Tag Archives: art photography

LYNN REDMILE: PAINTER WITH A CAMERA

Since it appears that everyone has a camera or a camera phone, I sometimes imagine the cosmos brimful of pixels flying hither and yon.  But often the results suggest that these well-intentioned people are aiming their cameras in the approximate vicinity of something they like and hoping for the best.  Consider the two high-school girls exuberantly aiming their phone at their own happy faces.  It’s a way to create lovely memories, but it is far from photography, the art of creating portraits that will stand deep scrutiny.

Lynn Redmile is a genuine photographer, the exception to the proliferation of cheerfully evanescent candid shots.  In a world of pointers and shooters, she is a painter who happens to have a camera rather than a set of brushes and a palette.

Because Lynn so deeply loves the sound of the music that improvisers create and the motions that she and other dancers invent in response, her photography has a sweet willingness to take risks, a smile as part of the ultimate exposure.

Consider the photograph below, taken at a November 11, 2011, evening in honor of Diane Naegel*, who died at 31 of breast cancer.  It presents three young women, each singularly beautiful, assembled as if into a casually friendly constellation.  The bright star on the right (dressed in red) is Nasiveli Sarygulova.  (I am sure she or someone else will provide the name of the two other luminaries.)  You might be thinking, “With such extraordinary human material to work with, anyone could take a great photo,” but I think this would be incorrect.

I see the careful artistic imagination of the photographer here, making choices: arranging the three friends in this way, with a wise intuitive knowledge of colors and shapes in balance.  And it is not simply their beauty that makes the portrait so compelling, but the way in which these three Graces have revealed themselves to Lynn.

Having seen both the reality — life as it appears to one’s eyes — and the photographic portraits Lynn has made of that reality, I know that she creates depths and shadings that we would not have seen before.  This isn’t a matter of equipment — to ask Lynn what camera she uses is an irrelevancy.  And the beauty of this portrait has nothing to do with Photoshop.  No, Lynn has seen something in her subject that might not otherwise have been accessible to our eyes or to a quick snapshot.

Lynn’s site is full of such portraits — that make even the most hasty scanner stop, consider, and savor.  And I can say quietly — receiving no commission for these words — she is available for swing dances, baby pictures, dog and cat portraits, nude studies of your heartthrob, weddings, and more.

Works of art.  See for yourself at http://www.lynnredmile.com.

*Diane and Don Spiro created the magazine ZELDA — a witty, precise piece of art devoted to all things vintage —  http://www.zeldamag.com/  — which I will write more about in another post.  For now, visit the magazine’s website and marvel.

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MAYA HED’S PHOTOGRAPHY: ON EXHIBIT

I don’t think I’ll make it to Tel Aviv for Maya Hed’s wonderful photography of musicians and other singular creatures, but I would encourage anyone in that neighborhood to visit: her work shines the light in unusual corners.  No cliches and many surprises.

THE ART of PIOTR SIATKOWSKI

Many jazz photographers — even some with grand reputations and extensive bodies of work — fall into cliched, formulaic photographs.  You know the familiar ones: the trumpeter or clarinetist with horn held to the sky, brow furrowed, sweat in profusion. 

Every photograph, for them, has to have the admired individual playing, exerting, on the wing.  All well and good, but once you establish that X plays the tenor saxophone you don’t always have to show her with it in the middle of a complicated twisting phrase.  I don’t suggest that photographers should be forbidden to take the usual shots, but that the usual shots usually produce the expected results. 

Polish jazz photographer Piotr Siatkowski is one of a small number of artists (another one will be the subject of a posting soon) who have understood this perspective, that the musician might be an intriguing human study even he or she has put the horn down for a moment, perhaps to face the camera or to be caught listening to someone else in the band or simply musing.  He has captured Hank Jones, Maria Schneider, Johnny Griffin, Don Cherry, and many musicians whose work I do not know but whose faces I find arresting.

Piotr’s photographs — justifiably praised — can be found at his site: http://www.slojazz.net/., and I asked him if he would tell me something about this portrait of cornetist Wild Bill Davison:

Piotr tells me, “As far as I can remember, I took this picture of Wild Bill Davison around 1979.  He lived in Denmark at that time and he was visiting Poland for a couple of gigs, being backed by a Polish group (most probably Old Timers).  I met him the next day after he had played in Krakow, for an exclusive photoshoot and an interview.  He was extremely nice and friendly.  It was very easy to arrange the meeting. At those times you had no restrictions, rules, and regulations that you do now.  I think he was also happy that I was so interested as his kind of jazz was a bit neglected then, to say the least.”

On first glance, this looks familiar.  Wild Bill is in mid-phrase, head at its usual angle, his pinky ring a proud ornament.  But one is drawn to Davison’s eyes: shaded, pensive, even sad.  And Piotr has drawn an invisible line from those eyes to the bell of the horn, suggesting something deep, beyond words, about the distance the impulses had to travel from Bill’s nights of playing to the sound that would emerge . . . and that although the sound was brash and joyous, there was melancholy behind it, perhaps the sadness of someone who felt neglected by the larger world.  The portrait isn’t stiff or studied, but it opens up to suggest things deeper than mere surface. 

