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Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product
The Basses of Our Music
Photographs by William Carter, 1971-1985
Above: listen to bassist Pops Foster with the Luis Russell Orchestra from 1929, “Jersey Lightning.” Also on this record are New Orleans men Henry “Red” Allen, Albert Nicholas and Paul Barbarin. Virtually all of the New Orleans bass players depicted in this post played in an energetic, percussive style very similar to Foster’s.
Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product
Preservation Hall Won Hearts Across U.S.
Photographs by William Carter, 1971-1985
Trumpeter Percy and Clarinetist Willie Humphrey
On Tour and At Home
Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product
Photographs by William Carter 1973-1985
In a long caption in my book, Preservation Hall (W.W. Norton, 1991), I told the story, quoted below, of the Humphreys’ long lives and distinguished lineage. I never met their trombonist brother, Earl, who died relatively young. Their father, Willie Humphrey Sr., was a clarinetist who spent much of his life on road tours; in a surviving publicity shot he looks just like Willie Jr. The pioneering grandfather’s story says something about the rich artistic and cultural complexities underpinning the birth of what has been called “America’s classical music”:
“The work of the front-line Humphrey triumvirate stemmed from the teaching of their grandfather, James Brown Humphrey, who played a unique role in the earliest years of jazz. That “fair-skinned Negro with red hair,” as the authors Berry, Foose and Jones told it, in Up from the Cradle of Jazz (1986), “starting about 1887, boarded the train each week, wearing a swallow-tailed coat and carrying a cornet case and music sheets in a satchel. The professor had many New Orleans pupils who entered the ranks of early jazz; he is also said to have taught whites. Most students on his weekly tour of the plantation belt — 25 miles either way from the city — were illiterate workers who lived in shacks behind the sugar and cotton fields along the river…Humphrey by 1890 was a rare commodity, a black man who lived off his talents as an artist. He played all instruments, directed bands and orchestras, and became a catalyst sending rural blacks into urban jazz ensembles.”
The essence of classic New Orleans jazz is the ensemble. The essence of that essence is a tough, growling, cut-down, loose-limbed, abbreviated lead trumpet or cornet — allowing the other horns lots of space. Trumpeter Percy Humphrey gives us a fiery taste of his lead in the excerpts below.”Running Wild” and “Panama” were recorded in Oxford, Ohio by the great George Lewis Ragtime Band of 1952.
Click below to listen to segments of “Runnin’ Wild” and “Panama.”
In the following solo on “St. Louis Blues,” clarinetist Willie Humphrey demonstrates two cardinal components of the New Orleans style.
Rhythmically, the horns and piano never cease to play off of, and around, the beat as strictly laid down by the rhythm section. Attacking microseconds before or after what would be correct in a more European or “white” reading, this constant off-beatness serves to trip up the listener. “What’s your music for? Mine’s for dancing!” exulted a classic player. Making people move their bodies out on the streets and in the dance halls is the musicians’ fundamental assignment — which extends to foot tapping in concert halls. Syncopation is key.
Structurally, Willie gradually, logically builds his variations from lower to higher pitches and intensities. Employing St. Louis Blues-derived themes and a faux-stumbling manner that helps release micro-rhythms, he gradually weaves a baroque edifice soaring above the underlying foundation.
Click below to listen to “St. Louis Blues.”
Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product
CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE to listen to The old Eureka Band, led from the 1930s by Percy Humphrey., Tops in the city, as late as the 1950s its joyous processions were marked by a dignity and decorum since overtaken by the wild and garish. Photos by Tom Sharpsteen, compiled with sound by Clint Baker and Katie Cavera, used here with permission.
Years ago, the French Quarter streets were amazingly quiet. Especially in the mornings, before the few tourists were out and about, this historic section – located near the river, yet built on high ground for good reason – retained its residential feel. New Orleans’ slow-going, personal style, out of the national mainstream, had much to do with how it cradled classic jazz for most of a century.
But other than a couple of sleazy joints on Bourbon Street, it was hard for a musician to feed his family, or for a visitor to hear the real deal. Still, the city’s close-knit neighborhoods proclaimed their musical birthright at pop-up parties, funky dance halls, street events, church memorials. “Let the good times roll,” translated from the French, was always there, highlighted by everyone’s anticipation of the Mardi Gras Carnival, which they prepare for all year long.
The past has always loomed large in this survival culture where one never knew what tragedies the future might hold. Generations of musicians have long been linked by family ties, spiritual traditions, personal musical tutelage, people caring for neighbors. By the 1970s I had met and played with musicians in several cities of the world, but only in New Orleans did you learn so quickly where they lived — on which block of which street, in which ward, near which landmark. And no other city has ever spawned so many tunes named for beloved streets, from Basin to Canal to Bourbon to Burgundy to…
Within weeks of arriving, I knew I had arrived when I was invited to jam on the sidewalk to celebrate the birthday of an old lady named Miss Carrie. Then on ten minutes notice I donned a parade hat to go play a gig at Antoine’s fancy restaurant. Then I joined a procession of Japanese visitors marching to the graveside of clarinet great George Lewis. There were plenty of weeks of no action at all. But one thing was sure: in New Orleans nobody ever needs to be asked to “play with feeling.”
70 Brilliant Years
How great it was — while it lasted, until 2012 — something like 70 years.
It still lasts archivally: those chromes retain their slightly salmon, yet accurate, saturated colors while so many others have long since faded. The film of choice for top magazines, many folks’ travel slides, and countless other applications. This post features some of my Kodachrome slides of the western U.S. from the 1960s on. (We hope to present a few international Kodachromes later; then eventually a selection from that fine new medium — digital color.)
We are fortunate to be living through a major transition in the history of photography. Five centuries ago, Western art was revolutionized by the invention of oil painting. Artists old enough to have been trained in older techniques like tempera, but young enough to master oil — Venetians like Titian, for instance — combined both skills in highly creative ways. (See my earlier post, “Tone in Art — and in Life.”) So I’m always pleased to hear of today’s art schools continuing to teach the older “wet darkroom” alongside the newer digital technologies.
See also “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943,” Kodachromes by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, property of the Library of Congress.
All Kodachromes © William Carter
From November 29, 2012 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is showing the following 4 William Carter prints. Part of Carter’s “Humanity” series, as represented in his book Causes and Spirits, these photographs are in SF MOMA’s permanent collection and can be seen in the rooms displaying the Museum’s ongoing series, “Picturing Modernity.”
Quiet Truths Near the Center of Our Lives
Beyond the glitz and shock, the checkout stands and game shows, there’s an American reality that doesn’t much change. This human landscape is actually a place in our heart.
I’ve picked about 50 images, few of which were previously published. They were taken in different parts of the U.S., in different decades, and printed in my darkroom. This collection is a series of postings to be released in coming weeks.
See also here my earlier blog post, National Character.
All Photographs © William Carter
American Exceptionalism is Dead
By 1945 the U.S. had emerged indisputably as the world’s strongest nation, physically and financially. War spending had helped end the Depression. The country had been spared the devastation of once-dominant Europe and its far-flung colonial system. The booming 1950s reinforced America’s underlying faith in its own moral and political underpinnings. Goaded by the worldwide challenge of communism, this “first new nation” set out to teach the “third” or “underdeveloped” world, by soft and hard power alike, the benefits of the American way. Behind this effort was a longstanding set of internal attitudes and assumptions that historians would dub “American exceptionalism.”
During the second half of this “American Century” the U.S. became involved in proxy wars in places such as Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Latin America. The results of these conflicts were often, at best, indeterminate. Far more successful, below the radar, were America’s exports of knowledge-based, open-lifestyle aspects of its consumer-based civilization: science and education, manufacturing and retail, mass communications and entertainment. Enlightened self-interest assumed that a rising tide of living standards worldwide (across oceans policed by the U.S. Navy) would lift all boats. Public and private agencies poured massive resources into helping the world imbibe Progress.
But by the year 2000 the success of this “soft power” transfer had produced unforeseen consequences. Populous and increasingly prosperous non-western civilizations, having acquired industrial and economic modernization, were now reconfiguring their societies in ways not necessarily predicted or understood by their western mentors.
Worldwide economic relationships were increasingly interconnected and interrelated. Low-cost Asian labor was as much a fact of life in Berlin or Los Angeles or Mexico as were the inventions of Apple or Caterpillar or Boeing in Mumbai or Sydney or Cairo. No one anywhere could any longer claim a monopoly on righteousness, pornography, or nuclear fusion. Provincial U.S. politicians might still try to pander to the hustings with sentimental yearnings; but the greater world knew that the idea of ”American exceptionalism” was now as last-century as “the American Century” itself.
The Current Candidates Can’t Cut It
In view of the gravity of the job he wants us to give him, Romney is a cardboard cutout, a talking puppet. He panders to a sentimental view of a 1950s USA, replete with a triumphalist foreign policy, go-it-alone economics, and class warfare. He shows zero sensitivity to the broad heart and soul of America at home. He displays zero understanding of the global realities of today’s business and politics. No major entrepreneur of the 21st century could survive if he followed Romney’s reductionist view of capitalism, or his isolationist outlook on a complex world.
Both candidates, in fact, project a sentimental ’50s vision of an America in isolation. Obama’s knee-jerk reversion to the populist rhetoric of class warfare is worse than Romney’s. Rather than floating nice emotional balloons about a mythologized middle class, as they did in their conventions, both candidates should be showing us world maps with trading routes and population numbers. One of the best articles I’ve read recently is the front page of one of the sections of today’s Wall Street Journal by Robert Kaplan. Simple geography goes a long way toward casting things like the Iran question way beyond the narrow focus of Israel and Hormuz. Both candidates could start by pointing out the geostrategic fact that, for better or worse, the US recently took out both of Iran’s worst long-term enemies — Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which are (of course) already reverting to their eternal tribalism.
As we are to ours.
By default, Romney appears not to disagree with Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy activities, for example in respect to the South China Sea. If he does disagree, let’s hear his alternative plan, relationship by relationship across that vast archipelago of islands, moderate religious affiliations, tight trade corridors and natural resources, starting with the differing views and interests of places like Pakistan and China and Australia.
Sorry, but I don’t give a damn about what either candidate’s mother fed them for breakfast. We need big-souled, broad-gauged, wide-view leadership. If the world’s most powerful man is going to have an opinion on appropriate capitols for Israel and Palestine (as he should), he needs to demonstrate a balanced understanding of the millennial conflicts over these eternally contested areas.
I agree with Romney when he attacks over-regulation of US business. But we need far more fact and detail on this: exactly which regulations he would change or keep, and why. Instead of treating us to cartoonish mom-and-pop mythologies, please posit a long-term reliable playing field on which managers and investors can plan their domestic and international strategies and risks. Take Wall Street: I happen to think the big banks brought regulation on themselves by the excesses that caused the 2008 collapse — requiring rescue with your and my taxpayer money. Obama lacks the sense, feel, experience of running a business, and business is the foundation of the economy; but Romney lacks the sense and feel of the globalized community his decisions would affect. Nobody wants to mention Fiat’s key role in rescuing Chrysler: okay, Obama’s boys worked hard on the auto debacle, but for all that only a foreign company was willing to step up and do it. Are we Americans, in the 21st century, too poorly educated to grasp such plain facts? Or to be told it is beyond any nation’s power to just call up jobs?
