Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jazz and Photography

In case you are thoroughly depressed by the past three book subjects I have featured…a murderer…a mass murderer/drug kingpin…a war…I will throw you one subject which will be lighter on your conscience.

The neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has been doing the rounds on public radio for his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Sacks has one of the most beautiful voices and diction (like a sane and elder Werner Herzog) and his discussions of the effects of being a musician on the development of the brain are fascinating. Consider the following, the brain of Einstein according to Sacks did not vary greatly from other ‘normal’ brains in appearance, but the brains of musicians, even after just one year of intensive study, actually develop in ways to make them look differently physically.

This made me think about how music has been described through photography. Immediately I have thoughts of images of jazz because, besides rock and roll, it seems that this is the genre of music most commonly described in great photos. For instance, how many great photographs have been made of classical musicians? Several for sure, but they do not jump to mind as quickly as the wealth of examples that can be referred to in jazz. Ed Van der Elsken, Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander, William Gottlieb, William Claxton and others.

Listening to Oliver Sacks and thinking about how people are drawn to certain types or genres of music, could it be possible that jazz inspired photographers in their own creative process and that this inspiration is the reason for such a wealth of images?

Many people have compared the spontaneous improvisation of creating photographs based on one’s intuition as similar to jazz improvisation. In both cases the knowledge of the instrument or machine is necessary but ultimately transcended by an unexplainable moment in the process of creation that relies on taking risks and embracing possible failure as a guide. When the unexplainable works, we are treated to something that can defy logic and steer us into uncharted waters and, I believe, possibly make part of our brains grow. (That may be a discussion for when the weed is in the bowl and the cocoa puffs are a-plenty)

There have been several books dedicated to jazz, some better than others, here are a few off the beaten path that may be worthy of note.

When we think of the subject of jazz in photography what mostly comes to mind is work from the 30‘s through the 60‘s. Francis Wolff, who was one of the founders of Blue Note records, documented with his Rolliflex the entire cast of characters that flowed through the studio during recordings. The ‘studio’ from 1953 to 1959 was actually a modified living room of Rudy Van Gelder’s parents’ home in Hackensack, New Jersey. Many of Wolff’s images were transformed by Reid Miles into some of the greatest album covers ever designed in any musical genre.

There have been several books that feature Wolff’s vast archive, the best of which is The Blue Note Years The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff published by Rizzoli in 1995. Unfortunately most of the books on Wolff are not very inspiring and treat the photography as a by-product in relation to the celebrity of the musician in the photograph. This trait shows itself through book design that greatly crop and alter the originals, placing most of the importance on the subject. Even Reid Miles’ designs for the album covers did the same. Whether Wolff’s intention was to make pictures that shouldn’t be cropped or not, is another matter as most wound up being chopped. When given the chance to be seen full frame, many are great works worthy of recognition.

I have had the rare pleasure of printing many of the images in the Wolff archive full frame and what is interesting about Wolff as a photographer, beyond who passed in front of his lens, was the way he juggled the fodder of stands and recording gear of the studio. Like seeing theater actors among the stage rigging, it is the ordinariness of the surroundings that appear odd in relation to what was being put on tape. It all seems surprisingly low-tech when in the background of an image of Miles Davis smoking a joint you see the old television in a Hackensack living room.

The book is not great from a design stand point but it is surprisingly richly printed albeit slightly hard in contrast. The design is fueled by the celebrity and little attention is paid to individual photographs. Regardless, if you want a glimpse into those great recordings and see what the scene looked like, this book covers the landmarks of jazz in the 50’s and 60’s.

William Claxton is another name that is easily recognizable when the discussion of jazz photography in its heyday is discussed. Jazz Life published by Taschen in 2005 is a lap crushing 20 lbs. A part of Taschen’s ‘book as coffee table’ series, this is a tome of hundreds of Claxton’s photographs made in 1960 across America capturing the face of jazz.

Similar in tone to Lee Friedlander (who was Claxton’s best man at his wedding in 1959) but more prone to using a whole battery of different focal length lenses, Claxton describes both the obvious subject as well as what was happening on the sidelines. And like Friedlander, that is where the most interesting photos derive.

The book is obnoxiously huge at 700 pages and with hundreds of illustrations. If the ‘all or nothing’ approach had been avoided, a really nice collection could have been the result. This is a book that, even though it contains so many great photographs, might never get actually dragged off your sagging book shelf because of its size.

The last book chalks one up for the home team of Eye Studio here in NYC.

Jimmy Katz has been photographing jazz musicians for over 20 years and a collection of 175 of his photographs can be found in the new book Jazz In NY just published by Jazzprezzo.

Shooting in black and white, Jimmy Katz is carrying on the tradition of documenting not only a music he loves but its contemporary face. He has been able to gain access into intimate recording sessions that in this day and age have become more difficult for photographers to access. The importance of Jimmy’s photographs is that they bring an image of jazz that isn’t lock up with a romance of the past. These show musicians in love with their craft in both candid moments and formal portraits. The range of personalities is wide, from the known to the more obscure; but all get to play equal roles when framed by Katz. It seems that any jazz musician working today has at one point passed in front of Katz’s prolific lens.