Visit http://www.slojazz.net  for more evocative art — Piotr is also a fine jazz chronicler with words: he is doing noble work!

ENRICO, SEEN TWICE (by LORNA SASS)

Enrico Tomasso’s talents are too large to be enclosed in one photograph.   So the celebrated nature photographer Lorna Sass took two of him in action at the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival.

Rico is always slightly in motion, so these photographs capture him as a moving subject. 

If you haven’t seen the wide range of Lorna Sass’s photographs (eclectic photography — high-heeled women, shadows, scorpions, and exquisite nature studies) hurry on down to http://www.lornasassatlarge.wordpress.com.

SHORPY (“ALWAYS SOMETHING INTERESTING”)

In these days of “milkless milk and silkless silk,” to recall W.C. handy, it’s very gratifying to point my readers to a website that for three years now has lived up to its title.  www.shorpy.com presents beautifully defined black-and-white photographs from the past — everything from candids sent in by readers to Ben Shahn portraits of small-town streets, children at the beach, bathing girls, and more. 

I decided to write a few words about the site because I was fairly sure that people who are deeply involved in the kind of jazz I write about here might also have an affection for the objects and places it came from — and such obsessions as trains, for instance.  And this particular picture made it a must for me to write this post — a 1920 Washington, D.C., shop window advertising the latest Victor records and a line of Nippers (one large fellow in the doorway) that made me laugh.

Reprinted by permission of http://www.shorpy.com

I will understand if some of my readers ask, “What’s that doing on a jazz site?” but my guess is that others will be clicking on www.shorpy.com. as quickly as they can and won’t come up for air for a long time.  SHORPY has been going strong for three years now, and shows no sign of running out of energy, or of beautiful surprises.  (When you visit the site, you’ll find out the rationale behind its unusual name and you’ll also be able to see the photograph above in full size — the details jump out at you.)

BILLIE, IN BETTER LIGHT

I’m glad that a number of my readers found the nearly-prurient Carl Van Vechten photographs of Billie Holiday equally disturbing.  I needed to put something in their place. 

Earl Hines told Whitney Balliett in a New Yorker Profile, “Sunshine always opens out,” his way of saying that good fortune eventually finds you, and today it found me in the shape of a pleasant email from Erik Svinding Olsen, alerting me to his Billie Holiday site — he’s been a devoted listener for more than fifty years now.  Erik’s site has a wonderful discography, among other pleasures, and although he doesn’t attempt to list every CD issue of every song (something that often results in pages of label / number listings for something like the Decca LOVER MAN) his discography contains recordings I had never heard of.  It’s clear and well-organized: you can search by date, by song, by musicians, etc.  I’ve listed his site on my blogroll: http://www.holiday.eriksol.dk/

Erik also told me about another site devoted to Miss Holiday, a site that I find frankly astonishing — for its photographs.  Most of the books devoted to Billie reproduce the same studies — often they are moody portraits with the inevitable gardenia.  But Mike Lubbers of the Netherlands, the Holiday-collector behind this enterprise has found more pictures of Billie than I had imagined . . . a few of them copies of newspaper clippings, and many of them still pictures from her appearances in SYMPHONY IN BLACK, NEW ORLEANS, film shorts and television shows. 

But there are more than twelve hundred photographs of Billie, beginning with a snapshot of her as a cheeful teenager on the beach at Coney Island and ending with photographs of the crowd at her funeral.  This trove can be found here: http://www.billieholiday.be/

I have contented myself with only a few photographs from this site — to not seem too greedy among Mike’s treasures — but they nearly offset the Van Vechtens for me.  If I have chosen a number of portraits (mostly candid) that show Billie alongside other famous musicians and singers, can you blame me? 

Here’s Billie the writer, presumably working on her “autobiography,” LADY SINGS THE BLUES, in June 1956. 

And a frankly posed shot, to make it seem as if she was earnestly blue-penciling her own galleys (or proofs?).  I couldn’t ignore it because of the Fifties prop: she’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, the sure sign of the writer, the intellectual.  Editing your autobiography can’t be done without the proper plumage: in this case, sparkly dangling earrings.   

This somewhat grainy newspaper photograph is a relief . . . because it is in some way far more real.  Is it that Billie has asked Frank — who said he owed so much to her singing — for his autograph?  Whatever the story, this photograph was taken, or published, on May 26, 1944.

I have no fondness for any of Billie’s men, who seem to have treated her poorly, but at least she looks happy here with Louis McKay, in May 1954. 

A candid photograph taken at the home of Billie and Louis McKay, December 1951.  If it’s caution, wariness, or skepticism in her sideways glance and slightly raised eyebrow, she looks far more relaxed, even girlish, than she ever did under Van Vechten’s gaze.

Billie with a happy Count Basie in July 1948, during their appearances at the Strand Theatre in New York City. 

A very hip trio in Billie’s dressing room, September 1949.  Does Billie’s dog know who’s there?  Of course!  (Louis loved dogs.)  Billie looks as if she is just about to burst into laughter — always a happy sight. 

