Jesse’s book review, The Jazz Loft Project by W. Eugene Smith
Jesse is back and he shares with us a piece of work that he has wanted to have on here for a while. I know that Jesse is a big time Jazz fan, so this work really stands out. A fantastic review.
There is no photographer more comprehensive then W. Eugene Smith. One only has to look at his attempted Pittsburg project to understand the level of immersion to which Smith delves into upon undertaking a photographic assignment. Among them arguably his most moving was A Country Doctor taken for Life Magazine chronicling a doctor in Colorado and of course his work in the pacific during WWII. But it was always that Pittsburgh project that remained his ultimate project and really the one that drove him nearly mad trying to complete. After being denied funding to complete what was to be a three week project that was at a three year mark, he left Life magazine and his family and rented out a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City. His stay at this little unassuming loft from 1957-1965 makes up the content of this book as the loft became the go to after spot for jazz musicians in the NYC.
You got to understand after the 1960s jazz would be all but dead, but the 50s and 60s saw its greatest peaks with the constant innovations from the Bebop. Everyone from Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus to Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins played at this loft. This in turn created an atmosphere that saw the likes of Robert Frank, Diana Airbus, Henri-Cartier Bresson as well as the local pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, and also photography students. Not only did he shoot over 40,000 photos from this loft, but he also wired the loft to audio recorded daily what amounted to over 4,000 hours of recordings. Of the photos, 227 can be found here.
The photos of this project are made from either within the apartment or from his window looking out. The photos made from within consist of jazz artists, the visitors, the rooms, and the details. A few of his photographs of these artists have since become album covers; the cropped head image of Thelonious Monk alone is iconic. There is also an attention to the hands of the jazz musicians as everything except for the voice is really made with the hands. These photos exhibiting the handcraft of music are really beautiful and are something we overlook.
Among the rest of the photos, you can see the varying degrees of control Smith has on his art with shots perfectly over or under exposed to accompany the mood of the musicians, different depths of focus being used, and general moments that are just captured perfectly. We see the musicians wiping of sweat in between sessions, a pile of cigarettes under the stool of the pianist, and Smith’s cat Tabun (Japanese for maybe) curled next to a bass and other equipment. It is all some of the best work of Jazz musicians I have seen, even more so than Herman Leonard. I say this only because of the situation and subsequent honesty. Herman Leonard shot his artists for the most part on the big stage with them at their best, however here Smith is catching these guys after the bars have closed and the crowds are gone. He is shooting them when they are only playing for love. There is honesty in these that I really feel and as a failed trumpeter myself I never got to see, but now can understand the love and sole dedication it takes to play at this level.
The photos taken from out his window are shot with several cameras with different film speeds and varying high millimeter lenses. This for me makes up the most interesting photos of the book as we essentially see a New York City block over the span of eight years. I always had a loose idea to make a short film having a city street as the main character and really photographically this is what he does. We see the street under both the sun and moon, and in rain and snow. Many of the photos utilize the foreground in a natural ways. One is framing the fire escape stairwell in a shots foreground. These bars serve to trap his subjects as they make their ways through the city. He also uses holes in his black curtains to create interesting compositions. At times this street is busy and at others empty. These few solemn strangely affect me and can be seen in his photograph of a lone fire hydrant reflected in a water puddle from a night rain. We see people getting in and out of vehicles, stories of people trying to catch a cab, or moving various items in these photos. The only constants are the fixed aerial perspective and the street itself.
Because this is for Japan Camera Hunter and people are primarily interested in photos here, I pointed out the photographic reasons for buying this book…but the real reason anyone should buy this book is for the audio recordings he did. Even more comprehensive than his photos are his audio recordings. He would literally wake up, take out a reel label it, and throw in another and press record and go about his day. The obvious result from these recordings is the chance to hear new jazz from a lot of major artist as they played not for money but for the camaraderie and love often experimenting and turning out really great jazz. Heard they are cleaning up the quality and going to release some of these and as a jazz fan this is huge. But not only the recording but the conversations they have in between from the more comical with Zoot Sims expressing a desire to Smith to get into photography to the more serious.
The one recording that stood out to me was of Blue Note pianist Sonny Clark. He remains today one of the most influential pianist of all time and his original compositions have now become jazz standards in any live acts repertoire. There is a recording of him just after injecting heroine in which he nearly overdoses. The whole situation is caught on a recording in which his friend is trying get Clark to snap out of it and Clark in haze muses on the greatness of Charlie Parker. I believe a few months after this recording (as they are timed in dated in the book) I had checked and his masterpiece Cool Struttin’ was just released months after this recording. He would finally suffer a heart attack brought on by drugs at an early age (very similar to Smith himself). Other recordings include what sounds to be Smith in a dark room with sports on the television (it was heard in a recording he covered the TV with a red tint as he was a sports nut). There was full recording of an English interview with Mishima Yukio overheard on the TV or readings of F. Scott Fitzgerald on the radio, all really amazing as they are given in this book word per word through his recordings.
“I’ve learned more about photography from music and literature than I have from anything else… ” Smith said in one of the recordings. If you are not interested in the jazz or these cultural aspects in a lot of these recordings then just Smith’s thoughts on the medium are worth it. The topics of conversation he jumps from range from a perfect understanding of jazz, literature, sports, drugs, and of course photography. You really understand something I have always believed and this is in the quote that began this paragraph. I can meet a photographer, not see his work yet get a good reading of how good his photography will be based on his love or appreciation for other mediums like literature, music, painting, or film. Smith in a lot of his conversation will bring this up as he has many photography students as free assistants in many of the recordings. So if anything take this book as a challenge to that sentiment. This book is available for purchase from pretty much anywhere. As Smith says, (recorded from the loft) “See, actually I’m doing a book about this building itself…out the window and within the building, because it’s quite a weird, interesting story.” It is.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Another great one Jesse, you can really feel your passion for the subject and the music. I can imagine you listen to the recordings over and over as you put this together. Brilliant work. Thank you so much.
Gene is my Hero. His most important saying is: The photojournalist should take the side of the subject, not the magazine or publisher. There was a time when photography changed the world, It still could do it, not with sensation ( That we have already too much ) but human drama. Gene was the prototype of a photographer who didn`t compromise. He paid a high price for it. The jazz images are just part of his legacy. The radio programs are also very interesting to hear that are made from his tapes.
I can agree with that quote and he lived right through that time…it is an interesting little segment in his life…and really amazing to just ease drop for 8 years on his life…
Great review of a book I also have and enjoy. I am also a huge jazz listener and enthusiast, so it is nice in life to have two interests meld together: jazz and photography. Monk said “Well You Needn’t” but I am glad you did. Thanks.
Thank you! I felt the same way when i first heard about the book!