By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Versions of Ourselves

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I am as addicted to digits as the next person. But my caring comes from elsewhere.

Culture wars, like other wars, take their toll.  Unexpected outcomes flow into our sinews and, welcome or not, affect our feelings and expressions.

I grew up in a town dedicated to change — in an era summed up in the famous motto of a leading corporation, “Progress is our most important product.”  Postwar LA, powered by newborn defense industries, famous for its movies, a thinly peopled, dry basin lacking deep cultural roots, facing the vast Pacific, was perfectly placed for the unfettered growth and change that was soon underway.

My own personal model was the opposite.  I sought permanent values, humaneness, the depths not the surfaces.  Spiritual affirmation — particularly in the arts. So, physically and mentally, I went the other way from LA.  The older tradition of great West Coast photographers had inspired me, but by the 1960s I needed to move on from there to places like New York, London, the Middle East and India – where close-up tenderness and long-term values still seemed alive and honored.

In California there were plenty of photographers of the old school to inspire me. But their dynamic was gradually being eclipsed. Although not particularly “outgoing,” I did go out. I developed the unfashionable notion that the role of the artist was not to stand off and snipe at the ugly aspects of world, but to offer a positive alternative: in that most unfashionable of words — beauty.  In an era beset by counter-cultural attack modes, I remain a counter-revolutionary.

The two photographs below, by Struth and Cunningham, are well-known offerings of contrasting states of soul.  Which would you rather hold close?

 

Thomas Struth, “String Handling," SolarWorld, Frieberg 2011 Thomas Struth, “String Handling,” SolarWorld, Frieberg 2011

 

Imogen Cunningham, “The Unmade Bed,” 1957 Imogen Cunningham, “The Unmade Bed,” 1957

Written by bywilliamcarter

August 3, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Gone Tomorrow?

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Rhyolite, Nevada, 1970

Bank, Rhyolite, Nevada, 1970. From Causes and Spirits, text and photograph © William Carter

Musings on Permanence/Impermanence

In a nation often characterized by its frontier past, the zest for the Now has always contended with its opposite: the urge to constellate older, permanent values. Centuries of the wide open West brought us the enduring myth of cowboy who roamed freely across open spaces but whose assignment was often to save a threatened town. Trappers, miners and farmers kept moving on to the next big thing. Less romanticized, other farmers and their town-dwelling cousins put down roots, planting for permanence.

Today the theme lives on in other forms, such as in the struggle between development and preservation. Or between the risks of global thinking and the reassurances of old-time religion.  Universally, man struggles for immortality against his evident mortality.

My first two books – Ghost Towns of the West and Middle West Country – probed America’s frontier tensions in detail. My most recent one, Causes and Spirits, is a photographic art book of worldwide scope; yet it, too, explores the contest between “dust to dust” on the one hand, and surpassing vision on the other. Threaded through the book in varying dimensions, the underlying polarity can be summed up here in two images involving the widespread deployment of Greek classical architecture. References to a shared European ancestry and taste, such structures served as emblems of a hoped-for permanence as America unfurled its banner westward.

Some dreams were broken. Some dreams survived.

Town Square, Northern Minnesota, 1973

Town Square, Northern Minnesota, 1973.  From Causes and Spirits, text and photograph © William Carter

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July 20, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Tone in Art — and in Life

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Essential Dimensions

Sight, by William Carter, 1995

“Sight,” by William Carter, 1995

Women are natural masters of tone.  Their voices are extensions of their bodies and feelings – from cooing and whispering to babies, to the murmurs and cries of love making, to the exactingly regulated interview or phone voice of a business professional, to the bark of a drill sergeant or the yell of a basketball coach, to the whining shared grievances and inebriated hilarity of girls night out, to the plaintive pain of a close-miked blues singer, to the glass-shattering beltings of an old Broadway pro, to the moans of mourners the world over…  Men have no equivalent for such emotional precision.  (We do have other advantages.)