In December  1945, at the Onyx Club — from left, Sarah Vaughan (travelling in fast company), Louis, Billie, and someone whose face is vaguely familiar but elusive.  At ease, even when assembled for a “candid” photograph and facing a flashbulb.

Billie at Orly Airport in Paris, November 1958.  Again, it’s a posed photograph, with a good deal of failed “spontaneity” in the artificial tilt of her head and the rather forced smile — but she looks more at ease than we would have expected.

I wouldn’t call them old friends — late in life, Teddy Wilson insisted that he would have preferred another girl singer, Beverly “Baby” White, for those awe-inspiring Brunswicks and Vocalions — but they certainly had a long association.  By this time, Teddy no longer wanted to be anyone’s sideman, and Billie may have found his precision a bit restrictive, but here they are at the first Newport Jazz Festival on July 18, 1954.  (Many more pictures exist of this pair at this concert.)

Another pianist worthy of our attention: Billie and Art Tatum, taken at the Downbeat Club in December 1946.  (Photographs of Tatum are rare, and I thought he and Billie were captured only at the Metropolitan Opera House jam session in 1944.)  Tatum seems unfazed by the ornamentation atop Billie’s hat, and that the photographer has posed them outside of the Ladies’ — but we have to catch our legends where we may.

Something else I didn’t know: that Billie and Lester had appeared at a series of outdoor New York City concerts in July 1957.  Lester looks dubious, Billie guarded, but I hope it’s nothing more than that they were trading bad stories about the promoter or one of the sidemen.  It would break my heart if they were glaring at each other.

Since Billie has often been presented as an iconic figure of sadness, of self-destruction, I thought I would conclude with two photographs where she looks unaffectedly happy, not posing at being happy for someone’s camera.  If you didn’t know she was the famous “doomed” artist, would you see it in her strong, amused face?  This shot was taken at a session for Verve (or Clef?) in June 1956. 

Late in her life — December 1958 — but taking her ease at Tony Scott’s house. 

Heartfelt thanks to Erik Svindling Olsen, to Mike Lubbers, to Billie Holiday and all the people who love her and treat her properly, even fifty years after her death.

BILLIE HOLIDAY, SEEN

Most photographs of Billie Holiday show her as beautiful, whether thin or overweight, dressed ornately or plainly.  Often she looks mournful.  Of course it is hard to say what her unposed expressions were like.  Did the photographer ask her to strike a pose, or to think of STRANGE FRUIT?  I prefer to recall a 1935 photograph by Timme Rosenkrantz, outside, with Ben Webster and others.  Billie wears a summer dress, looks sweetly young, glad to be alive among friends.     

Jim Eigo (of Jazz Promo Services) told me that the Beinecke Library at Yale University seems to have thrown open the doors of its photography collection online.  If you enter “jazz” or “blues” as a keyword in the search engine, riches cascade onto your monitor.  But they have the power to make me deeply uncomfortable.   

Most of the photographs were taken by Carl VanVechten, who was fascinated by jazz musicians, but primarily by women — singers (Billie, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Maxine Sullivan, Chippie Hill, Lil Green, Lizzie Miles, Gladys Bentley, Thelma Carpenter as a Seminole Indian) and dancers (Pearl Primus).  They show a good deal of dramatic planning and staging, with costumes, a formal studio, elaborate props, poses from iconic to sordid. 

Yes, there are pictures of W.C. Handy, Tiny Bradshaw, Josh White, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and even Rudi Blesh . . . but Van Vechten was nearly obsessed by Ethel Waters — photographing her as Carmen; by Bessie Smith, in 1936, in a variety of poses; and perhaps most by Billie Holiday.

I can’t reproduce the photographs, although readers are allowed to view and save them.  Anything else requires the permission of the photographer’s estate and no doubt of the subject’s as well.

The color photographs of Billie, from 1949, give me pause. 

In one set, she is wearing a lavender dress with red trim, next to a vase of showy pink flowers.  In another, Van Vechten has her wearing a black velvet gown; she looks far-away and sad.  In yet another set, she is apparently naked from the waist up: her arms crossed over her breasts, anything buy happily erotic.  In the first of the series, she looks away from the camera; we see a scar on her face; her red lipstick is garish; in the next, she attempts to look casual; in the last of the series, where she is once again looking away from the camera, her face is wounded, her expression that of a soul in pain.  These three portraits are hard to look at; did the photographer sense her distress, or did she say that those three were enough, that she was no pinup girl?  They seem to me to be intrusive, near-violations, even even if Van Vechten thought he was portraying her lovingly, ceebrating her unmistakable erotic appeal.

There are many black-and-white studies, but (as if to compensate for the painful exposure) many are many of Billie with her boxer, Mister — where both she and the dog are happy, affectionate, at their ease, sharing unconditional love and tenderness.   

The Beinecke collection can be viewed here:  

http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/

and the Billie portraits can be accessed here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2022461&iid=1091648&srchtype=

It is a record of a photographer deeply absorbed by his subjects, often revering them, sometimes exposing them for the sake of his lens.  I believe that I am glad all these photographs exist, but I am not sure.