Introduction by Marathon Press Blog Editor Mark Weber M.Photog., Cr., M. Artist, CPP

Whenever I look thru the PPA Image Excellence Book or Showcase Book I get inspired. It’s a huge honor to have an image selected for either of these books. When I came across an incredible portrait in the I.E. Book titled “They Call Me Sunpie” by Tony Gatlin, I had to reach out to Tony to learn more about it. I learned his image was not only selected for Image Excellence 2022, it was also received a ASP State Elite Award 2022 and CPP Award, Capture 2022

I wish all images in the I.E. and Showcase books could have a story behind the makers images. I find the creative process fascinating. Learning & sharing with one another is what our profession is all about. Here is Tony Gatlin’s story behind his award winning image – “They Call Me Sunpie”.

I grew up in central Arkansas with a wonderful man named Bruce Barnes. Bruce was always a big kid – very athletic, very smart, very talented. From a young age, Bruce was interested in music. He learned to play a variety of instruments from older family members and joined our school’s marching band, playing trombone.

Bruce, being the big kid for his age that he was, also gravitated towards sports, and carried our local football team to great success. Sadly, a very short-sighted music teacher (who left the school in disgrace the next year) made Bruce choose between playing sports and playing in the marching band. The ultimatum did not sit well with the young Barnes, so he chose football over his first love, music.

Barnes went on to play football at the collegiate level at Henderson State University, earning All-American status, eventually playing defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs until an injury forced his early exit from professional sports. Fortunately, however, football’s loss was the music world’s gain. After his sports career ended, Bruce re-focused his energy on resurrecting his love for music, creating a unique persona and personal musical style. In his alter ego, Bruce portrays “Sunpie,” a traditional blues and Zydeco musician from the bayous of southern Louisiana. “Sunpie” is a family name Bruce took on as an homage to a favorite uncle from Bastrop, Louisiana.

Sunpie Barnes is now a staple in the New Orleans jazz music scene. He can often be seen at the city’s trendiest clubs, bars and events playing his traditional jazz, blues, and Zydeco tunes. His voice is magical, but it’s his world-class accordion skills that truly set him apart. Sunpie has appeared in movies, popular tv shows like “CSI New Orleans” and toured the world with rock legends Sting and Paul Simon.

He served as a National Park Service Park Ranger at the very unique New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park where every ranger is an actual jazz musician. Sunpie is also the Big Chief of the traditional Northside Skull and Bone Gang in New Orleans, a carnival group with origins that date back to 1819 and participates annually in the city’s world-famous Mardi Gras.

In addition to his musical career, Sunpie is an avid, accomplished photographer. When I approached my old friend to ask if I could photograph him, he understood the assignment completely. I rented a small studio near the French Quarter in New Orleans, and after a night of dinner, bars and zydeco, my crew returned to the studio, set up lights and a background and went about photographing Sunpie.

It was well after 1:00 in the morning when we finally got around to the final shots. I dialed in my Canon EOS R6 with a variety of lenses, including a 24-105 f/4L which was used to capture the final image. The winning image was shot at 1/250th of a second at f/6.3, ISO 100. It was lit with two Godox AD-600s at ¼ and 1/8 power, modified with a 20” Cheetah Max deep throw softbox on camera left and a 48” Glow EZ Lock Deep Parabolic softbox on camera right.

When I released the shutter on this one, Sunpie exclaimed, “That’s the shot.” And he was right… unlike his old high school music teacher so many years ago. 

“They Call Me Sunpie” © Tony Gatlin