Baskets of light

Posted: June 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

Images by Eric Jenks, one of 10 area music photographers whose work is on display through July 30 at the Arts Center Gallery.

Impasse + Motion
The Arts Center Gallery
320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – On this we might all agree: The still photography of live music performance is a unique, wonderful, and very curious thing.

Curious, of course, because the main ingredients of music – sounds – are entirely absent from photos “documenting” the event of the performance.

So they don’t really “document,” do they? We might be tempted to say, then, that a photo “captures” a “moment” in time. These “moments,” however, are rarely clearly ID’d with anything more precise than a date; in most cases only a year is given. How then, are they “capturing” a “moment,” when it is clear that we are not even concerned about which moment was “captured?”

As a point of no fixed duration “instant” is not quite the same as “moment.” Whereas “moment” suggests merely a slice of an event, instant suggests both creation and spontaneity. Hence the current show at the Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY: Impasse + Motion: 10 Photographers’ Journey Through Instants in Music.

Exhibitor Lawrence White left, and exhibitor/curator Andrzej Pilarczek.


There does indeed seem to be a duality between the “flow” which is music, which is sound waves, which nevertheless presents a “whole” that presents us with the appearance of a “thing” made up of things (i.e. a note, a crescendo, a song), and the “still” image which seems to “stop” the flow at some point, to grab a slice of it, say, 1/250th of a second’s worth.

If we think of an “instant” rather than a moment, however, we are reminded that we are not so much looking at a slice of a “thing” or “idea,” but at a new thing or idea which is not entirely separate from the performance it reflects, but neither is it in any way a “piece” of it.

Photos of musicians (and sometimes audiences) in concert and around performance venues (which can and do include the streets) “capture” such intangibles as the “energy”, “attitude”, “humor”, “joy”, even “mystery.” In other words there is plenty to intrigue us in music photography.

Of course these qualities are not “captured” as they are not, by definition, tangibles. At best they might be reflected but even here there is a sort of difficulty as these ideas are not general thought of as visible in themselves … what then?
Do we say they that the photographs are “visual manifestations” of these qualities?

That sounds hazy at best.

Rather than to talk about “documents,” we need to treat musical performance photography as art … sometimes specifically as a type of portraiture – though not always portraiture. Why not always? In some cases there is a subject but in others the main figure in the viewfinder becomes more of a model or even a mannequin or even further reduced to a mere “element” … particularly when the photographic medium is used as illustration, as often is the case in the print media.

Not to distract the reader any more than necessary … the problem of specific art form becomes more of a problem when one realizes that music photography often blurs that very distinction I have just tried to make.

In the language of Marcel Proust when we look at a photographic work of art we are looking at a kind of resurrection: It is not a piece of an event or time nor is it a substitute for the event itself or a mere document but it is a new event which embodies the spirit of the event from which it springs.

Taking the work of accomplished area music photographers now displayed at the Arts Center for example, one could point out that Eric Jenks’s profile of Brad Paisley is an action portrait. It is elegantly and simply composed, there are no distractions from the subject and the subject is clearly recognizable and expressive.

It is a picture of Paisley doing what Paisley does, which is to entertain, and there is a real sense of joy about that.

Portraits, however, do not depend on the identity of the subject for their artistic value. It’s nice to know something about the subjects of portraits but, even lacking any such information, we still enjoy old paintings in museums, strangers in old photographs, etc.

Jenks’s photo of young folk artist Kyle Miller is a little different. Here, the identity of the performer may not be nearly as obvious as with Paisley. Setting is much more a part of the picture. If we have seen Miller perform, on the street or in a concert setting, we recognize the energy and confidence: In this picture he is clearly singing out and that helps us identify the singer … if we already know him. But subject identity seems to matter even less here than in the photograph of Paisley.

It’s not really a portrait. It’s more of a scene. This is an illustrative photograph although … I must confess … as I return to this photograph again and again I see more of Kyle Miller and less of an illustration. This is not simple stuff.

Note, however, that the aspect of portraiture is not at all dependent upon detail.

Ed Burke’s striking photograph of Steve Winwood utilizes a black silhouette of the subject against a red background with some other elements including the drumkit and a bass player. We see only the silhouette of Winwood, yet his somewhat delicate, angular features are instantly recognizable to those of us who know him. As his music touches on – well more than touches on – mysteries, the absence of visual details in his image makes it a strong portrait — possibly stronger than one which would include details of his features in various shadings and values.

I think it’s an action portrait but, again, the artistic value of a portrait doesn’t depend upon the viewer actually recognizing the subject.

Taking a look at Joseph Deuel’s selections, we experience much diversity of form: One could certainly call the shadowy, mysterious, high-contrast photo of Jack Bruce a portrait … in the best tradition of the first Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.

If we look at more of Deuel’s work, we see great variety: Deuel illustrates what I might call the uncoiling energy of Hüsker Dü; joy in making music expressed by The Figgs … furthermore, he shows us the pricelessness of what I would call the “artistic snapshot” in a photograph of the late Lena Spencer and the late John Hartford in conversation and in a photograph of Dave Van Ronk, clowning a bit with friends including Anna McGarrigle, Paul Geremia and the late Bruce Phillips. It’s this kind of photo that comes closest to describing a “moment” … as well as an instant … because such scenes are clearly never repeated.