Any candidate who slashed the slogans and started with a simplified world map, overlaid with trade and population data, and interwoven with a modicum of historical perspective, and could abbreviate all this to under an hour — he or she would attract my vote. I’m less interested in specific policy predictions than in the demonstration of world class thinking. Such a speech could be given in, say, Long Beach, California, against the backdrop of all the container ships arriving from every point on earth. It should include a graph of trade dollars and deficits flowing in all directions, and what all this means for the future of humanity and the planet.
No candidate is worth his salt if he is afraid to stand up and say, “This is no longer the world of your fathers. There is no sentimental return to the 1950s. We are living in a world as highly integrated as its trade, as its broader economies, as its micro and macro political relationships, as its climate zones and as its languages and peoples. How many hot wars have you won since 1945? Get used to it, my friends, and live appropriately.”
Too late — again?
As a sad update to my recent “Contested Stones” blog, events continue to unfold in the Middle East. Under the headline “Saving Syria,” the Wall Street Journal notes that, amid that nation’s current civil war, poorly guarded monuments of immense historical importance, including the medieval Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Palmyra, are starting to be degraded by looters and damaged by modern weaponry. Below the link to the WSJ story is one of my photographs of Palmyra, in the eastern Syrian desert. (Recall that Iraq suffered other important archaeological losses which occurred during the American invasion.)
“Watch any mother kneeling beside her toddler, pointing and explaining what they are looking at. Our urge to see, to comprehend and connect, starts there.”
That’s how I put it in the opening text of my Causes and Spirits.
Received culture profoundly affects how we see the world. Including how we view it through our cameras.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Holy Land” fought over for thousands of years by followers of the three Abrahamic religions, plus such secular claimants as the Romans, the Turks, and the British.
When I was living in Beirut 1964-1966, much of Jerusalem and the territory around Bethlehem were controlled by a classic buffer state — the Kingdom of Jordan. On two successive Decembers I was sent by an American magazine to photograph Christmas in Bethlehem. None of those pictures survive, because the magazine was buying full rights, including the films themselves. But I retain strong memories of the tumult swirling within and without the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Monks of various traditions were physically fighting for jurisdiction over this and that section of holy stones at this and that hour. The surrounding city bubbled with the sorts of strife to which the region has always been heir, and to which the Israelis would soon contribute. Seasoned observers would continue to watch these underlying tensions weave threads of irony into all the heartfelt salaams and shaloms of the private greetings, public blessings and international agreements.
But I did my gig: I sent the Midwestern magazine what I was sure they wanted: warm, candlelit faces of Protestant pilgrims processioning past the ancient, contested stones.
Where and when to cut slices of space and time with the bright-line frame of my Leica was never obvious. I reflected, sometimes, on earlier generations of foreign photographers of the Middle East: of the dreamy harem scenes, for instance, always included in the sets of stereopticon slides sent back to reinforce colonial stereotypes in London drawing rooms — some of those same drawing rooms where ruler lines were then being traced across the maps of Arab sands creating nation-states where none had existed before – thus helping set up the kinds of tribal quarrels the world still struggles to contain.
Working far from home, journalists can face ethical dilemmas that are personal and immediate, as well as professional. Covering the Korean War in the 1950s, a journalist I knew watched an American TV crew stop a farm family from putting out the fire engulfing their shelled house until the cameraman got great footage of the licking flames.
At one point I faced a dilemma while traveling for Life Magazine with the Kurdish guerrilla fighters across northern Iraq (see also previous blog post Plight of Syria’s Kurds Breaks into the News). My main contact was an intelligent, helpful, English-speaking former Iraqi army officer named Colonel Akrawi. Huddled by a lantern one night, noticing I hadn’t gotten any combat shots, he moved closer, tapped on a map and whispered, “At the bottom of these hills, in the flat desert north of Suleimaniya, there’s a small Iraqi police post. Half a dozen of them sleep there every night. Next Tuesday is full moon. So if you want, we can raid the place and kill all the policemen – and you’ll can get great pictures! Okay?”
He was leaving it up to me. His offer was laden with the warmth and generosity of traditional guest-honoring, plus a dose of macho that included me as co-conspirator in their revolution. How to reply? The pictures sounded tempting. But to get them, I would, in effect, be sponsoring a few murders. And, I would be creating some news in order to report it – not exactly what photojournalists are supposed to do. As the lantern light flickered over our faces, I thanked the colonel, but explained that for that job I would have needed a flash, and mine was broken. The gentlemanly Kurd nodded and accepted this. I photographed Akrawi and his aides, conferring in the orange lantern light well into the night. Days later I photographed him shaving. Then we marched west for several nights to the mountain passes above the oilfields of Kirkuk. Under shellfire the colonel handed me his binoculars, pointed, and declared, “That oil is ours!” Today, sixty years later, the Kurds are negotiating to sell that oil direct to major American producers without bothering to ask permission from Baghdad.
A year or two after my visit, word reached me Colonel Akrawi had been badly wounded in battle. Eventually, I was told he had died. An amateur botanist, he had showed me a scrapbook he toted around, into which he pressed samples of plants peculiar to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Whatever happened to that lovely notebook, with its unique specimens? In Paris, much later, I visited the Kurdish Institute and asked about Akrawi: they remembered him well — but not his collection.
In the late 1970s I was sitting on the cool tiles of a crowded courtyard near Bombay, listening to a talk by spiritual master Swami Muktananda when he remarked, as if casually, “One sees the world as one is.”
