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volume 25
january 2023

The visual side of jazz


  Review of:
  • Alan John Ainsworth (2022), Sight Readings. Photographs and American Jazz, 1900-60. Bristol/Chicago: intellect, 2022 (472 pages)
by Hans Durrer
  In the course of its history the style of jazz music has acquired a visual language of its own — a process in which American jazz photographers played an important role. In his recent study Sight Readings Alan John Ainsworth delves into the work of a range of them dating from the turn of the twentieth century through the Jazz Age. Hans Durrer here shares his impressions of the book.

First things first: I'm not into jazz, know virtually nothing of American jazz, yet I do know that jazz pianist and band leader Darius Brubeck, who contributed the foreword to this tome, is the son of legendary jazz icon Dave Brubeck. My interest is in photography, my musical preference has long been rock and pop, and I imagine that to photograph a rock band or a jazz combo isn't that different. Moreover, I'm fully aware that I cannot do justice to this work which is why I will concentrate on a few rather randomly chosen aspects that caught my attention. That being said, it is good to realise that a good jazz photo is not a happenstance.

"Taking pictures isn't as easy as it looks. In my experience it is rare indeed that all four members of my quartet are identifiable in a concert shot. From stage left, my back is to the camera; from our front, the cymbal is in front of the drummer's face; from stage right, the bass player is blocking me or I'm just too far away — and so on," Darius Brubeck describes good-humouredly his photo-frustrations.

Of course, Brubeck is joking. There is clearly more to the apparent chaos of the typical jazz photograph that is trying to catch, even to create, the atmosphere of a jazz performance or the aura of a jazz musician. Moreover, it goes without saying that different photographers will go differently about their challenges. Pointing his readers to two very different photos from the same period, the book's author Alan John Ainsworth comments: "What are we to make of the contrasts between these two almost contemporaneous photographs? In terms of generation, race, location, presentation, style, and repertoire, the players seem as far removed from each other as it is possible to be. It is hardly surprising that there is little agreement among jazz scholars about the definition of the jazz tradition; some even question whether there is such a tradition." Hardly surprising indeed. As in every other field of study, one feels like adding.