What may be one of the show’s strongest pieces is like that: Sylvia Aronson’s photo of members of the African-American Choral Ensemble singing out of doors in a street or alley, presumably alongside the facility hosting the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. This photo has it all going on: The simple joy of making music is clearly shared in this spontaneous though aesthetically pleasing photograph.

Holly & Evan provide music for attendees, exhibitors and staff at a very well-attended June 4 opening at the Arts Center Gallery. The duo followed Nancy Walker.


Lawrence White offers a charming Sarah McLachlan that reflects the same spontaneity. It’s in McLachlan’s little hint of a smile, the casual angle of her baseball cap (backwards) and the fact that she appears to be in stride. So it’s not a sitting portrait but it’s not what you’d call a snapshot, even an artistic one, either.

An interesting example of a portrait not depending on the identity of the subject is curator Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photograph of Flavor Flav. It’s a beautifully composed photo full of color and texture, yet, in his gallery talk at an opening reception Saturday, June 4, Pilarczyk apologized for including it … as if the idea of an artist going in or out of style or notoriety or whatever has something to do with a photograph.

Now this is a sticky wicket: Here’s where an idea of fashionability of subject comes into play. More into play when it comes to the idea of owning and collecting photographs such as these. Will the popularity of a Brad Paisley or a John Mayer, outweigh the artistic merit of a photograph simply because the subject of the latter is out of style? When it comes to selling a print, certainly. Pilarczyk also is represented by a beautifully composed photograph of Jack Ingram, a great, frame-filling shot of James Cotton and a remarkable shot of Esperanza Spalding, among other things. I’m glad he included his photo of Flavor Flav, though, becomes it tends to make us question artistic values.

Don McKever’s photo of Miles Davis, with his colorful attire, set against a solid black background, sort of raises that question, too. It’s a really sharp, moody photograph of Miles. Since it’s Miles … maybe it’s more collectible than Pilarczyk’s Flavor Flav. Is it really more timeless? Nope … only the subject seems to be.

It’s not all about “cool,” either, Miles Davis fans: Check out the intensity in the face of McKever’s Airto Moreira.

What about Joe Putrock’s 1995 photo of Rancid? This is a little different. Here, intense energy is on display as a guitarist wheels his guitar into a blur while his face remains relatively motionless and thus clear in the photo. Mohawks may be out of style but the energy is all rock &roll. This photo could easily be included in any Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll … the attitude and energy on display trumps the relative “stature” of the artist. I recall a famous photograph of a rockabilly performer named Ersel Hickey. The performer is not well-known but his stance in the photo is timeless. That’s the sense I get from Putrock’s photo and it may not be his most “saleable” item on display here: The touch of “glam” from Stone Temple Pilots and the wonderful contact sheet of Sarah McLachlan are quite desirable as art objects. Even better … Putrock’s assembly of photobooth images of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (“Phantogram”) into a cohesive piece … an intriguing postmodern art photo treatment of an intriguing musical act.

Classical composition still works, of course, as Albert W. Brooks’s 2008 photographic of harpist Edmar Castaneda demonstrates. As the musical instrument commands as much attention as the face which, after all, is turned to look out of the softly and evenly lit photograph and away from the viewer, it is perhaps not so much a portrait as a stylish and interesting even as it an uncluttered and minimal image.

By this point it’s becoming more and more clear that the photography of music is quite a complex discipline. One can debate whether or not it’s a “pure” art form. I don’t find so much value in that because I like what I see. We can certainly say that the still photography of music reflects some of the boundlessness of the music itself as well as its richness and variety. And we can see that it even reflects shifting values of music’s audience.

Pilarczyk also noted that it’s a somewhat fragile medium, that images, especially the old film type needed to assemble what amounts to a retrospective of area performance music photography dating from the 1970s, can be misplaced or lost. He was using a little bit of hyperbole … joking a bit, in fact. His humor and his point were “lost” … neither, for that matter, were some of the “phantom” images he described.

Pilarczyk was astute to point out Rudy Lu’s 2010 photograph of Nona Hendryx at the edge of the stage at Schenectady’s Central Park Music Haven. Here the performer is confronted by cellphone cameras held aloft by audience members … a quiet absurdity that speaks of both intimacy and lack of intimacy (the devices) between the performer and the audience. It also points out the fact that in this digital age, the audience member tends to also be a “recorder.” Nearly every live performance leaves some sort of digital record … but that’s not what photography is.

No … photography, Pilarczyk reminds us, is more akin to painting with light. It’s evident in Lu’s photo of a sunglassed Kurt Elling in crisp, colorful detail, at the front and viewers left of the photo, looking to his right, with the bass player in silhouette at the back, facing the opposite direction … an elegant composition that is a painting in light.

That’s something all of the exhibiting photographers have in common: An uncommon ability to paint with light — in this case, with musical performance as the theme. It’s a high-energy show with some interesting and, I think, very collectible images on view.

— RS Preuss

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