For me, I like Jimmy’s photos the most when he is a fly on the wall and the musicians are immersed in the process of creation. In those moments, Katz has more time to be playful with his frames and capture fleeting gesture and expression that escape some of the staged portraits. These musicians, when engaged in playing, relay the ‘look’ of the process of creation. As viewers we seek out in the slightest gesture or expression to understand what may be transpiring in the artist at that moment. The revelations, even if photography could reveal them which it cannot, would probably be as mysterious as to why some photographs work and others do not.

The book is large and nicely put together. It has a surprising heft that is telling of the fine quality of paper and materials. The reproductions are rich and suit the atmospheric lighting that Katz uses. Where most books published on this subject are riddled with cheapness and concern for quick ‘marketability,’ this book avoids those pitfalls by maintaining high production standards.

If I had to throw one minor criticism at this book it would be with the title. The title is written as Jazz in NY by Jimmy Katz with the words Jazz and Katz highlighted in bold gold lettering. Hence Jazz Katz is actually how the title is read. Cute, and I guess unavoidable because of Jimmy’s last name but I would have tried to go a different route. Seems like too much of a dated reference for such a contemporary book but then again the quote from the great drummer Arthur Taylor on the back cover says ‘Jimmy is THE cat!’ So, who am I to argue with Arthur Taylor?

Jazz in NY by Jimmy Katz was first released in Europe in an edition of 2000 and is just now being made available in the US.

Book Available Here (Francis Wolff Blue Note Years)

Book Available Here (Jazz Life)

Book Available Here (Jazz in NY by Jimmy Katz)


rchrd said...

Regarding famous photos of classical musicians and composers, there are MANY.

Start with Man Ray's photo of Arnold Schoenberg

or this one of Edgard Varese attributed to the Bettmann Archive

Or Alfred Newman's wonderfully modernist photo of Igor Stravinsky

and I could go on.

Since few "classical" composers (e.g. Mozart) were alive when photography was invented, you have to look at composers since, say, 1900.

I could go on, but the space here in this comment is limited.
Trust me, there are MANY great photos of "classical" 20 and 21'st Century composers by famous photographers out there.

Anonymous said...

May I strongly recommend the re-edition of Ed van der Elsken's 'Jazz'!

First published in 1959 it will be available again in november (according the Steidl website Good copies of the orginal version are hard to find and will set you back at least 500 euros (it is a very fragile book). I happily own a rather battered copy bought for the prize of a medium-pizza (I always compare my book-buys with food-prizes). This Steidl edition will cost 20 euro or 25 dollars. I suggest you buy at least 3 copies...

In my opinion it is the best jazz-photobook ever made and I'm sure people who have seen the book will agree. The book is not just a collection of photos but really 'breathes' Jazz.

Strange thing is that van der Elsken wasn't really that interested in the music. He just was very curious why all those young people were so mad about it. And a few years later he totally abandoned jazz-photography (altough he kept working until his death in 1990).

Next best thing for me is Roy DeCarava's 'The Sound I Saw'. While van der Elsken's book is rather 'loud' I find DeCarava much more introspective. While the vd Elsken book is very small (approx 11 x 11 inches) and uses very high contrast, DeCarava uses a folio-format with lots of greys.

Mike C. said...

"A sane and elder Werner Herzog"!! What a strange thought, a bit like imagining a "muscular and West Coast Woody Allen"...

On jazz photos and album covers, have you ever seen a copy of "Sleeves of Desire", the book of ECM label covers? I love the idea of this book, but have never seen it (can't afford the few copies that turn up on ABE, etc.)

Anonymous said...

forget about jazz and classic folks...get real and check out White Nights, rocknrollphotography by Morten Andersen.........!

Unknown said...


Jazzlife is my favorite jazz book in it's original edition. It is collectible, but still comes up on E-bay for not to much these days. Much better than the ponderous Tashen edition, and in beautiful gravure.

Anonymous said...

Is it the same book and amount of photos but just in normal human friendly size?

Unknown said...


No it's the same shooting but a different book, 268 pages. Much better editing and beautiful printing.

as in:


Anonymous said...

Another good book on jazz is: Jazz Street by Dennis Stock.

Anonymous said...

There are also Guy Le Querrec's pictures (cf magnum website or his book "le jazz de j à zz).

P-Yves Racine

Merritt Hewitt said...

There is project that the Univ. of Arizona's Center for Photography has been trying to finance. Eugene Smith's Loft images. A few have been published and they are amazing: the essence of jazz. If the rest ever make it into print it will be the best jazz photography published. Too bad, jazz, for the most part, hasn't been as well served as rock n roll. Sometimes I think much of Dylan's fame can be traced back to Daniel Kramer and some of the other amazing photographers who gravitated to him. He's like Marilyn Monroe in the sense that I haven't seen a bad image of him dating from the middle and late 60's.