Photographing B.B. King: A Second Chance with a Music Legend Yields a Classic B&W Portrait


© Ronald C. Modra

The tour bus bringing B.B. King to Indianola, Mississippi, for his Homecoming Festival concert was very late, which meant that Ron Modra would have the opportunity for performance photos, but not the portrait session he wanted.

Retired from Sports Illustrated after a 25-year career, Modra has lately been photographing blues musicians. “I’ve always had an interest in the blues,” he says, “but at SI, I just didn’t have the time.”

He began his blues project with a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, which over the years has been the home of many blues musicians, as well as the possible location of the crossroads at which Robert Johnson is said to have made his deal with the Devil. Modra met, talked, and networked his way to dozens of musicians, including B.B. King on the night of the Homecoming Festival concert.

“I was directly in front of him,” Modra says. “He sat down and brought Lucille [his black Gibson electric guitar] up to his knees to put the strap around his neck. Then all of a sudden he looked in the direction of where lights were being set up. The light hit his face, and I was able to get off four frames. It all happened in five to ten seconds.”

Modra had the portrait he wanted. “If I’d gotten on the bus, no way could I have gotten anything better than this photograph, with Lucille positioned just so, just an outline, in such a natural moment.”

He took the photo on May 25, 2014. B.B. King died, at 89, on May 14, 2015. “I think it might be the last portrait shot of him.”

Modra hopes to publish a book of his blues portraits, all of which will be black-and-white images. “I think that photographically the blues just lends itself to black and white.”

You can view a selection of Ron Modra’s images from his days at Sports Illustrated at To learn about his new book, A Baseball Life: Four Decades Inside the Game, visit

Tech Talk: Ron Modra’s on-stage image of B.B. King and Lucille was made with a Nikon D3S and an AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. The camera settings were 1/400 second, f/4, ISO 4000, manual exposure, and center-weighted metering.