Teresa Trull, Irene Young, and Barbara Higbie
Teresa Trull, Irene Young, and Barbara Higbie at the old Freight & Salvage | Courtesy of Irene Young

As someone intimately familiar with the ratio governing the relationship between pictures and words, I’ve long marveled at Irene Young’s gift for taking portraits that reveal far more than the axiomatic 1,000-word count. At a time when AI is rapidly undermining our ability to trust the images that flit across our screens, she’s a master at capturing musicians in moments of authentic play. With hundreds of album covers and thousands of publicity photos to her credit, she’s honed a readily identifiable aesthetic. Intimate, playful, and often bursting through the edge of the frame, her images are inextricably enmeshed in a musical moment when the possibilities for female performers were radically expanding.

While she’s still working regularly as a photographer and videographer, Young is at a stage in her life when she’s tending to her legacy, an ongoing project that first manifested in March with Something About the Women, a book brimming with more than 900 images shot across five decades. Not every artist in the project is associated with the lesbian-centric 1970s women’s music movement, but Young’s involvement with Oakland-based Olivia Records and Holly Near’s Redwood Records gave her a unique vantage point from which to document a rising generation of vocalists, instrumentalists, and songwriters who carved out an independent niche in the male-dominated music biz.

Book cover

Young doesn’t think of her practice as taking photographs. “Nobody takes anything away in my photo shoots,” she said in a recent conversation from her studio in Richmond’s Marina Bay. “I like to think of it as a deeper creative collaboration, an energetic collaboration. I don’t tell people, ‘Do this.’ I give suggestions, something we more or less do together. If you can just be in the moment, you’re guaranteed to get something interesting.”

Young started her career with the camera on the New York folk scene in the early 1970s, when she became something of a house photographer at the storied West Village venue Gerde’s Folk City, where Bob Dylan made his New York debut in 1961. An early connection with the Roches, the sister vocal trio, put her on the map when the group landed a deal with Warner Bros. Rising artists like Suzanne Vega, Loudon Wainwright III, and Tom Paxton all came before Young’s lens.

I didn’t do the first cover for the Roches, but I did several,” she said. “I ended up having a duplex on Bleecker Street, three blocks from Folk City. I’d work in my darkroom until 11 p.m. and then go over there. You knew everybody was going to be hanging out.”

Teresa Trull and Barbara Higbie
1983 photo of Teresa Trull and Barbara Higbie | Credit: Irene Young

Young thrived on the bustling New York scene, but a budding friendship with Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Barbara Higbie opened up a new frontier. On Higbie’s very first tour, playing fiddle for Robin Flower, they ended up staying at Young’s Bleecker Street loft. Recently connected with a new label, Windham Hill, launched by guitarist William Ackerman in his Palo Alto garage, Higbie recommended Young to art director Anne Robinson, and a photo of Higbie and fiddler Darol Anger ended up on the back cover of the label’s 1982 album Tideline.

“They just loved her at Windham Hill. She had those superpowers and just a willingness to be her own artist,” recalled Higbie, who’s been a regular subject of Young’s ever since, as has Higbie’s intermittent musical partner Teresa Trull, who now lives in New Zealand. The two musicians are at Freight & Salvage on June 16 to celebrate Trull’s 70th birthday, Pride month, and their reunion. They’ll be joined by a bevy of special guests, many of whom are also featured in Something About the Women, including guitarist Kofy Brown, vocalist Margaret Belton, multi-instrumentalist and producer Julie Wolf, and vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Vicki Randle. Higbie and Trull also perform June 15 at Occidental Center for the Arts and June 21 at the 48th National Women’s Music Festival in Madison, Wisconsin.

With her indefatigable work ethic and creative ambition (“She wanted to be the Annie Leibovitz of the new acoustic scene,” Higbie said), Young seemed to be everywhere, creating a vibe where musicians could relax and be themselves. “She put on music, and we’d all dance, and she had great snacks at her shoots — strawberries, cheese, blueberries,” Higbie said. “I was never good at buying clothes, and she had a whole rack of clothes you could try on. She had her act together. She was working all the time.”

Raised in a garrulous Greek family in a small town outside Tampa, Florida, Young grew up working in the family diner. Her affinity for musicians stems partly from her love of music and an early passion for playing. Throughout grade school she studied clarinet and saxophone, played drums and guitar, and wrote songs. In college, she fell in love with cello. She was also drawn to journalism and even butted heads with West Georgia College faculty advisor Newt Gingrich when she was “the radical editor of my college paper,” she said. “We didn’t like each other.” A photographer Young hired for the paper’s staff became her husband for five years, and while he wasn’t inclined to share his knowledge, “he was an excellent technician, though I wouldn’t call him an artist,” she said. “I learned what it took to make an excellent photo and spent a lot of time in the darkroom with him.”

Julie Wolf and Vicki Randle
Julie Wolf and Vicki Randle in the studio | Credit: Irene Young

Young comes to each shoot with both a game plan and the confidence to go with the mood of the moment. “You have to trust because if you trust, you’re exuding confidence,” she said. “And if [the subjects] feel great about it, they’ll have a good time and exude something wonderful. You have to be willing to explore. Composition plays a big role. I want to get up close. When you go in close, I trust that anyone can be photographed beautifully.”

The expansive roll call of artists featured in Something About the Women speaks to the way Young cultivated and documented a scene. The sense of representation she fostered led to a successful GoFundMe campaign that raised $65,000 to create the book. Two epic, sold-out concerts at the Freight in November brought together many of the women she’s photographed, including the Washington Sisters (Sändra and Sharon), Alive!, Emma’s Revolution, Rhiannon, Carolyn Brandy, Christelle Durandy, Jennifer Berezan, Barbara Borden, Tammy Hall, Terry Garthwaite, Nina Gerber, Deidre McCalla, Jean Fineberg, Rachel Garlin, and many others.

More than gratified by the book and its reception, Young also wants to make it clear that she’s ranged far and wide beyond the women’s music scene. “So many people think that’s all I did, and it’s so not true,” she said, noting that she’s already working on a second book. “There are so many great people I want to honor as well, many who I’ve photographed repeatedly over the years — the Windham Hill people, Mary Black and a lot of the Irish musicians, bluegrass artists like Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. …”

Corrections: This article has been updated to correct the location of Young’s studio as being in Richmond and to properly identify Anne Robinson with Windham Hill.