Photographers and American Jazz, 1900-1960′ – London Jazz News

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Alan John Ainsworth – Sight reading: Photographers andd American Jazz, 1900-1960

(Intellect Books, hardcover, 472 pages. Book review by Andy Hamilton)

This exciting and beautifully crafted book tackles a neglected issue in jazz studies: the nature of the images that have amply illustrated writing about the medium. Alan John Ainsworth examines the work of American jazz photographers through the first sixty years of the 20th century. Drawing on extensive archival research, it examines the appeal of jazz as a visual subject and the various types of photographers who have specialized in it, analyzing their approach. The book is informed by contemporary photographic theory and has a foreword by Darius Brubeck.

Among the issues addressed by Ainsworth are the image of jazz as document and expression, document and realism, authenticity and photographic art. It has an insightful discussion of neglected areas, including studio publicity portraiture, the canonization of white photographers that has been widely accepted in jazz literature, and work done for the segregated press. Ainsworth is a photographer and photography historian, and a specialist in architectural and musical photography. As the blurb says, it “asks how photographers have defined jazz as a space of aesthetic, cultural, and political significance.”

Central to his criticism is the assertion that “although photography has been widely used by jazz writers, it has mostly been illustrative material rather than a historical source requiring critical interpretation”. Roy Porter is quoted commenting that the training of historians “encourages us to assume the primacy of written records”. Peter Burke comments that historians rarely work in photographic archives and “tend to treat [photographic images]as mere illustrations, reproducing them in their books without commentary”. Ainsworth cites Krin Gabbard’s 1995 anthology Jazz among the speeches as a key to broadening perspective and embracing visual evidence.

The issue is reminiscent of the neglect of film music in film studies – in fact, it’s the reverse of that. Many great film directors – Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders for example – have an intuitive understanding of the contribution of music to cinema. But others have a functional attitude to film music and seem unaware of how music works. How many jazz writers have understood the power of the photographic image, and its contribution to writing about jazz? Very little I would say.

Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill.
Minton’s Playhouse, New York, NY, ca. September 1947.
Photo by William F. Gottlieb. Public domain

An example of Ainsworth’s insightful analysis is his discussion of a photograph every jazz fan should know – William Gottlieb’s image of Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill outside Minton’s Playhouse in 1947 (shown here) above). I’ve seen this iconic image many times, but like most jazz writers, I hadn’t really thought about its meaning. Ainsworth comments that “renditions of photography dissolve the development of bebop into a small subculture outside of conventional life”. He points out that Roy Eldridge was not a bebopper and, unlike the other participants, is not dressed in bebop fashion. However, I’m not convinced he was that out of place here – he was a transitional figure who worked with beboppers.

The book is not easy to read. Despite its beautiful illustrations, it is a weighty academic work and its theoretical framework is guided, as Ainsworth writes, by British scholar Margaret Archer. The basic premise of the book is that “photography is a form of practical engagement in the real world and photography a site of reflexivity” – “the conscious human process through which we make sense of the world and our identity by her bosom”. Ainsworth is a writer who doesn’t believe in what I call “signalling” – helping the reader follow the argument through summaries and links between explanations. Those who choose not to read the book cover to cover will still gain a great deal by delving into it. Sight readings is a groundbreaking contribution to his subject and offers many insights to the patient reader.

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