Wednesday 25 January 2023

The visual side of jazz

First things first: I'm not into jazz, know virtually nothing of American jazz yet I do know that Darius Brubeck, who contributed the foreword to this tome, is the son of the legendary Dave Brubeck. My interest is in photography, my musical preference has long been Rock and Pop, and I imagine that to photograph a rockband 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 concentrate on a few rather randomly chosen aspects that caught my attention.

„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.

It goes without saying that photographers will go differently about their challenges. 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 suprising 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 author Alan John Ainsworth, an independent scholar based in Edinburgh, whose own affinity can be felt on every page. Sight Readings is a book for aficonados. „Jazz photographs have always been important to fans, enthusiasts, and collectors.“

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 Alan John 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.“

Alan John 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.

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 Alan John 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 paralleles 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.

Sight Recordings 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 2007, 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 „ the 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 oder 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.“

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 Alan John 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.

Alan John Ainsworth

Sight Readings
Photographs and American Jazz, 1900-60
intellect, Bristol UK/Chicago, USA 2022

Wednesday 18 January 2023

How Ricardo framed me

2008, in Santa Cruz do Sul

2009, in Santa Cruz do Sul

2017, in Santa Cruz do Sul

There are pictures of me that for quite some years I did not know they existed. 

The first of these three shots must have been taken in 2008. Elsa, the daughter of the late Ricardo Schütz, who had taken these photographs of me, sent it to me in January 2023. The other two I had also only seen years after Ricardo took them.

Automatically, my thoughts wander to Ricardo, a highly knowledgeable linguist and avid photographer with a particularly dry sense of humour. "When you go to Torres, you will see lots of beautiful young women in bikinis who however won't look at men our age. The only ones that will eventually look at you are women who look like your grandmother but are probably younger than you are."

Wednesday 11 January 2023

"My" Peru in January 2012

Pictures taken along the Panamericana in January 2012.

Wednesday 4 January 2023

Learning to choose

In the early1980s, at Matala Beach on the island of Crete, Ilse from Unterföhring told me that when she's taking pictures she always concentrates on something specific like chairs, doors or windows. I thought this an excellent approach and so I copied it for a while. And, I felt enchanted by the results. I'm still at a loss to explain why I eventually stopped pursuing it.

Twenty years later, I began to develop a rather intellectual interest in photography. My focus was on what pictures can tell. Not as much as we would like to think, I eventually concluded, for we mostly see in a picture what we bring to it: If I judge a person as a moron, I will very likely see a moron in a photograph of him (or her, of course).

When, about three years ago, I started to use my cell phone to take photographs, I had no plan what to photograph. I simply took pictures of objects and scenes that my eyes felt pleased by. My taking photographs, it seemed to me, was mainly defined by the possibilities that my cell phone camera did offer – mostly, I felt attracted by its ability to zoom in on flowers by the side of the road that so far I had not even noticed were there.

Another aspect of my taking photographs is my fascination for framing that I consider the essence of photography. Contrary to painting, where you create everything from scratch, what you photograph is already there: You only decide what to put inside the frame and what to leave out of it.

Most of my time I'm on autopilot; I rarely pay conscious attention to what's in front of me. Using my cell phone camera has changed that – slightly, that is, for my unconscious (that is working 24 hours full time) still controls my life. Taking pictures means you have to stop and to pause. There are of course photographers who do not subscribe to that and who constantly shoot.

Dorothea Lange's quote – „The camera teaches us to see without a camera“ – sums up nicely what photography nowadays means to me. In order to see, we do not only have to open our eyes, we also have to understand what our eyes are showing us – hence the expression I see. Gradually, my taking photographs became an eye-opener – more and more I became aware of the beauty of planet earth. And that I experience as immensely helpful. As Richard Rorty once stated: "Existence with all its horrors is endurable only as an aesthetic fact."

While to discover the world might be my goal when taking photographs, quite some are more interested in asserting themselves that they exist or, differently put, they want to assure themselves of their identity – hence the ubiquity of people taking pictures of themselves and their friends.

Modern man, it seems to me, feels increasingly lost in this vast universe. The more he learns about it, the more incomprehensible it appears to be. No wonder, he looks for something to hold on to – and that might be one of the reasons that the selfies-culture is so dominant nowadays. Look, that's me, I'm here, this proves it – these „certificates of presence“ (Barthes) seem to say.

Photographs, we believe, document reality yet reality exists without being documented. As the Zen proverb states:If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.“ So why then take photographs? Needless to say, there are probably as many answers as they are people taking photographs. For me, it represents what I consider one of the defining characteristics of man: the ability to choose.

When deciding what, when and where to photograph, I'm choosing not only object, location, light, angle and background, I'm also choosing from a vast spectrum of possibilities that I'm often not aware of. A photograph basically states: This is what I chose. It is one of the riddles of life that we are constantly making choices without realising it. Yet to photograph means to consciously choose, to create one's own context, to say: This is how I see it. Also: This is what my eyes were showing me.

To photograph means learning to choose.