By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Happy Accidents Part 1

with 5 comments

Bunnie Meade

Above: Bunnie Meade, subtitled “The Eminent Lady Clarinet Soloist,” turned up in the bin of a junk store in New Orleans. I could never learn any more about the winsome Madame Meade, so she never made it into my book on New Orleans jazz: “Preservation Hall” (W.W. Norton, 1991).

“If you break eggs – make an omelet.”

That old saying is good advice in life — being able to turn a negative into a positive is a creative response.

Similarly, a famous book by the cultural writer, Joseph Chilton Pearce, was called The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. Essences seep from seismic shifts.

The same can be true in the arts. “Accidental” has a particular, narrow meaning in music. Beyond that  are wider applications — especially in jazz. An improvising jazzman is bound to stumble now and then. Hitting a “clunker” means playing a wrong note outside the chord progression. Sometimes a quick-minded response can save the day: re-framing the phrase, or making the bad note part of a longer statement, or an accompanist quick-fixing the chord to suit, or recovering with good humor the way we sometimes do if we accidentally use the wrong word in everyday conversation.

Accidents can become a creative force in photography. One feature of my first three books (on Ghost Towns, the Middle West, and New Orleans Jazz) was to blend my own photos with historical ones. I loved researching old pictures in public archives. In the early 1970s I drove a camper across ten states, scouring the land looking for remnants of the early mining booms which had helped blast open the West. Here and there I would pause to comb local historical files. It was a kind of mining in itself. Spend a day, see maybe a thousand prints, feel great to find one that may make it into the book. There is a “happy accident” quality in this kind of research: staying open to the unexpected: the oddball treasure may not quite fit, but may inspire you to bend the narrative  to make room for it. Reproduced here are a couple of fun obscurities that I always wanted to print but had never found space for.

Indiana Bell Telephone

Fashionable employment in a town in rural America, 1920’s: I struggled to find a place for this shot in my book, “Middle West Country” (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), but never did.

Happy accidents are a breath of fresh air. But when you break eggs, how do you respond? That’s the key.

America’s Funniest Home Videos would be nothing if people didn’t spot and send in those homespun howlers. With only seconds to spare in the fading light, and only one exposure left in his camera, that ultimate plan-ahead craftsman, Ansel Adams, jammed on his car brakes, jumped out and grabbed his most famous photo, “Moonrise Over Hernandez.”

Fresh realms of re-interpretation have been opened by the transition from film to digital. My print, “Persepolis,” started life as a black-and-white negative. Following a trip through Iran in 1998, I had made a set of quick 4×6 proofs but neglected to properly “fix” them in the darkroom. Eleven years later, I was chagrined to find many had faded and/or acquired brownish streaks. One proof caught my eye. It had inadvertently become streaked with a haunting, 19th-century sort of patina. To preserve it, I scanned the little print. Then I blew it up. This “omelet” ended up in two states, in two sizes, now in limited editions, and the “state 1” image occupies a two-page spread in my new book, Causes and Spirits (Steidl, 2011). One of the larger sized State 1’s — 48 inches wide — now graces the wall of our dining room (see below).

Persepolis, Iran

Persepolis, Iran (State 1) Inkjet print 1998-2009

Persepolis women only

Persepolis, Iran (State 2), Inkjet print, 1998-2009

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.

Written by bywilliamcarter

October 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Bunnie Meade was the headliner of an all girl brass & wind band called The Meade Sisters. The band originated in the Midwest, traveled nationally, and did perform in New Orleans. One of the Meade sisters married the New Orleans photographer Frank B. Moore. I am working with a collection of Moore photographs, and a lot of Meade Sisters photos & ephemera have turned up. A copy of your photo is in the group. I’d be glad to send jpegs of a couple other photos of the band. Two of them show the girls posing with their instruments, and there is a brochure advertising their act at Fabacher’s Restaurant in the French Quarter, ca. 1900 or later.


    John Stinson

    October 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm

  2. The world of creativity is filled with happy accidents. As you say, there is magic in turning something around, a note, a print, a poem. I loved J.C. Pearce’s The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. Have read all of his work. I am also impressed that you marry images and words and music–most people feel lucky to get a handle on just one of these avenues to creativity. Thanks. I will look at your photos with S’s translations of Tagore. More marriages. . . . Gabriele



    January 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm

  3. Thanks, Bill. A professor of mine elevated accidents to the role of the adventitious. In life, in art, it’s there if we can see it, incorporate it, as you do so well. Bill Delaney


    Bill Delaney

    December 30, 2011 at 8:33 pm

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