Retro Photo Archive: Neal Casal

Feature 014 • Jun 5th 2024

In the Fall of 2019, shortly after the passing of Neal Casal, my dad Jay Blakesberg and I were given the opportunity to organize and curate the archive of Casal’s photography into a book.

Casal is best known for his prominence as a member of various bands and collaborations, notably with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, solo projects including Circles around the Sun and many more. But his legacy, much like the music he made, is more complicated, beautiful, and enigmatic than a simple discography can express. Like anyone who was taken from us too soon, the puzzle pieces of his life were left in a state of disarray for friends, family, and peers to attempt to arrange.

I met Neal Casal a few times through my dad – though I never got to not know him well. After spending over a year digging through his photographic archive (tons of which no one had ever seen) and listening to his various musical projects, I began to feel as if I was developing my own unique understanding of him. In 2020, I had the honor of curating a book of his images titled “Tomorrow’s Sky.”

Neal never had a chance to create a retrospective book of his own work. As I embarked on this daunting task of trying to tell someone else’s story, sifting through thousands of negatives, photo albums, postcards, blogs, and social media, my main priority was to attempt to stay true to his vision as I understood it. I was able to piece together what I hope is a glimpse into what Neal saw during his everyday life.

Neal always had his camera on him. Whether on the road or off, it seems his artistic eye was drawn to the temporary; the quiet, passing moments that we experience as life unfolds that are so relatable, and so human. Neal had a gift for conveying intangible emotional themes through his photos. In his hotel imagery, we’re offered a melancholic stillness via an unmade bed and an open suitcase. A feeling of fleeting content can be experienced when you see, through his own lens, how much Neal appreciated a warm glowing neon sign on an unnamed highway.

Each frame captures the visual and emotional beats of these fleeting moments. There’s a delicate balance within his work, where momentary scenes of ordinary life intertwine with a profound sense of moody sentiment. And yet amidst the wistfulness, there’s a tender embrace of life’s sweet, small joys.

What is it about these seemingly innocuous scenes that appealed to Neal? From my perspective he was drawn to these subjects because they grounded him, even if just for a moment, when his lifestyle demanded constant movement and transition. Whether he meant to be or not, Casal was a street photographer – and that’s a lane that requires a balance of spontaneity and intention, much like his music. I believe Neal’s intention behind his work was to convey the beauty that exists within the commonplace.

It was an often-surreal process, seeing the world through Neal’s eyes, without having him around to answer questions I had. I instead had to look to his art for the answers, filling in the gaps of his known biography with glimpses from his own eye. I was fortunate enough to have close friends of Neal by my side to help guide me through this fragile and beautiful journey. It was truly an unforgettable community effort.

In an elegant twist of artistic mediums, the imagery that Neal sought to express through his music can be found hidden in his photography – and the scenes portrayed through his photographs seem to be accompanied by a score of their own.