It's not often you get to see side-by-side two very different artists approaching the same material, but that's exactly what's on display in a moving exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. The subject matter, broadly speaking, is jazz music, and the photographers are Milt Hinton and Lee Friedlander. To borrow a metaphor from American football of their era, the two men are Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.
In 1957, one of Hinton's students, David Berger, came across a pile of negatives and contact sheets in Hinton's apartment. It wasn't long before Hinton's photographs were being taken very seriously, and not just those of the jazz world. But within that world of jazz, his work provides the kind of backstage perspective few could match. Matched with an uncanny ability to capture the essence of people within the moment, to tell their story with subtle directness, it makes these pictures masterful.
The most famous photograph in jazz history may be the one Art Kane took for Esquire magazine, of New York's jazz men gathered on a Harlem stoop. It's been the subject of its own documentary, A Great Day In Harlem (1998), in which Hinton and his own photographs (as well as 8mm movie footage taken by his wife Mona) featured greatly. Hinton captured the camaraderie of these musicians—in the unusual situation of all being awake and about early in their days; and the joy of the day, as well as the jostling for a good position in the final photo, is plain to see. They tell you more about the people that you could ever divine from the group shot.
But there are much less joyful images too, that tear at the heart. We see Holiday in the studio, in 1957. Hinton's focused on her, and the soft background turns Count Basie, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones into almost ethereal presences behind her haloed intensity. Two years later, she's back in the studio, and it's as if the life has been drained from her bones; Hinton catches her with a drink, bent over before the microphone, all that halo disappeared.
Sobering in a different way are the shots of his band mates on tour. Beyond the telling picture of Danny Barker and Gillespie sleeping in their seats on a train, there are many shots of musicians posed in front of whites-only hotels, lunch joints, restrooms—places they can't leave their bus to enter. In another, Mona poses with Ike Quebec, Doc Cheetam and others, pointing to the 'Motel For Colored' sign behind them. Those contrast with the relaxed feel of musicians lined up in 1955 at the bar at Beefsteak Charlie's in New York, men at work relaxing in their environment. Hinton was an innovator with the 'slap bass', and there's a raucous improvisational feel at work here.
Beyond that there's a magnificent shot of Cannonball Adderly, contemplating ten pages of unfolded sheet music stretched out in front of him, as if to answer those who felt jazz musicians were simply following 'natural talents'. There's a dissipated Gene Krupa, looking as tragic as Holiday, and a young Sam Cooke radiant behind the glass in a recording booth. And there's a stunning portrait of Ike Quebec, with pianist Freddie Roach behind him, blowing the blues in the Blue Note studios in 1961. Hinton catches every instinct of jazz music, the way it expressed such a multitude of feelings, often contradictory, of genius refusing to be stifled, and humanity refusing to be denied. As both musician and photographer, this was the core of Hinton.
There's a similar sense of humanity in Friedlander's work, but it approaches the subject from a different perspective. Born in 1934, Friedlander is Mr. Outside. He studied in Los Angeles, but moved to New York where he worked as a freelance photographer for outlets as varied as Esquire and Sports Illustrated, as well as doing liner photos for Atlantic Records. As a jazz fan, he visited New Orleans in 1958, and wound up accompanying jazz historians William Russell and Richard Allen as they visited local musicians to collect field recordings and oral histories for their recently- established archive at Tulane University.
For almost three decades, Friedlander visited New Orleans regularly and photographed the city's culture of jazz. In a sense, he was following in the footsteps of E.J. Bellocq, plates of whose photographs of Storyville, the red-light district, from about 1912 were discovered only after Bellocq's deah. Friedlander obtained the plates, developed them the same sort of paper Bellocq used, and eventually issued them in three books which established Bellocq's unique record of his city.
Friedlander's own photographs are remarkable for their composition, which sets his subjects into, and sometimes against, a wider landscape. Certainly he's brilliant at catching the motion behind emotion: whether it's the young girls in the 'second line' (Second Liners, 1968) or Dixieland veterans playing in Preservation Hall (1982). But where Hinton's musicians pose ironically in front of 'whites-only' or 'colored motel' signs, Friedlander makes his own irony; one of his most famous photos is a shot of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band (1959) marching, through the rain, in front of a Pepsi-Cola billboard, from which a well-coiffed white model brandishes a Pepsi bottle alongside the slogan 'Look Smart'.
The incongruity of this African-American music, celebrating the joy and pain of life within a culture often in direct, and always in cultural opposition to it, is Friedlander's unlying theme. The masonic apron worn by one of the members in a shot of Dejan's Olympia Brass Band (1982), the portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall behind the bluesman Robert Pete Williams (1973). Jesus and a bird cage are the only ornaments as he shoots Williams in situ, and those portraits may be even more powerful than the photographs of the jazz swagger of the bands. Kid Thomas Valentine's stylised wire trumpets climb the wall behind him, alongside a portrait of Martin Luther King. Albert Burbank's meagre surroundings are enlivened by a small artificial Christmas tree, standing on the box it came in. Louis Keppard sits in his chair playing his guitar, framed by the window curtains behind him, with the feel of a Goya portrait of a saint.
It's a fascinating mix of spontaneity and planning, much like jazz music itself, and it takes its freshness and its power from Friedlander's not being a New Orleans native, not being a musician, not taking this for granted, not seeing things from the inside, as if they were the way they've always been. And oddly, the image whose impression I took away most tellingly was his portrait of Ann 'Mama Cookie' Cook (1958). She sits in a short-backed wooden chair, in a good dress and a head-scarf, in a small alleyway between two ranshackle houses. Her eyes are closed, her back is straight. It speaks of dignity, strength, and of the wearing-down struggle with life in the American South in the Fifties, the struggle which music did so much to help them overcome.
JAZZ LIVES: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MILT HINTON AND LEE FRIEDLANDER
Yale University Art Gallery New Haven Connecticut through 7 September 2014
photo credits: all Lee Friedlander photographs c. and courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery
all Milt Hinton photographs c.and courtesy of Milton J Hinton Photographic Collection (www.milthinton.com)