by Karen S. Chambers
When I think of photos of musicians, I immediately visualize them caught up in the performance, on stage, perhaps dramatically lit, with maybe a glimpse of an appreciative audience – raucous or captivated.
Don’t go to the Iris Bookcafé and Gallery expecting that. In fact, there are really only one or two of Michael Wilson’s black-and-white photographs that fall into that camp. The most notable and least prepossessing, you could say, is Unidentified Dance Band taken in April 1995 at Scarlet Oaks Retirement Community, Cincinnati.
A group of elderly musicians, dressed spiffily in white shirts and bolo ties, is set up to play for what I reckon to be an audience made up of residents and staff. I imagine there are a few couples who’ve danced together for 50 years to the big bands of the ’30s and ’40s. They might not be dancing swing to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by the Andrews Sisters although I can see some wheelchair-bound listeners tapping out the rhythm. But there may be some couples foxtrotting around the floor to Duke Ellington’s I’m Beginning to See the Light or rumbaing to Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. Maybe an old codger has found a partner in a nursing aide, taking her happily away from her duties of parceling out meds and introducing her to the joy of couples’ dancing, not just gyrating solo on the dance floor.
The bandleader, a trumpet player; violinist; drummer; and maybe a pianist (you can just see the lid of a baby grand cut off on the left) have given the floor to the rest of the band: a guitarist, accordion player, and saxophonist (with a clarinet standing at the ready, like a soldier, beside him). The drummer yawns, and the leader gazes off, as if remembering his glory days, maybe as a member of the New York Musicians’ Union (my mother, once married to a musician, used “802” to mean sophisticated and with it). That’s a lot to take from what an onlooker could have easily snapped with an iPhone. But it takes an artist, like Wilson, to evoke such nostalgia for a bygone era
Wilson, a Cincinnati native, explains his interest in musicians thusly:
In much the same way as the eye is drawn to light, our attention is drawn instinctively and irresistibly toward music. As curious people, it is not a surprise that we find ourselves curious about those around us who make music. Moths to a flame – bees to a flower.”
During his 35-plus-year career, Wilson has photographed some big names – Chet Atkins, The Black Keys, B. B. King, Patti Labelle, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, and others. Here he’s focused on local talent.
The best-known artist — to me — is Peter Frampton. Seen alone in the Court Street Studio, a recording studio in Washington Court House, Ohio, he’s seated on a bentwood chair, a little to the left of center. He’s intent on playing his guitar, perhaps for his own pleasure. He faces a window that illuminates the scene. Wilson uses that light to create highlights on Frampton, who is seen in profile, and soft shadows so the contrast is not stark.
This is one of the very few pictures by Wilson that depict musicians with their instruments. Another is The Tillers, Kenton County Kentucky, 2013. The trio, with their banjo, violin, and guitar in their cases, ambles away from a rustic graveyard. Did they play for a memorial service, or was this an al fresco practice session in the solitude of the cemetery?
Wilson is particularly adept at including details that might easily be missed, but still add to the viewer’s understanding of what he’s recorded. Here it’s a listing tombstone with a lush bouquet and an abandoned shovel on the ground. In the Unidentified Dance Band, it’s the piano.
Almost fitting into the category of musicians with instruments, Fred Hersch sits on a park bench at the Seasongood Pavilion in Eden Park. His arms are crossed, and he leans on a toy piano with his right-hand fingers casually touching the miniature keyboard. In this 2000 photograph, he’s looking off to the left, lost in reverie.
It’s only in these rare cases that the sitters can be identified as musicians. What Wilson generally gives us are intimate portraits with few clues as to the sitters’ occupations.
In one photo Wilson uses instruments as stand-ins for the musicians. In the moody shot of K & L’s Attic (for Bill Frisell and Fred Hersch’s Songs We Know, Norwood), July 1998, he shows only a guitar and piano dramatically lit by light streaming through a square window framed by six, also square, sidelights.
The strong contrast in the attic photo reminded me of the Dayton, Ohio, pictorialist Jane Reece (c. 1868-1961) who was active from the beginning of the 20th century until 1944. In 1909, she studied briefly with Clarence White, another Ohio photographer and a founding member of the Photo-Secession, who was teaching at Columbia University in New York City.
Returning to Dayton later that year, Reece opened a successful portrait studio while she also created more “artistic” photographs, setting up fanciful and allegorical tableaux. The latter seem quaint today, but she had a way with portraiture, making compelling images.
When Reece died, 400 of her photographs were given to the Dayton Art Institute (DAI), and 10,000 glass-plate negatives went to Wright State University. About a quarter of her photos in the DAI collection were of artists, dancers, writers, musicians, etc., visiting Dayton. They made it a point to be photographed by Reece, although I’m certain she was aggressive in getting them to sit for her. These photos became the thesis topic for my master of arts degree in art history from the University of Cincinnati. I had to argue that photography was an art form – in 1977.
Among the celebrities Reece photographed in the 1920s were Count and Countess Ilya Tolstoy, Leopold Stokowski, Robert Frost, and Helen Keller. Reece went for the glamorous and dramatic with her high-contrast photos, but, like Wilson, Reece captured the personalities of her sitters.
Wilson doesn’t go for glamour; rather his subjects seem a rag-tag bunch. But, like Reece (Wilson is unlikely to have known her work, but I reference it because of their shared interest in artists, although, I suspect, Reece would have said the “artistic soul.”), he carefully composes his portraits and uses light masterfully.
In Karin Bergquist (half of the Over the Rhine twosome), May 1993, 12th Street, Over-the-Rhine Cincinnati, she stands in the middle of the street, perfectly centered in the frame. The buildings on either side of the street are slightly blurred and seem to somehow recede in almost forced perspective. She smiles broadly with a large cross of David at her throat, and a man’s jacket over her head, rather like a nun’s veil. It’s held in place by a fedora.
Wilson has had a long association with Over the Rhine, and the single landscape in the show was taken for its Ohio album cover. In View from Mt. Echo, August 1991, two spindly trees divide the composition into thirds. With their slender trunks and leafy tops, they remind me of the Italian landscapes by Claude Lorraine (c. 1600-1623-1682). Here the trees could represent Linford Detweiler and Bergquist. In the distance is an atmospheric view of Cincinnati at dusk, its lights veiled by mist. It’s a fitting image for Bergquist and Detweiler whose music USA Today has called “mature, graceful . . . (with) intimate, soulful arrangements.”
I, frankly, loved these photographs, although I’m not sure I learned much about the subjects’ musical talents. What Wilson did do, however, was whet my appetite for learning more about the people and, by extension, their music.
MICHAEL WILSON, for Musicmakers (sic) from These Parts, , Iris Bookcafé and Gallery, 1331 Main St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-381-2665, www.irisbookcafe.com. Through Sept. 28, 2014. Sun. 11 a. m.-9 p. m., Mon.-Thurs. 8 a. m.-9 p. m., Fri. 8 a. m.-7 p. m. (Final Fri. 8 a. m.-10 p. m.), Sat. 10 a. m.-7 p.m.