  Photographers are as different as jazz musicians or politicians. So, what do photographers who take pictures of jazz musicians have in common? A common affinity with jazz, writes Ainsworth, an independent scholar based in Edinburgh, whose own affinity can be felt on every page. And, he adds, the same goes for the jazz audience for whom this book seems to be written: "Jazz photographs have always been important to fans, enthusiasts, and collectors." Sight Readings, in short, is a book for aficionados.
Next Sight Readings is one of these rare tomes on music that also deals with photo theory which, like all theory, is basically an attempt to come to grips with a complexity that has been — often unnecessarily, as far as I'm concerned — created in the first place. This is the way I see it: Picture taking is not a science, to frame is more an intuitive process than a thoughtful consideration of all the elements in play. This is however not how Ainsworth seems to see it: "Framing is implemented by photographers both at a conceptual level, involving primarily the selection and/or exclusion of specific subjects, and through visual composition, a series of necessary and contingent decisions concerning exposure, light and shadow, focus, movement, viewpoint and relational hierarchies, and the boundaries of the frame. These decisions interact in myriad ways to bring to fruition the vision of the photographer. Conceptualising a subject and creating a visual frame are modalities that both constrain and liberate the exercise of agency in production, and their interactions are key to understanding the nature of photographic agency."
  Ainsworth portrays the photographer as fully conscious of what is going on when he takes his pictures. He however also states: "In making the case for photographic agency it must not be assumed that the photographer's original intentions will always be known, articulated, or applied: as Walker Evans said, 'People often read things into my work, but I did not consciously put these things in the photographs.'"
  Photographers are mainly acting unconsciously. This not only applies to photographers, this applies to all of us — in my view, we have only a very foggy idea of what we are doing and take only very rarely a conscious decision in any kind of process. Rationalisations in hindsight is what our conscious mind is mostly busy with.
Next However, this book is about something else — a demonstration of the enthusiasm of its author, highly reflective, very sophisticated, and greatly interpretative. He quotes Susan Sontag who warned that "to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world" (which is a rather strange statement given the fact that we interpret — albeit unconsciously — around the clock) but his lucid interpretations based on profound knowledge provide quite the opposite — they enrich our awareness of the world.
  Here's an example: "What have come to be known as cross-modal correspondences between the senses suggest that sound can enliven sight, sight can enliven sound, and that both in combination enhance memory recall of an event through their mimetic fidelity; and the greater the congruence between cross-modal sensory changes, the greater the mutual influence. W.J.T. Mitchell, for instance, has questioned whether any medium can be described as purely visual, tactile or auditory. He concluded that all visual media turn out to involve the other senses." By the way, Mr Mitchell also considers pictures living things. Well, why then distinguish media in the first place, one might wonder.
  Although I see things very differently (my definition of living is practical, not academic), there's no doubt in my mind that photographs and music, both celebrations of the moment, can influence each other. That however does not depend on the photograph but on what the one looking at it brings to it. I think Ainsworth's attempt to identify, describe and explain the photographer's intentions in order to interpret what is before one's eyes most useful for the more we know of how a picture came about, the more we are able to see in it.
  But can the sounds of jazz be visualised? Not in my view. There are however parallels between photography and music — both need to be felt, for instance. They also have the improvised moments in common. Nevertheless, there is a considerable difference. Music is fleeting: a tone will immediately be replaced by the next one. Yet the moment in time that the photograph attempts to catch is meant to be lasting.
Next Sight Readings also introduced me to quite some intriguing photographers that I had so far never heard of — and this alone merits my interest in this book. Clemens Kalischer, for instance, the German-born exile in America who photographed on his own terms: "avoiding the constructed portrayals of the portrait photographer or the declamatory urge of the documentary photographer, he let his scenes unfold, always ready to be surprised." Or Fred Plaut, a German Jewish émigré, born in Munich in 1907, who moved to America in 1940 and rarely went anywhere without his camera. He would accept neither posing nor money for his photographs.
  I think this scholarly book enlightening and, at times, frustrating. Take for instance a statement like this: "Historians have been especially slow to accept visual evidence, preferring to rely on texts rather than the deeper levels of experience that images convey." Very true indeed, yet what exactly are those "deeper levels of experience that images convey"? Moreover, interpretations of the unconscious (that, by definition, we cannot know) I consider preposterous. What the author conveys (images do not convey anything) is his passion, his insight, his scholarly arguments. And, he does that wonderfully.
  It is also true, that individual photographers and their intentions are rarely of concern to writers, be they historians or reporters. This isn't likely to change for most people do not regard photography as art but as a rather simple undertaking that everybody can perform. Which, needless to say, is as true as it is not. Even chimpanzees can do a good picture, David Bailey once said. And then added, smilingly: "But I can do two."
  In order to achieve their goal, photographers have at their disposal "many combinations of lenses, films, light sources and darkroom manipulations," as Dennis Stock once stated. William Claxton explained his approach as follows: "I study them carefully before photographing them (...) I note how their faces and bodies reflect or catch the light, when and at what angles they look their best. I do all this, of course, while listening to their playing. I listen with my eyes."
Next Sight Readings is a very dense text, an easy read it is not. The author convincingly demonstrates that the seemingly simple act of taking photographs is a highly complex affair. I felt at times reminded of the law that also imposes a highly complex construct of ideas on seemingly simple conflicts.
  It is rare that somebody brings so much profound knowledge to the reading of pictures. To delve into the complexity of photographic agency that Ainsworth describes as "the imposition of an inner-directed personal vision and identity on the image" widens not only the horizon but also brings much into consciousness that many have very probably never thought about.
  2023 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes