Once in a lifetime something unique happens — a birth, a death, a creative moment — and if we’re lucky someone captures it on film. Photographers who follow the journalist’s path (of getting at the real thing, its aura and details, while it’s occurring) make a habit of trying to be in the right place at the right time.
John Collier and Leni Sinclair, two photographers whose work makes up “Show & Tell,” the exhibition that opened at Cass Cafe last Saturday, have been on the spot so many times it’s as if they’ve led a charmed life. We pretty much expect that Collier, who spent three decades harvesting images for the Detroit Free Press, would have consistently showed up where the action was. But Sinclair, who has rarely worked for the aboveground press, also managed to freeze some amazing slices of Detroit cultural history with her 35 mm camera.
As a founding member of the Detroit Artists Workshop in the mid-’60s, Sinclair had a front-row seat on Motor City musical and political doings that we now think of as mythical. The evidence is in a series of eerily classic, black-and-white shots in “Show & Tell”: in 1966, seizing the essence of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s colossal concentration during his gig at the Drome Lounge on Dexter Avenue; in 1968, seeing the self-absorbed and radiantly sexual Jimi Hendrix play Masonic Auditorium; and in 1974, managing to convey the delicacy of Charles Mingus’ hands caressing his bass when the often-volatile jazz genius played the Shelby Hotel.
From the early ’60s to the early ’80s — a marvelous, brutal period of upheaval — Sinclair documented the Detroit-Ann Arbor doings of such icons as the Grateful Dead (1967), the Detroit Black Panthers (1969), John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971), Rosa Parks (1982) and too many others for the Cass Cafe to ever accommodate. Her shot of a 1964 peace demonstration shows the hope and good humor of two young women activists and their picket signs that read: “Stop the bombing! Stop the killing — Yankees Come Home.”
Collier’s contributions to “Show & Tell” cover a wider range of subject matter, while also exploring a different approach to the image. In such pictures as his amazing shot of Mick Jagger getting out of a car in the alley behind Masonic Temple, surrounded by cops, security guards, fans and media types, Collier not only defines the moment in all of its multilayered drama, he also has managed to literally seize the daylight. The result — obtained “back in the day” before managers began to tightly control media access to performers — is as timeless and penetrating as a Renaissance painting.
This “being there” quality that Collier shares with Sinclair shines forth from his portraits of Alice Cooper, Little Richard (joyful in a huge, sumptuous print) and a young, still-slender Aretha Franklin. And in a large shot of the Rolling Stones on stage, Mick is all over Ron Wood’s head like a wild beastie in a tree.
But Collier also has included a number of his computer-manipulated color works in the show, delving into a world of vegetation, flowers, fruits, vegetables and animals (with humans almost an afterthought). In his shot of a produce market in Jamaica, the earth’s cornucopia seems to have overflowed into every last square foot of space. In other photos, Collier has either intensified or deconstructed the color relationships with his computer, so that the idea of “on the spot” has been abandoned in favor of a more synthetic vision. But rather than clashing with the show’s overall feel, these explosions of color hang there like reminders of the other world behind the cultural shenanigans. Mick and Aretha, Trane and Jimi, Sun Ra and Bob Seger — their passions fill our ears and reveries. But the fertile earth that we so easily forget abides patiently and provides by just being there.
“Show & Tell: An Exhibition of Photography by John Collier and Leni Sinclair” is at Cass Cafe (4620 Cass, Detroit) through July 19. Call 313-831-1400.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com