Posts Tagged ‘photographs’
Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product
Preservation Hall Won Hearts Across U.S.
Photographs by William Carter, 1971-1985
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.