Johnny cash middle finger

The Story Behind the Famous Photo of Johnny Cash at San Quentin Prison

Besides the picture of him standing outside Folsom Prison, the image of Johnny Cash giving the middle finger to the camera at San Quentin is the most iconic photo of Johnny Cash there is. The story goes that during his legendary performance at San Quentin Prison — his second live prison recording after Folsom — music photographer Jim Marshall asked Johnny Cash to take a picture for the warden. Johnny decided that flipping the bird was the most appropriate gesture to make for the warden, and it was that moment that the iconic photo was born. It's not a surprise: Johnny Cash used country music to voice his concerns about those who were dealt a bad hand in life, and struggled with many demons himself. Next time you find yourself singing along to "The Man in Black," you'll surely hear lyrics that sympathize with all walks of life.

Recorded in February 24th, 1969 at San Quentin Prison,  Johnny Cash performed "A Boy Named Sue" and "San Quentin" for the first time live. "At San Quentin," which was his 31st album, received a Grammy nomination for Best Album, and the hit "A Boy Named Sue" won Best Male Country Vocal Performance that year.

While the best best way to remember Johnny is by listening to his music and watching old performances, there's something about the image of him flipping the bird that connects with most of his loyal fans. Rock and roll photographer Jim Marshall called himself a "reporter with a camera," and to me, that says that Marshall captured more than just an iconic Cash photo, but a piece of history that tells a story about who Johnny was. Jim Marshall went on to photograph Johnny Cash at many more shows, and always captured him in a way that portrayed him as he remains — an icon and legend that will live on through his music and the people that feel seen by it.

The Image


Johnny Cash At San Quentin Framed Collage - Amazon, $42.64

This framed collage is a great one because it includes the legendary photo as well as a track list — and another great photo of the live performance.

The Book

Pocket Cash - Amazon, $11.47

Jim Marshall ended up publishing a book compiled of behind the scenes photos of Cash at shows, titled Pocket Cash. You'll find unreleased images in there as well as some personal musings by Billy Bob Thornton and Kris Kristofferson. One reviewer wrote: "You have the epitome of the outlaw country music artist and the outlaw rock and roll photographer in one place and the magic is there." That sums it up well.

The Album

At San Quentin Vinyl - Amazon, $28

It's one of the best country albums of all time, and a perfect one to listen on vinyl. It features 10 tracks.

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This post was originally published in 2020 and updated by Alida Nugent.

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