Facets of darkness

Improvising on a jazz theme with a still camera.

by

There are many intentional parallels between master photographer Roy DeCarava’s approach and technique, and those of the disciplines of the jazz form and the blues aesthetic. These are the themes of The Sound I Saw.

The particular challenge for a photographer of DeCarava’s ilk is to be present and strategically placed at the possible convergence of a cerebral, emotional and aesthetic admixture, and then to record and therefore preserve such a moment in a blink. Each of the art forms — jazz or photography — is at its best when it is of the moment, with all parts and possibilities in harmony, sustained by tension and grace.

Jazz pushes through and past such moments, moving instantly to the next and then the next, and, as noted by saxophonist Eric Dolphy, “After it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” Not so, proves DeCarava in his book of portrayals of instances — images that dance on the penumbra periphery of our awareness and echo like melodies from dreams.

DeCarava’s results are, however, in no way casually considered or haphazard. Like jazz solos that tell a story, often in whispers rather than shouts, they transfer the energy reflected from the experience of the moment at the moment of its being. We weren’t there, but DeCarava’s photographs allow us to be there now.

They are, also, a study in the possibilities of working in two dimensions. His compositions rival the studied layouts of da Vinci, Mondrian or Vermeer. They are a pure balance of shapes, shades, horizontals and verticals. That DeCarava accomplished them under the serendipitous circumstances of natural light continues the jazz parallel.

Because of the poor light conditions under which many of the photos were taken — interiors with low-watt bulbs, nightclub stage spotlights, back-stage or rehearsal-hall fluorescence, late-night streetlamp light — DeCarava, who eschews electronic flash, had to work with shadows in their many permutations. The results are images coated in minor-key tones, from shiny pitch-black to misty grays with the subtlety of the truths discovered by Huck Finn in the darkness of the Mississippi fog. When there is an occasional patch, splash, blotch or smear of a white highlight in the image’s film-noir feel, it is jarring and startling as a cymbal crash.

Thus captured, these photos offer human beings being their individual selves, whether musicians, coal haulers, children, commuters, new mothers, nappers, cab hailers or jazz fans; whether in the spotlight, sunlight, half-light or shadow; whether engaged in private thoughts or the delights of creativity.

Never is it the scandal-sheet voyeurism of a Weegee nor the freak-show fascination of a Diane Arbus. Contemplating DeCarava’s people, often the unnoticed ordinary, does not cause pangs of conscience, but nods of recognition, and a sense of accord and reconciliation with the world.

The photographs are not presented chronologically or separated by subject. In a like manner, there is no index for the uninitiated to help identify the places, people or times pictured. With only cursory scrutiny, this might seem to be an arbitrary arrangement — for example, the juxtaposition of the face of an abandoned tenement with quiltlike patches of broken windows overleaf from a quartet of jamming bass players; chiffon-gowned Ella Fitzgerald wrapped in fur, overleaf from a frilly aproned woman at an ironing board — but as with the best improvisation, offering the chance to create one’s own analogies, metaphors and plots.

An underlying, often ironic logic is plausible in these parings. A hint of those possibilities wafts and weaves among the photos like nightclub smoke, a Lamont Cranston narration or a piano accompaniment behind a soloist, in the impressionistic, short-line musings of DeCarava. His elliptical and laconic comments accompany the images. They are at times teasing, seductive and Zen-like, and encourage the viewer to read the photographs as emotive rather than as simply informative.

Jazz in performance is the central subject of this large-format book. The blues aesthetic, or the attempt to find the universal in the everyday and give witness to it, is a ruling principle of these photographs, which are, to appropriate a Leopold Senghor phrase, “shot with lightning and thunder.”

If you’re a fan of photography, jazz, art, observing a master at his craft, well-produced books or humanity, consider The Sound I Saw. It makes both a muted and a joyful noise.

Bill Harris writes about jazz and other passions for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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