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?
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.
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.
Photos and Text © William CarterMany Yemenis are short, and their donkeys more so
Where there are children, there is hope
Photos and Text © William Carter