America’s Corn Belt Speaks for Itself
Digging deep in my files as part of an ongoing effort to gather a legacy of vintage prints, I stumbled on some unpublished treasures. Forty years ago I photographed these signs along the back roads of Indiana, Illinois and neighboring states while working on my second book, Middle West Country (Houghton Mifflin, 1975).
Now the signs are mostly gone — but not the inherent modesty, chuckling humor, and serious spirit of America’s heartland.
Photographs © William Carter 1972, 2010
A Spontaneous Collaboration
Strange bedfellows, you might say? In 1963 Lu Watters, Bob Mielke and Barbara Dane were each into separate scenes in the San Francisco trad jazz world. As was I: playing occasional gigs, while becoming professionally committed as a photographer and writer. You can read more on this here.
What brought us together in one of those spontaneously rich, fleeting jazz moments was the decision by Watters (then retired) and Dane (who had been running her own San Francisco blues club called Sugar Hill) to make an album together as part of a protest movement aimed at stopping the California utilities agency from building a nuclear power plant at pristine Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco. For many reasons, the plant was never built. The recording session happened on December 1, 1963. My equipment was not yet the best, but the negatives have been in my files ever since (48 years and counting). We herewith present a few of those images.
My wanderings through the canyons and parks of New York often began or ended in Washington Square, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. I never tired of joining the onlookers at the serious chess games going on there day and night. Occasionally one could spot someone like this guy who appeared to have privately cracked the code on the game of chess (or life for that matter). New Yorkers seem to have evolved ways of being at once entirely public and intensely private.
Later, I shook hands briefly with a famous photographer of an earlier era, Andre Kertesz, who was living on an upper floor of a tall apartment house on Washington Square, right above my head. Some of his pictures were taken in fun zone mirrors, others from his window looking down on the Square. I fantasized that at the moment I was taking the picture above, Andre could have been taking a picture of me taking pictures of the “chessmen.” Remembering that thought makes me laugh like the man in my picture.
Please click on image for full-size version. To view more panoramic images, please visit this page on my website.
My wife Ulla and I were staying overnight with friends in Inverness, near the Pacific Coast in northern California. We were in their lovely new guesthouse in a lush garden and forest setting of coast redwoods. Waking early, I glanced out the window at a remarkable scene, like a fantasy, the way the rain had just stopped and light was filtering through the not-yet dissipated mist. Still in my pajamas, I grabbed my large Linhof panoramic camera, tripod, film, light meter and ran outside. I knew those conditions would not last, and I knew what the camera settings should be for that light. It was chilly but I was warm with sweat. I found the spot to set up but the ground was wet, so the tripod and I were both tending to sink in the mud. I had to stabilize the tripod, or wait for in between moments when it was not sinking, because to get infinite depth of field even with Tri-X film required exposures of 1/15 of a second or slower, which would blur the image if the camera moved. Meanwhile the light was changing, in and out, up and down, involving me in an intricate dance; just when it all came together and I pushed the cable release (gently to avoid causing movement), I heard Ulla open a window and in a bleary early voice asked what I thought I was doing out there in the cold and wet in my pajamas with mud all over me. I shouted something terse and dismissive. Finally I finished several exposures and the light was fading and I trudged back dripping mud and thinking of coffee and a shower and wondering what I or Ulla would do about my soaked pajamas.
One of the frames turned out great. I scanned it and printed it 30 inches wide on an Epson printer, have sold a couple of prints, and 9 years later used it on page 293 of my retrospective book, Causes and Spirits. Including it there was a late breaking decision because the book was mainly about people; altering the last chapter in order to include that and some other non-people images interrupted the printing cycle and caused the great publisher, Gerhard Steidl, to remain angry at me for about a year.
But the Linhof is still okay. Also the pajamas. Also Ulla.
by William Carter
Is there still such a thing as “national character” — in a world becoming ever more homogenized? Or is there, even, “regional character” — in a nation ever more urbanized?
Famous photographs of earlier generations played on these themes – think of Cartier-Bresson’s famous image of the little Parisian boy carrying the huge bottle of wine, or of countless early images of America’s Old West, or of the collection of great documentary images seeded by the U.S. Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and early ’40s. (In the last couple of years a subset of the latter — amazing color images shot on brilliant, sparkling early Kodachrome – have been released for our delectation by the Library of Congress. Click here to view some pristine examples courtesy of the Denver Post.)
Yes, Virginia, there is still an American character. It may no longer be as obvious (to us) as Mount Rushmore or the Marlboro man or Babe Ruth or Marilyn Monroe, but it’s there, lingering below the surface. It derives from our unique history. My earlier books delved into three regional subsets — in Far West, the Middle West, and New Orleans jazz.
My most recent book, Causes and Spirits: Photographs from Five Decades (available signed or not signed) was a wider ranging retrospective, spanning the world in fifty years. What surprised me, in 2012, was that on seeing the book, photography curators at major museums — two in the U.S. and one in Germany — selected mainly my “Americana” images to access into their collections.
These are not your media-made icons, but out-of-the-way people in out-of-the-way places. Our character seems to survive in the unnoticed interstices of our lives.
HORIZON OF HOPE
By William Carter
So often, these days, we feel caught in a clash of forces. When passions collide, resolution appears impossible.
Interminable wars, tribal struggles, sagging economies, rancorous politics, divorce courts, teenage gangs sometimes mirror our own internal struggles.
“Kill! Kill!” the drill sergeants taught my platoon to scream in basic training, running down a hill with fixed bayonets.
Violent mainstream movie content suggests such urges are never far from the surface.
Science has brought huge material gains, zero moral progress.
We are as we are.
End of story? Or can the situation change?