"Violante", by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

“Violante”, by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Tone is as fundamental to art as it is to life.  It is about relationships.  It is about attitudes.  It has a billion nuances.  Tone subverts speech.  It is pre-literate: dogs, like newborn infants, get the message.  Like breathing and heartbeat, tone springs from sources preceding the analytical brain.

Each scrap of civilization is permeated by tonalities. And each separate civilization has its own dominant tone.  Choosing a tone, we can actually choose what sort of civilization we wish to live in — what sort of civilization we are creating, second by second, from the ground up (actually, from the underground up).

Tone is interwoven with the materials and techniques peculiar to each craft, each art.  The sounds of musical instruments are analogous to those of the human voice — bestowing limitless expressive possibilities.  Musical fundamentals – harmony, melody and rhythm — open into endless variations of emotion, attitude, relationship: carriers of thought and feeling, from sudden joy to the wisp of  a half-forgotten memory.  Essential to this conversation is the artist’s sensitivity to the ears of his listeners. Refined artistry implies respect for people’s receptive capacities.

And tone is interactive.  New Orleans jazz derived from street processions before it moved indoors to dance halls. The early jazzmen and their listeners were conditioned by both.  At certain events one early bandleader is said to have occasionally surprised everyone by shouting “Feet!” – an instruction to his players to suddenly cut the volume so far they could actually hear the shuffling feet of the dancers.

"Flora", by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

“Flora,” by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Tone is crucial in writing.  The element hardest to teach, it remains after everything else has been fixed.  After each essay has been structured, each meaning parsed, each meaning clarified, the voice of the author, and his fictional characters, is what finally counts.  It is what we hear below the surface of language — what we ultimately care about in a person or a book.  The off-putting snarl, the simmering poetic glow, the endearing humor: tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his listeners and himself.

Tone is the light in the eye: the energy radiating from a person – what we really take away from an encounter.

Representations of the human face or body, in all the visual media, include great examples of tonal artistry — translating the invisible into the visible.  Titian painted many scenes from classical myths involving nudes; many sacred scenes in the Christian tradition, involving more discreet clothing; and many portraits.  His women often present a thoroughly mixed message: their neutral stare, the amount and distribution of skin revealed, and the sumptuous coloration and warm compositions, combine to make his subjects appear, at once, as holy as the Virgin and as sensual and shapely as a Venetian courtesan.  Rather than presenting these as opposites, he presents, at least in some cases, a mixed message.  As important as what they do or do not reveal of their breasts is the care the artist gives to the sumptuous fabrics and delicate lacework around or over the chests, arms and bodies.

"The Penitent Magdalen," by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

“The Penitent Magdalen,” by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

For me, Titian is using all his matchless talent and vast technical means to express the multi-layered, multi-valent wonder that is Woman.  Hiding while revealing, Titian enrolls us in the mystery, leaving it to us to make what we will of his women’s inscrutable faces.  This great Renaissance painter stood astride two intersecting epochs — the religious and the classical.  He was trained in the old, tightly restrained, exacting tempura technique; yet he pioneered the new, freer, emotionally expressive medium of oil and impasto on canvas. Such dualities fused to inform his work, but did not determine his vision.   Whoever happened to be sitting for him, in whatever moods, and whatever myths and fashions might have shaped the story telling, what counts for us, five centuries hence, is the look of the work – an aura of person-hood that confounds interpretation: a nobility of tone emanating to us from the canvas,  delivered to us out of the artist’s own being.

In photography, especially of people, whether clothed or unclothed, the word “tone” also applies to technical choices involving lighting, contrast, paper color, etc.  Such choices are necessary but not sufficient means en route to the work’s larger tone and overtones.  The attitude and intent of the photographer affect his choices of dramatic stage lighting vs. soft shadowless light – deep shadows for striking layouts in the magazine era, for instance, vs. subtle grey-scale values for intimate personal portraiture.  Layers of over-civilized European irony permeate the tough commercial nudes of glitterati like Helmut Newton or  Karl Lagerfeld.  Whereas the nudes of  gentle humanists, alive in a gentler age, such as Imogene Cunningham or Paul Strand, are all about tenderness.

