EDUCATION | EXHIBITIONS: ONE LP@DOCUMENTING JAZZ_2020
Documenting Jazz: Birmingham City University 16 - 18 January 2020
Birmingham City University is pleased to host the second edition of the conference.
Focused on this year’s theme, ways of documenting, it brings together delegates from across the academic, archive, library, and museum sectors to explore and discuss proposals on jazz as visual culture, and its distinct representations: photography, press, cinema, television, and web.
The conference is hosting two exhibitions of photographs. Jazz Journeys: Everyday Life Exhibition - a collaborative pilot research project by Brian Homer and Dr. Pedro Cravinho on contemporary jazz musicians living in Birmingham.
The One LP Project: Re-imagining the music based photographic portrait
Re-imagining the jazz photographic portrait is part of a wider practice-based research project that explores the ways we can use the photographic image and words to capture something of the place of recorded music in our cultural identity. This collaborative is led by William Ellis – a professional photographer specialising in images of jazz performance and Prof Tim Wall – a popular music studies academic whose work ranges across jazz and other forms of black popular music, their mediation and their reception by British audiences.
At the heart of the larger project are a series of 350 photographic portraits of individuals who play significant roles in popular music culture.
Re-imagining the jazz photographic portrait is the latest iteration of Ellis and Wall’s research, built around an exhibition of photographs presented at the second Documenting Jazz conference held at BCU in January 2020 as part of an exploration of the conference’s focus on ways of documenting jazz through visual culture. The project seeks to capture the inspirational qualities of jazz recordings and the impact that they have on people’s lives. Each portrait features the subject holding a recording that is of fundamental importance to them. The photograph is accompanied by a short interview that explores the meaning and value of the selected album.
The decade-long collaboration between Ellis and Wall has focused on a continuing discussion about how we represent jazz culture through the visual image, and the possibilities of reimagining jazz portraiture in ways that capture new ways of seeing our relationship with recorded music and its place in our lives. William Ellis first exhibited his One LP Project at ARChive of Contemporary Music, Tribeca, New York in September 2014, and Ellis and Wall have furthered Ellis’ initial ideas through a series of parallel projects, including One 45, which looked at the British northern soul scene, and One Love, a collaboration with the University of West Indies in Kingston exploring reggae culture in Jamaica, Britain and the USA.
This work has been disseminated to academics and creative practitioners across arrange of fields’ and to the popular music communities with whom we have worked, through six exhibitions, five conferences and a dedicated academic publication hosted by Research Catalogue.
Using a ‘pop-up’ exhibition format the Re-imagining the jazz photographic portrait invites conference attendees to explore what a single jazz record has meant to them through a portrait which captures their place in jazz culture and an interview which articulates the place of the record in their lives. Two of the exhibition portraits are reproduced in this manifesto, and the whole exhibition, and all images and interviews in the wider project can be found at onelp.org The rest of this short exhibition sets out a distilled manifesto which has guided the ongoing research and the many exhibitions.
Re-imagining the jazz photographic portrait: a manifesto for documenting the place of recorded music in our cultural identity
The theme of this year’s Documenting Jazz conference, ‘Ways of Documenting’, draws upon the ideas of John Berger that he disseminated through his essays, books and creative works. From the late 1960s and early 1970s, Berger engaged in a critical analysis and radical rethink of the visual culture of western societies. Berger’s most influential contribution is to be found in the 1972 television series and book, Ways of Seeing. Our act of re-imagining the jazz photographic portrait builds on the analysis Tim presented in the conference welcome address, which applied the issues generated by Berger’s approach more broadly to documenting jazz (2020). Our practice-based research focuses on alternative ways in which we can document jazz through photography. We seek to present musicians and their relationship to recorded music in new relationships, and in doing so we re-engineering the dominant ways of documenting jazz and jazz musicians, emphasising their agency, giving voice to the way they relate to records, and reposition our gaze when we look. We take Berger’s statement in Ways of Seeing that “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (1972, 7), and seek to ‘unsettle’ what we see in, and know about, jazz through portrait photography. In our Re-imagining the Jazz Photographic Portrait exhibition, we invite you to ask questions about the way that jazz photography has established a formal relationship between an objectified musician and a romanticised representation of jazz culture. These are core questions about the way the documents of jazz culture invite us to interpret jazz of the past and present, the way that musicians articulate that relationship of past and present, and the way that our gaze as the onlooker meets their gaze as the subject and object of the photograph.
