Book review

Alan John Ainsworth – ‘Sight Readings: Photographers and American Jazz, 1900-1960’

Alan John Ainsworth – Sight Readings: Photographers and American Jazz, 1900-1960

(Intellect Books, Hardback, 472 pp. Book Review by Andy Hamilton)

This fascinating and beautifully-produced book addresses a neglected issue in jazz studies: the nature of the images which have plentifully illustrated writing on the medium. Alan John Ainsworth considers the work of American jazz photographers through the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Drawing on extensive archival research, he examines the attraction of jazz as a visual subject, and the diverse types of photographers who have specialised in it, analysing how they have approached it. The book is informed by contemporary photographic theory and has a foreword by Darius Brubeck.

Among issues that Ainsworth discusses are the jazz image as document and expression, the document and realism, and authenticity and photographic art. He has insightful discussion of neglected areas including studio publicity portraiture, the canonisation of white photographers that has largely been accepted in the jazz literature, and work done for the segregated press. Ainsworth is a photographer and historian of photography, and a scholar specialising in architectural and music photography. As the blurb puts it, he “asks how photographers have framed jazz as a space of aesthetic, cultural, and political meaning”.

Central to his critique is the claim that “Although photography is widely employed by jazz writers, it has mostly been as illustrative material rather than a historical source requiring critical interpretation”. Roy Porter is quoted commenting that the training of historians “encourages us to assume the primacy of written records”. Peter Burke comments that historians rarely work in photographic archives, and “tend to treat [photographic images] as mere illustrations, reproducing them in their books without comment”. Ainsworth cites Krin Gabbard’s 1995 anthology Jazz Among The Discourses as key to broadening the perspective, and embracing visual evidence.

The issue is reminiscent of the neglect of film music within film studies – in fact it’s the converse of that. Many of the great film directors – Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders for instance – have an intuitive understanding of the contribution of music to film. But others have a functional attitude to film music, and seem to be ignorant of how music works. How many jazz writers have an understanding of the power of the photographic image, and of its contribution to writing on jazz? Very few I would say.

Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill.
Minton’s Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947.
Photo by William F. Gottlieb. Public Domain

An example of Ainsworth’s insightful analysis is his discussion of a photograph every jazz fan should know – William Gottlieb’s image of Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill standing outside Minton’s Playhouse in 1947 (above). I’ve seen this iconic image many times, but like most jazz writers, hadn’t really reflected on its significance. Ainsworth comments that “interpretations of the photograph dissolve the development of bebop to a small subculture apart from conventional life”. He points out that Roy Eldridge wasn’t a bebopper, and unlike the other participants, isn’t dressed in the bebop fashion. However, I’m not convinced that he’s so out of place here – he was a transitional figure who worked with beboppers.

The book isn’t an easy read. Despite its beautiful illustrations, it’s a weighty academic tome, and has a theoretical framework guided, as Ainsworth writes, by British scholar Margaret Archer. The book’s basic premise is that “photography is a form of practical engagement in the real world and the photography a site of reflexivity” – “the conscious human process through which we make sense of the world and our identity within it”. Ainsworth is a writer who doesn’t believe in what I call “sign-posting” – helping the reader to follow the line of argument by summaries and linking explanations. Those who choose not to read the book from cover to cover, will still gain much by dipping into it. Sight Readings is a groundbreaking contribution to its subject, and offers many insights to the patient reader.

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