Bill Smith

Photography

Click any image for larger view. Or view slideshow
Peter Kowald Herb Robertson Ned Rothenberg
Garbo's Hat Evan Parker & Barry Guy Ken Vandermark & Kent Kessler
Phil Minton & Melvin Poore Matthew Shipp Brad Muirhead & Ray Anderson
Mat Maneri John Butcher Michael Moore & Dave Douglas
Wolter Wierbos & Eric Boeren Ben Goldberg & Kenny Wollesen Tristan Honsinger

Being consumed by the music - performing, collecting records, writing, taking photographs - is my normal way of life, so there is really no single point in my life where I decided to become a photographer. I just simply became curious about the idea of photography in the same way I became curious about the music.

My interest in photography began when I was at college, and like everyone else I started by taking pictures of my friends. Until I came to Canada in 1963 I had not seriously thought about the idea of jazz photography. The only musician I recall taking pictures of prior to this was Joe Harriott, a West Indian saxophone player, an amazing player, considered to be the father of free jazz in England; the beginning of the avant garde. Because of Joe I went on to listen to Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman.

I had met Lloyd Thompson, a Canadian bass player in London, and he told me, "When you get to Toronto, the first day you arrive, you have to go to the Town Tavern". I arrived on a Wednesday and on the Saturday afternoon went to the Town Tavern. Beer was forty cents a bottle and there was no cover charge. The band was the Kenny Burrell trio with Richard Davis (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). I thought I had come to paradise, to think that you could just buy a beer and there they were. Around the corner was the Colonial Tavern, more of a mainstream establishment, where you could hear the likes of Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Earl Hines.

I owned a Ricoh twin lens reflex camera.

Shortly after my arrival I met John Norris, the publisher of Coda Magazine, then in its infancy, who provided my first outlet for the publication of jazz photographs.

I don't have any major influences as a photographer, especially taking photographs of jazz musicians. Mostly it was to do with shooting photographs in very low light conditions. Just dealing with that detail alone became an art in itself. Unless you use a flash, which seems like an intrusion upon the musicians, you have to develop a low light technique. Of course a great number of the players I was interested in were Negroes, which makes one extra challenge in taking limited light pictures.

The only real inspiration or teacher that I had was a photographer who lived in Schenectady, New York, whose name was Joe Alper. His photographs appeared on many of the Impulse LP jackets, especially those of John Coltrane. He was a great jazz photographer and he taught me how to process film, how to get those very faint images off the negative and onto the paper. Negatives that did not appear to have much information on them were often the ones that produced the most dramatic results.

I purchased higher quality cameras (35mm Nikons), and gradually became a photographer, in much the same way I had become involved in the music. In that same period I also started writing reviews of some of the events. Inspired by the idea that occurred in the old tradition, where being an artist meant applying your talents to any medium that you cared to utilize. The clearest example historically would be Leonardo da Vinci, who processed himself into all the areas of his imagination, and did not allow his great genius to be contained in one discipline.

This concept has influenced me very strongly. I have processed myself entirely into the music I love on any kind of level. So photography is not singular. I don't consider myself to be a writer, photographer, musician, but rather a musicartist. My brain is full of information because of the wonderful people I constantly come in contact with. Musicians and artists of all disciplines seem to be the main source of information on the planet. What sort of information can an artist receive from a bank manager, a politician?

Bohemianism was always the most romantic way of life, where one simply lived the life imagined, only doing what one cared about, making a living by participating in all the elements of one's chosen artform. Never having to go outside of the music.

In the modern world the majority of people seem to think that there is some standardized way of doing everything. You go to school and become a photographer or a musician or a writer. Now in modern technology, the camera is such a sophisticated machine that there is almost nothing to learn about its physicality that is not clearly explained in the handbook. Everyone is inclined to believe that they are photographers. Now it's down to the essence of what I believe to be the real talent, in fact what I believe life is all about, and that is the ability to envision all the elements and conditions. Not imagining you are the most important one, but rather what you can contribute to your chosen society so that it may change and grow into a purposeful future. Let's not wait for fashion to dictate its shallow principles.

The magic is not in the technology. Think about Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, think about the cameras they had - so crude in comparison - you could probably make one yourself. Then think about their photographs.

In jazz photography searching out the interesting light sources and selecting the composition you perceive to be the one in a division of a second - then click! - just one person eyeballing a tiny hole. So it's all back to oneself again. Inner necessity. Initially photography was often not considered an art, and for myself it was simply documenting occasions because I was interested in the artists. So there is no separation between work and pleasure, it has all become the same experience.

 

A list of prints currently on file is available.
More Bill Smith at vancouverJazz.com

vancouverJazz.com
01/10/02: