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Monday, January 02, 2006

Jazz, Photography, and Playing with Light

Jazz and photography are probably my two favorite art forms so I was thrilled to receive as a Christmas gift a very cool book from my aunt and uncle: Jazz by Jim Marshall, which is a collection of photographs of great jazz musicians including such giants as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk often captured off-stage in moments when those icons of jazz music were mostly just being themselves, or in some cases, onstage in such a way that you can hear their music coming out of the image, such as with the breathtaking image of Monk that graces the cover or the image of Ray Charles silhouetted on a bass drum. The book has little text and is mostly just beautiful photography and captivating images of some of the most important and influential musicians taken between the 50s and the 80s.

As I enjoyed the book, I couldn't help but think about the Ansel Adams exhibit that I had just seen a few days previously. Something that I read on the display card next to "Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico" stuck in my mind. It mentioned that several prints had been made by Adams and there were variations in the way he had chosen to do it each time, bringing out certain nuances here, obscuring details there.

When I got home, I looked up the section of his book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs that details "Moonrise." Adams wrote, "The printed image has varied over the years; I have sought more intensity of light and richness of values as time goes on." This fascinated me since I always assumed that he just made one print and that was the image as it would be.

I've spent many hours in darkrooms trying to acheive an ideal print of some particular negative, but I usually threw away the prints that I didn't think were perfect (well, okay, as good as I could do) because it never occurred to me then to have different versions.

Staring at the images in Marshall's book and thinking about the subject matter, I remembered an analogy between photography and music that Adams, who was a classically trained pianist, had made in which he said the negative was like the score and the printing was the performance. This approach to photography goes nicely with the improvisational nature of jazz.

A photographer may spend hours in the field or perhaps just seconds composing a particular image, essentially writing sheet music in light, but the work isn't finished until it's performed. The image is then performed in the darkroom and depending on the filters and settings and quality of the chemicals and paper, the photographer takes the initial composition and improvises with it to create something of the moment. A year later, the same negative and same photographer might produce a very different image. Or perhaps exactly the same one.

I really like this idea that there doesn't have to be one correct version, that there can be many, each existing momentarily like a saxophone solo that changes from night to night, each time sounding new and timely, but also part of something recognizable. And each of those slightly varying solos or images when taken as a whole might tell a fascinating story about the person who made them. It's this active, living-in-the-moment aspect of these two forms that I so enjoy and admire.

All of this makes Jazz a great book for lovers of jazz or photography to get lost in while listening, perhaps, to Monk work the keys.

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Blogger Jessica said...

interesting ideas. Just stumbled across Art from Start to Finish: Jazz, Painting, Writing, and Other Improvisations, not unrelated.

8:40 AM  
Blogger James said...

That looks interesting; I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the tip.

7:52 AM  

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