How we see is who we are.  Inevitably, our tone, our voice,  is a projection of our inner state — our inner self.

Megan

“Megan,” by William Carter, 2006

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July 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Jazz + Photography = Now (Part 1)

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Surprising similarities between two young art forms.

William Carter in Preservation Hall September 1973

William Carter, clarinet, at Preservation Hall, September 1973 with Kid Thomas, trumpet; Emanuel Paul, tenor saxophone; Emanuel Sayles, banjo; Charlie Hamilton, piano; Alonzo Stewart, drums; and Louis Nelson trombone. Photograph by Mona Mac Murray

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.

Willie Humphrey Album Cover

Willie Humphrey album cover: photograph © William Carter 1974

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.

Guitar Slim Album Cover

Guitar Slim album cover: photograph © William Carter 1959

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.”

Magnolia Jazz 5 album cover

Magnolia Jazz 5 album cover, 1985. Author in lower left.

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.

And Louis?

Louis Armstrong at Cornell

Louis Armstrong at Cornell.

Click here for a larger version. 

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.

Yemen: Then as Now? Part 4

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Transition to a still uncertain future
Photos and Text © William Carteryemen4-1Many Yemenis are short, and their donkeys more so 

yemen4-2Protecting himself from the sun with a vestige of British colonial times

 

yemen4-3The hot, humid valleys north of Sanaa are rich in agriculture — and malaria

 

yemen4-4Yemen’s indigenous architecture long contributed to its reputation as a quasi-mythical land

 

yemen4-5In 1963 the Brits still hung on

 

yemen4-6Late in the day a colonial officer reviews a dwindling number of troops

 

yemen4-7Street life in Aden survived longer than the politicians on the walls

 

yemen4-8Building for an uncertain future — then as now

 

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June 5, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Yemen: Then As Now? Part 3

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Where there are children, there is hope

Photos and Text © William Carter

 

yemen3-1In 1964 we were told these were the first girls who ever went to school in Yemen; those who survived would now be nearly 60 years old

 

yemen3.2Building sites can also be fun

 

yemen3-2In traditional societies, gender-defined roles start early

 

yemen3-4Too old to be in the first school for girls?

 

yemen3-5Was this his first view of a camera viewing him?

 

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May 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm

A Letter to H.E. Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

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May 4, 2015

Mr. Masoud Barzani
President
Kurdish Regional Government
Erbil, Iraq
For delivery in Washington, D.C.

Dear President Barzani:

With great pleasure we welcome you to the United States.  I am so happy about the evident progress of the Kurdish people in their long struggle for their rights and autonomy, and their partnership with America.

Fifty years ago – in the spring of 1965 – I interviewed and photographed your esteemed father in Kurdistan.  I was traveling through the mountains with a group of pesh mergas under the command of Colonel Akrawi, on assignment from Life Magazine, which published my article and photographs.

I have never forgotten that experience. Mullah Mustafa Barzani asked me to help the Kurdish cause with the people of America, and I have tried to do that in my modest ways as a photographer and writer. Much time and many events have passed on the world stage, but in my heart I have never forgotten the wonderful hospitality and special character of the Kurds.

In the last two years I have published a series of blogs of these photos on https://bywilliamcarter.wordpress.com  I have corresponded with Kurds in the U.S. and in Kurdistan, who warmly invite me to travel to Erbil.  My wife and I must think realistically about this at age 80!

Perhaps a comprehensive pictorial book can be published celebrating the dynamic present and inspiring history of the Kurds on their long road to autonomy. As part of that story. my diaries and pictures of your father, the pesh mergas, the hospitable village life and beautiful landscape would be available.

Please accept the enclosed photograph of Mullah Mustafa Barzani as a token of my admiration for all that you and your people are doing to honor his memory.

William Carter

Barzani horse034brightness_corrected

View this video of “A Conversation with H.E. Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”

I received this reply from Mr. Barzani dated May 17, 2015:

Letter from Masoud Barzani to William Carter

Written by bywilliamcarter

May 9, 2015 at 12:22 am

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