Research on human brain activity is famously hard to do. But progress is under way, and a spate of recent books describes the gradual unveiling of this final frontier. Careful, long-term studies are shedding light on the deep wellsprings of our thoughts and actions.
In The Moral Molecule (2012) neurologist Paul J. Zak summarizes decades of research into the ways the brain-and-blood chemicals oxytocin and testosterone powerfully affect human thought and behavior.
How culturally and tribally based languages, including music, express and determine our attitudes and actions via specific brain centers and pathways is the focus of the work of Daniel J. Levitin as outlined in books such as This Is Your Brain on Music (2007) and The World in Six Songs (2009).
Oliver Sacks is a well-known writer on these crossover areas between brain, behavior, and art.
Here are a few other recent titles, in alphabetical order:
We are as we are. Not necessarily as we thought we were — or could be.
The research nudges us past our deeply rooted tendencies to separate mind and brain, spirit and matter, them and us. The physical and spiritual are shown as one substrate. We are encouraged to seek resolution beyond the opposites, within that unified field. At least we can witness ourselves from a wider perspective, hopefully adding some humility.
While the wars rage on.
“At the still point of the turning world…” wrote T.S. Eliot: ”there is only the dance.”
May 12, 2012
Epic Swing Night at the Masonic Lodge in San Mateo, California
Clint Baker, cornet; William Carter, Clarinet; Jim Klippert, trombone; Jason Vanderford, guitar; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Bill Reinhart, bass, Steve Apple, drums
Video by Rae Ann Hopkins Berry
Canal Street Blues:
By William Carter
I arrived in New York City in the summer of 1962. Toting two Leicas, I hunted for a job and an apartment. I gravitated to a part of the Lower East Side which was later re-christened the East Village.
Since I had begun my career in California doing informal photographs of children, my first self-assignment was to extend that practice to these fresh surroundings. I spent a day with a couple of kids at Coney Island. I traversed dim wells behind tenements that served as de facto playgrounds. I dropped in on friends of friends living with their daughter in an artistic shack on Staten Island.
Half a century later, those freshly seen scenes keyed off my retrospective book, Causes and Spirits. Below are examples, plus a couple of images omitted from the book. I only met the Staten Island girl for a few minutes, but she graces the book’s front cover, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has requested the vintage original print. But what happened to that girl? By now she would be around 60.
The subsequent lives of the other kids remain just as mysterious. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, photography resembles jazz in that both art forms – like modern life in general – often express moments that are the most pungent when they are the most fleeting.
In the Western press, the story of Syria’s beleaguered Kurdish population has been overshadowed by coverage of their immediate cousins, the U.S.-friendly Kurds of northern Iraq and those of Turkey. Michael Kennedy’s story on page A6 in the New York Times of April 18 changes that. In a deeply sourced and widely researched report, Kennedy quotes longtime Washington Post correspondent and author Jonathan C. Randal and other experts on the Syrian Kurds’ long and heartrending struggle for independence against the long-running hereditary regimes of strongman Syrian Presidents Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.
An old personal friend of my wife and myself, Randal always had a reputation among his colleagues of daring to go where no one else would asking the provocative questions no one else dared ask. Following on the pioneering 1960s book on the Kurds by another friend, New York Times’ Dana Adams Schmidt, Randal’s updated and highly detailed book on the Kurds’ struggle landed him with a subpoena from a Turkish court which he, characteristically, flew from France to Istanbul to answer in order to assert freedom of the press in some of the more dangerous corridors within a strife-torn nation wishing to qualify for membership in the European Union.
Kennedy’s fine piece in this week’s New York Times alerts modern readers to the seemingly eternal reality of tribalism as a stumbling block to national identity everywhere in the Middle East and south Asia — the fundamental resistance to political “modernization” as earnestly attempted under the evolving value systems and political motivations, in the course of their histories, by Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. Good luck. Or maybe Godspeed would be the more appropriate term, given the religious undercurrents always involved.
Another fine photographer who covered the Kurds extensively is Susan Meiselas. Visit her website www.akakurdistan.com, “a safe and anonymous space on the web to share some of the complexities of Kurdish history.”
Here’s another photo to illustrate tribalism — a portrait of the famous Kurdish tribal chief, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, taken when I was traveling illegally in northern Iraq in 1965. This black and white version appeared with my six page article in LIFE Magazine the same year, and it reappears in my recent book, Causes and Spirits, on pages 264-265. Mullah Mustafa died in 1979. The original is in brilliant color (Kodachrome slide taken with Leica M2), which I could probably find and scan into my website if anyone is interested (ie, if enough readers write and ask). Another picture of Barzani taken by me at the same time illustrates the current Wikipedia entry on Mustafa Barzani.
The deep tribal affinity of the Kurds in their generations-long struggle for independence from the Iraqi central government is a textbook-perfect case of the enduring power of in-group tenacity throughout the Middle East and south Asia. Mullah Mustafa’s son, Massoud Barzani, has played a leading role in Iraqi politics since before and after his alliance with the US-Coalition invasion. He is the current leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq, and was re-elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan with 66% of the vote in July 2009.
The deeper reality is that the Barzani clan commands the fundamental loyalty of only part of the Kurds. The others traditionally adhere to a faction called the Talabani (unrelated to the Afgans by a similar name); Jalal Talabani serves as the sixth President of Iraq. He met with Barack Obama in Iraq on April 7, 2009. Past relationships between the two Kurdish clans were frosty at best, but (perhaps as a sign of changing political realities) the Barzani and Talibani appear to have evolved a cooperative relationship. The stories of the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria are politically different, yet ethnically similar in that, for instance, nearly all speak Kurdish and some have blue eyes; quite a number have also emigrated to Europe.
