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:
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.