Sometimes it is easy to forget that life is a journey full of unexpected twists. One day on a whim or boredom, I drove four hundred miles from San Antonio to the West Texas crossroads town of Marathon. I pass through Marathon once or twice a year on my way to Big Bend. It’s a good place to stop for coffee. In fact it is the last place to stop for anything for more than a hundred miles when heading into the Bend.
Sitting on the patio of my regular coffee joint was an old man playing the banjo with such eloquence that I had to sit down and listen. Funny, none of the other patrons seemed to notice him there. He was playing and singing tunes straight out of the East Coast folk scene of the 1940s and 50s. Given where he was in far West Texas it was like he had beamed in from another place and time.
That is how I made the acquaintance of Billy Faier. He was genuinely a veteran folk singer, friend of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, traveling companion of Woodie Guthrie, contemporary of Pete Seeger and practitioner of progressive politics. He was old school in ways that are hard to comprehend for the twenty first century. Now at eighty four or eighty five years old he was transplanted to another place altogether.
We spoke for half an hour. He had a bright cheerful manner with plenty of stories which he punctuated with simply beautiful solo banjo music. I bought a couple CDs and told him I’d see him next time I was out that way. Sadly he died before I got back to Marathon. I won’t forget him anytime soon.
I saw jazz saxophonist Will Donato a few years ago at a local festival. It was a single night event set up next to a roundabout in Old Town Helotes, Texas. The equipment was fairly rudimentary with a portable stage, some rather harsh LED lighting and a wireless sound system. Certainly these were not great conditions for available light photography.
There was one thing working in my favor; I could get close to the stage without guards or roadies in the way. As the night progressed I got closer and closer until my camera was on the front edge of the stage. The musicians tolerated my presence and even commented that they hoped I was getting good pictures. Which I’m sure actually meant something like ‘please go away and take that camera with you’. I persevered.
Lights were hung above the stage in the front and back. At first it looked like I could take advantage of the stage lighting if the musicians were individually lit. That was not to be. Once night fell they cranked all the lights across the stage. Worst of all it was difficult to find shooting angles without lights intruding in the frame. The hot bright circles overwhelmed everything else in the frame. I told myself the music was the thing, even if I didn’t shoot anything.
Getting in close to the stage was a big advantage in avoiding lights in the frame. Some of the time I was able to use equipment and musicians to mask the direct lights. With careful framing it was possible eliminate lights or push them to the edges. This left me with high contrast directional light on the performers and very dark backgrounds. It reminded me of jazz photos from the 50s where photographers popped flash bulbs close to the musicians. Only the performers were lit, everything outside of flash range being completely black. Excellent, I was channeling early William Claxton, at least in my mind.
Most of the RAW files shot that night have remained unprocessed until recently. My post processing skills were not up to the task of working with the extreme lighting conditions. Now I am able to produce decent finished images from some of the frames. Over time I’ve learned a great deal from the images shot that night. They have helped me understand the dynamics of working in an uncontrolled performance environment. In the end that is the real value of my night’s work.
The heyday of Jazz performance photography is long over. The great masters of the genre and the musicians they captured on film are gone. Those wonderful gritty dark club interiors were of course captured on film.
As far as I know the best album covers ever printed were for jazz LPs in the fifties and early sixties. They were often as avant-garde as the music itself. They mirrored qualities of the music transposed to the visual medium. Maybe you can tell I’m a jazz buff.
Every now and then I try my hand at jazz photography. For one thing I can’t resist music. In this era jazz musicians they are something exotic. They have a presence that may have been overlooked when the music was more common. Of course the best players were never main stream for the pop audience. You had to pay attention to the music and the musicians. They demanded that the audience be up to their standards.