My step-daughter’s husband, Kushi Gavrieli, is a Kurdish Jew born in the Negev region of Israel whose family migrated there from a village in western Iran where the ancient Aramaic language is still spoken. The Middle East is speckled with such anomalies; I visited a band of Chaldean Christians living in a cave among the Iraqi Kurds.
Sure, all of above complexity will be beautifully sorted out and settled by whomever wins the U.S. election in November. Send over a few more bombs, and we can “get it behind us.”
Karin Rosenthal is a New England-based fine art photographer and good friend. Karin has been associated with Brandeis and other universities, teaches workshops every summer in New England, and constantly exhibits and sells her photos out of her studio and through her dealer. She is one of the most under-appreciated top photographers out there, a warm and wonderful teacher and personality. You can find out more about her and her work at her website here.
The following is excerpted from Karin’s letter to me dated January 18, 2012 containing her impressions of my latest book, Causes and Spirits, published last summer by Steidl.
The quality of the book is superb. Steidl did a wonderful job with the reproductions. The size, the heavy paper and overall production quality is everything I would have hoped for. I hope you are really pleased…Not only do you photograph superbly in so many genres from photojournalism to portraiture to landscape to nudes, but you also write exceptionally well.
With your understated, modest being, I feel very simpatico with much of what you wrote about, your values in life and your predilections in subject matter.
Some of my favorites are from the Bowery (p. 57), the Lower East Side (p. 69), Nevada (p. 85), Arizona (p. 105), Colorado (p. 111), New Orleans (p. 113), the musicians, the photos from So. Illinois, Dublin (p. 161), England (p. 171)…The one from Spain on p. 183 is such a tour de force in B&W with its use of light. I love many of the ones from Italy. Then there’s Kurdistan and Tibet, all photos beautifully structured and fine! And Iran (p. 233), a perfect photographic moment.
Your sensitivity, gentleness, and empathy pervade all. Bravo!…I’m proud to know you and congratulate you on a life well-considered and well-lived.
The upper photograph of mine, below, is featured on the cover of the March 2012 issue of The Sun magazine, which, according to its website, “is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than thirty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” You can sample over 50 of my photographs which have appeared on Sun covers and inside the magazine on my website here. Below the magazine cover is another photograph I took of two Yemeni children.
In 1964, when I first arrived in Beirut (where I would be based for two years as a photojournalist), I met Dana Schmidt, the New York Times Middle East bureau chief, who asked me to accompany him on a journey to Cairo, Yemen, and Aden. From Sana’a, Yemen, we traveled north toward a tribal civil war then raging between the Royalists (backed by the Saudis) and the Republicans (backed by the Egyptians). The country was extremely undeveloped in those days. We met this man on the road north. He wore his curved dagger as a traditional emblem of manly power. Stuck in his headband was a sprig of khat, a mild narcotic plant chewed by most Yemeni men in the afternoons to induce a state of semi-stupor. The photo is reproduced in my recent book, Causes and Spirits. The full un-cropped print, made in my darkroom, includes the long-abandoned ruins of a castle on the hill behind the man.
In the 48 years since taking these pictures, along hundreds of others across the region, I have often reflected how long it is taking the Americans (and the British before them) to begin to comprehend the intricacies and staying power of tribal relationships throughout the Middle East and Asia — and to understand the near-futility of trying to transform these insular societies, in our lifetimes, into Western-style democracies.
Tribalism is an innate human survival mechanism. The impulse to cluster together in small bands must have embedded itself in the human brain over thousands of years of evolution. Straying beyond boundaries meant getting eaten by animals or killed by competing tribes. So, those with strong in-group affinities were selected to survive. That is my view and that of the neo-Darwinian “evolutionary psychology” movement.
Equally crucial, among these societies, I experienced traditional patterns of human relationship and economic cooperation. Mate selection, child rearing, home management, land management, animal husbandry, trading networks and handed-down occupations are elaborately codified in language, ritual, and religion to form a tightly woven fabric deeply resistant to change from within or without. Since the dawn of recorded civilization, the peoples across this vast stretch of territory, stretching from the Nile Valley across the Fertile Crescent and over to the Indus Valley, have developed complex strategies of thriving internally while resisting external threats. Layers of cohesiveness bind in-groups together in a quilt-like diversity of languages, faiths, pride and identity. Like many another outsider, I was greeted with extraordinary warmth, underwritten by strong customs of sharing and hospitality. The poorest among my hosts were often the most generous. However, ostracism — or worse — faced one of their own whose attitude or behavior might undermine in-group cohesion.
We westerners have all experienced schoolyard cliques, ethnic slights, religious and social superiorities/inferiorities, countless other in-group/out-group expressions, overt and subtle, right down to the class warfare sometimes implicit in the Presidential debates. Nationalism is a way of belonging, as is the nuclear family. But now there are strong forces, worldwide, working working to dissolve all forms of group affinity. These include major trends such as the spreading demands for personal equality and religious liberty, the toppling of dictators, and the globalization of commerce and travel. Digital transmission may enable tribal chatter, but it also seeds the rapid dissolution of all sorts of boundaries worldwide. Deeply rooted instincts are now confronted by commercial facts on the ground, and seamless communications in the air. The pictures of conflict I took in the Middle East, armed with Leicas and press credentials, are now being supplanted by gritty videos shot by ordinary citizens wielding their i-Phones.
Like it or not, appropriate or inappropriate, this is how the world is going. I welcome your comments.
Here are a couple of photos from my files that complement earlier blogs.