Jazz, but beautiful?
Geoff Dyer dedicates his 1996 monograph, But Beautiful: a book about jazz, to John Berger and opens the book with ‘A Note on Photographs’ in which he explicitly talks about an image created by the celebrated jazz photographer Milt Hinton, and he later cites the work of Carole Reiff. This was noteworthy in 1996 and remains pertinent today because photographs as documents of jazz culture continue to evade our critical attention. Because of its brevity, Dyer’s points in But Beautiful make a relatively modest contribution to our understanding of jazz photography. Nevertheless, in linking theorist Berger to jazz photographers Hinton and Reiff, Dyer offers a first attempt to bring together cultural criticism with the images created through photographic practice.
It remains remarkable that so little has been done to critique and build upon Dyer’s ‘first attempt’, especially as our collective understanding of jazz photography has increased so much in the last twenty-five years. Put another way, while we now understand so much more about ‘some’ jazz photographs, the domains of jazz studies and visual communication have provided very little insight into the dominant modes of that photography, how these modes fit within jazz culture and how we could understand these images as a document of jazz. Additionally, while jazz studies as a field has become increasingly successful at integrating the cultural study of jazz with creative performance practice, it has not yet started to embrace the possibility of integrating the cultural study of jazz and jazz creative performance practice with the creative practice of those who document jazz culture. This project is an exploration of how that could be done.
Our collaboration started in another practice-based project aimed at putting the experience of the 2009 Scarborough Jazz Festival online (see Wall and Dubber, 2010). The idea of a long-term exploratory project began to emerge at the Jazz and the Media symposia held at BCU in October 2010 (see Wall and Barber, 2010), and at an exhibition of Ellis’ first One LP portraits at Rhythm Changes II: Rethinking Jazz Cultures in April 2013, University of Salford. Since then we have presented iterations of the work at the 2016 Rhythm Changes: Jazz Utopia conference at BCU. It is entirely appropriate, then, that this next iteration of our collaboration should be at Documenting Jazz II.
Our manifesto statement
Re-imagining the jazz photographic portrait aim to move from existing documents of jazz to new ways of documenting jazz; from seeing jazz to new ways of seeing jazz. In creating the images Ellis was guided by our joint manifesto:
1. photography should be a reflexive process to document jazz through its creators – the images were produced by emphasising the human relationships between photographer and photographed, and being aware of the mediating and editing functions of the photographer and exhibition curator;
2. image and words are equals in documenting jazz – we exhibit both a single shot from each photographic session, but also words derived from an interview with the subject that explains their choice of LP;
3. we should move beyond the rhetoric, affect and art of photographic image-making – creating personal, direct and context-appropriate images which and avoid the mythologies of jazz and their photographic tropes;
4. we will give voice to musicians – by treating the photographed as agents, not objects and capturing their words as a way of explaining their images;
5. we will construct jazz as a lived experience determined by the individual subject and the places we encounter them, avoiding any romanticised essentialism that dominates jazz photography.
In articulating his approach to the photographer process, Ellis emphasises a commitment to producing a body of work that is “completely personal”, that “captures the ‘personality' of the person by bringing the photograph out of a personal relationship that generates “a unique and intimate interaction between photographer and musician”.
He describes the process as an “opening of the heart” and talks about encouraging his photographic subjects to “revisit their inspirations”, “to see them go back in time; to reconnect and re-view the album that means so much to them”.