors. Though he was retired, he returned to shoot photos at the 2006 Festival, and each year thereafter until 2012, when his physical stamina in the heat began to wane. The tumor eventually returned and was the cause of his death earlier this month.
I worked with Jeff from the time I arrived at the Smithsonian as an assistant archivist in 1995. He was then the chief photographer at American History, and at that time the museum’s photographers were in charge of documenting whatever was happening on the National Mall—from inaugurations to the Folklife Festival. I first coordinated still photography at the Festival in 1996, working with Jeff and his team as well as interns and volunteers.
In a 2008 interview, Jeff explained some of his approaches for getting the best shots at the Festival. He got to know the staff, allowing him to move around in places that the public couldn’t go, such as on stages and in green rooms. On the Fourth of July, he liked to scout out significant landmarks of the Festival that he could line up with the Washington Monument and the evening fireworks. In 1998, it was the Philippines Chapel, a tent with beautiful decorations. But one of his favorite techniques was to get up high, sometimes on a ladder, a building roof, or on a cherry picker, and sometimes in a U.S. Park Police helicopter.
“I’ve always been a person who decided that, to get up and see the whole scope of things was something that was going to be a unique view that none of those people on the ground would ever get,” he said. “I’ve been known to hang out of the side of the helicopter when they took the door off, just put a belt around me and be able to swoop over the crowd, but also just to show the scene of the whole thing.” The shots of the Festival from above are hallmarks of his work and his excellent eye for the unusual perspective.
Aside from the Festival, Jeff developed his skills photographing drag races. He gained a sense of timing, always ready for split-second action, and an ability to switch camera settings manually in a fast-paced environment. With these abilities, he shot many emergent and spontaneous moments at the Festival, capturing the excitement, the colors, textures, and motion on the Mall.
When I asked about his favorite memories of the Festival, Jeff recalled the 2000 Festival when we produced a program called Tibetan Culture Beyond the Land of Snows. “For your whole life to hear about the Dalai Lama who is bigger than life itself, and all of a sudden be sitting or kneeling next to him photographing, and then behind him with the crowd in the background... pretty amazing experience.” The Dalai Lama visited the program site, met the participants, gave a public talk, and performed a Tibetan Buddhist ritual—all of which Jeff captured.
He also recalled attending a 1994 concert in tribute to Ralph Rinzler, co-founder of the Festival, who was ill in a hospital. A tremendous storm hit that evening, with wind and lashing rain. We learned later that Ralph had passed away sometime during the storm. The timing was very eerie, Jeff said, remarking that everyone who worked on the Festival and knew Ralph knows “he’s there with us all the time.”
Some of Jeff’s most stunning photographs are of musicians performing, including Smithsonian Folkways Recordings artists Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, BeauSoleil, and others. “If you’re on them, you’re focused in and ready, if you can get them to look at you, it really makes the photo,” he explained. He did some work for Smithsonian Folkways, including a 50th Folkways Anniversary Concert at Carnegie Hall in 1998.
In his final years of documenting the Festival, Jeff struggled with double vision and dizziness resulting from the brain tumor, yet he mostly managed to get his shots despite these challenges. He had to give up flying in the Park Police helicopter, but he was a trouper and called me every year to find out about future programs and what he could look forward to photographing.
Jeff’s photography, particularly of the Festival, has very special qualities, demonstrating his ability to connect with people. His subjects responded to him, and it shows. He would walk around the Festival and, every few feet, would see someone he knew. He was a longtime part of the Folklife family, and he is mourned and missed by us and his photographer colleagues at the Smithsonian.
Jeff was always able to find an engaging, visually appealing composition. His photographs have the ability to tell stories and share knowledge without needing an in-depth description. His photos can stand alone and illustrate the iconic moments, or they can be paired together and present an experience. As he so aptly said, “One of the great things about the Festival is it’s not a one-shot deal. Every hour of every day, there’s some story.”
Jeff’s photographs and his unique personal view tell wonderful stories, and his legacy of the Folklife Festival and significant moments in Smithsonian Folkways history will forever be preserved in our archives.
Stephanie Smith is the director of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.