When I was fooling around with my first digital camera several years ago, I tried auto focusing on my hand, then snapped the picture. The photo somehow refused to go away, and kept popping up in my files. Unlike others in the book I was preparing in 2009, it would not fit in that sequence, but like an unruly child still demanded attention, until I hit on using as a soft pattern across both “end papers” – the sheets just inside the hard covers. What could be more implicit in ones destiny?
“The Palm of My Hand,” photograph © William Carter 2001-2010, as used in Causes and Spirits, 2011
Ever since the days of cave paintings, humans have found ways to communicate that bypass the limits of tongue, tribe, and time. “Globalization” is a recent term often applied to economics; more broadly, it has actually been under way for thousands of years. Accelerated by the industrial revolution, globalization was supercharged by the invention, in 1838, of a universal language — photography.
Every day, pictures connect us in fresh ways. Around this fast-shrinking planet, images often outpace words in the race for hearts and minds.
Century-old poems by Tagore, their meaning derived from the Upanishads — spiritual texts dating back thousands of years to before the dawn of writing and civilizations — were recently recorded in Menlo Park, CA, in the Bengali language. Implemented by the noted young Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author, Sramana Mitra, and spoken by her beloved father, these most rare readings were accompanied on the internet by photographs, several by myself.
Nothing has ever given me a warmer of feeling of humility than the opportunity thus to be woven into the living tissue connecting us all across the eternity of time and space.
Slowly, my friend, slowly
Lead me to your private retreat.
I do not know the way
There is no light
The inside and the out are both mired in darkness
I have taken your footsteps as my guide
amidst this deep forest maze.
Slowly, my friend, slowly
Let us travel on the edges of this darkness
I will follow your course through the night
I will track the smell of your breath
Tonight, as the spring breeze blows
In September, 2011 William Carter joined the Photography Accessions Committee of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Carter’s ongoing contributions to the field include his founding, 8-year membership in the Photographs Council of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
This is part of a process for me — coming out of the darkroom, if you will — into the light of public exposure. Like the Getty, SFMOMA owns some of my prints. You can see them here. Just one sample (click here for the story behind this picture):
Cool Appraisal vs. Hopeless Infatuation
It must have been in the mid-1960s that my father remarked, “More people now attend museums in this country than attend baseball games.” Around the same time an edgier friend exclaimed sardonically, “America can package anything.”
The two statements are related.
Dad’s announcement centered partly in his belief in the gradually rising tastes of the American consumer, as reflected in his long, successful experience in the department store business. His enthusiasm also derived, in no small part, from his giving large chunks of his time, over many years, to cultural and educational institutions. These included his deep involvement as a founder of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he served as the first President of its Board of Directors.
I suppose some of these values must have rubbed off on me. But in truth, by the late 50s I was long out of the nest, into my own thing. While poking around in what would later be termed the counter culture, I launched myself as a photographer and began accepting commercial assignments; but in my heart of hearts my esthetic values were aligned with those historic photo purists — Stieglitz, Cunningham, Weston, Strand, Frank, and others — who, for the past century, had struggled to prove the new medium could be, in the hands of a master, a high art.
Fast forward forty-five years. Today, no one doubts the legitimacy of photography as art. Although no one can claim, “As many Americans now visit museums for their photography shows as for their painting shows,” it’s getting to be thinkable at some institutions. I’ve served on the Photographs Council of a major museum for a number of years, and just joined a similar committee at a second important museum. From such vantage points one sees how the fine art photography world has really exploded: the auctions are packed, collectors proliferating, students exfoliating, galleries booming.
All this is glorious. Yet there is another question: is there ever a straight-line progress in the arts, comparable to that, say, in the sciences? Which is where I recall my friend’s sage observation of half a century ago, about America’s special genius — packaging.
A high degree of professionalism has evolved in the ways photographs are catalogued, evaluated, presented, historically researched, bought and sold, discussed. Going back, one remembers the suddenly addictive passion, a borderline craziness that infected and united (or sometimes bitterly divided) the band of crazies who believed in this stuff in, say, 1958, when I first caught the bug. To admit to nostalgia for that era of hopeless, senseless infatuation risks sounding an awful lot like your too typical geezer sharing some park bench with the pigeons and wheezing to the world about “these kids now, they don’t know…” Which in fact it may very well be. Except I’ll take the darkroom over the park bench, anytime.
Hey, blogging is cheap, so I’ll say it anyway: it’s all about love. When photography was that single print that took your breath away, filled your life for a minute or a week or longer. Later you learned how to spell the name of the photographer, where to see more of his or her work… on and on to the steel flat file cabinets, intelligent researchers and conservators putting each artist in context, discerning movements and influences and historical technical and social factors, walking the learned walk, and proving the proof of why that picture by that artist has, after all, some importance… hoping to let your mind find ways to justify what your heart, unfiltered, had tried to tell you in the first place.
The history of the medium, no less than the history of each print, is a giant and important history, as we have certainly learned by broadening out scholarship, sharpening our sensitivities, honing our awarenesses. Indispensable.
Still, I suspect that many artists and appreciators, in their hearts of hearts, would agree that it is that first sheer thrill, with zero references, that sometimes inner burst of private joy when you unexpectedly encounter a person face to face: that knowing naiveté — your obsession — knowing what’s in the package under all the packing but wishing to remain out of the box — that primal heartbreak — which is all that finally matters. Those of us who feel this kind of thing about certain prints can sometimes exchange a wave from our park bench, or privately wink in passing, been there and done that, war’s over but still with that mad essential glint exchanged between us — the walking wounded.
I’ll go farther. The two prints below are statements, consciously or not, about the artists and their times. Imogen’s style of discourse is as unguarded as it could possibly be. In the case of hot contemporaries like Struth, their work arrives packed under thickets of docent-like explanation, laced and layered with ironies about repressed semi-feelings and implied disconnects, slyly staged, magazine-level exposés of the offbeat, deadpan decadence asking to be decoded. Struth’s oversized optical spectaculars are sold by giant commercial selling systems specializing in corporate clients and people like Russian oligarchs. At a steep discount you can probably buy a duplicate of your Struth to keep in cold storage against the day, scientifically predicted, when his fugitive color dyes will fade and evaporate — a value metaphor in itself. More than doing abstractions, Struth told the New Yorker of September of 2011 that he has a desire “to be an antenna for a part of our contemporary life and to give this energy…a sort of symbolic visual expression.” (The old ideal of art was to go beyond the Now.)
I first saw Imogen’s work in modest thumb-through bins at the Focus Gallery, a hole in the wall for nuts like me on Union Street in San Francisco. If you couldn’t find a certain one and showed up on her doorstep, or in her kitchen, the diminutive little lady probably would have scrounged around to look for one or promised to make you another real soon, meanwhile sizing you up personally, from under her beanie, with that shrewd twinkle she also used on occasion to skewer the pompous. Being based on silver or platinum, the print would have continued to demonstrate its permanency in more ways than one.
Which of the two photographs below would you rather live with…hold close?
Surprising similarities between two young art forms.
In your lifetime, as in mine, both jazz and photography have gradually won acceptance as fine arts. Having been intimately involved with both, I see underlying similarities between these two “modern” forms.
The special energy of the fleeting moment is as crucial to photography as it is to jazz. Perhaps Zen painting or action painting should be included. But any jazzman, photographer, or Zen master would add that preparing for that moment is crucial. Any advocate of the “cutting edge” wanting to tear down old establishment walls can proclaim the supremacy of the Now. Expressing that moment meaningfully — artistically — is something else.
The two upstart arts share another similarity: technology has been key to their histories.
After the invention of the camera in 1839, photography evolved rapidly. It continues to do so. From plates to films to sensors, its myriad processes and techniques have influenced, and been influenced by, history itself. From colonial times and the U.S. Civil War to today’s cell phone revolutions and satellite imagery, photography has been as intertwined with the history of science as with the historical events it was picturing.
Jazz first appeared in the 1890’s — roughly the same time as sound recording. It was invented in New Orleans as a medium of locally styled dancing, parading, and other social functions. Not until it migrated to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles — where the recording studios were — did “America’s classical music,” as it has since been called, take off. The first jazz recordings were made in 1917, and the first by black musicians in 1922. These sparked the Jazz Age, positioning musicians and listeners for the worldwide boom, with its myriad stylistic developments, that continue to unfold.
Absent sound recordings, jazz could never have developed as an art form. The highly personal sounds of Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke or Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or Bill Evans or George Lewis or Miles Davis, or hundreds of others, would have been lost, other than in the fading memories of the relative few who would remember hearing them live. Unlike music whose essence is preserved in written manuscripts, this music of the moment required recording to filter into that cumulative memory we call civilization. Absent recordings, jazz’ own inner development would have been stunted: generations of younger players, having had far less access to the sounds that preceded them, would not have been able to power the medium forward down the many new tracks it has taken.
An interesting, if comparatively minor, factor in the development of both photography and jazz has been the direct dialog between them. From the earliest days, jazz bands have needed publicity photos of themselves and their prominent individual members. Creative photographers have often responded to the special, sometimes romantic-seeming conditions and atmosphere of the jazz scene. For me, having my feet in both worlds has often been rewarding, both personally and professionally.
Among my earliest paid photo assignments, around 1960, were shooting album covers for an obscure blues label (see above, right and below). In the following decade I began accumulating the pictures and interviews that would come together in my book on early-style New Orleans jazzmen, Preservation Hall (W.W. Norton, 1991). But my first real job of any kind had been in 1955, at age 20, when I toured the U.S. as a clarinetist, performing nightly nationwide and recording with Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band out of San Francisco. I would play professionally and semi-professionally ever since, and would come to know countless wonderful musicians.
Here’s a track featuring me on clarinet playing Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon.”
Numero uno, however, was the night I met and photographed the great Satchmo (below).
As I said, happy accidents happen everywhere, all the time. But creating them, recognizing and treasuring them, preserving and framing them — that’s a special preoccupation shared by photographers and jazzmen. And creating those moments? That’s the most arcane, edgy aspect — and the mysterious heart of both activities. In practical terms, you can only create the conditions and hope something great happens — and you don’t miss it. Trying too hard—too consciously setting up the picture, or over-arranging the music—is opposite of the process I’m talking about.
The night I met Louis, he just happened to be positioned that hundredth of a second on that gym stage at Cornell University, under those stage lights, in a way that would work on film as later processed (with some difficulty) in my darkroom, and much later translated onto my computer. I just happened to be there holding that camera with that lens and film, ready to celebrate that moment, partly because I so loved the expansive human with whom I had just chatted backstage in his dressing room. I just happened to cut a slice out of infinite time with that particular shutter speed, and just happened to cut a slice out of infinite space with the bright line viewfinder in that particular Leica.
Louis just happened to be doing one-night stands across the U.S. at an age, and in a degree of uncertain health, when many others would have long since hung up that horn. Nearly half a century earlier, he had just happened to walk into a studio to record a few sides including “West End Blues” (click below),
and happened to improvise a solo intro lasting less than half a minute which happened to change the course of American music. That intro has since been imitated, repeated, re-interpreted, re-arranged thousands of times — but never with that same elemental, accidental-sounding force of its first moment.
Another of my early idols, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, called his most influential book The Decisive Moment.
Which says it all.