“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a stupid thing to want to do.” Elvis Costello says; at least he is just one of several musicians who this quote has been attributed to. The more attributes, the more pertinent - perhaps. So, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, how about writing about photography? And what about about the connections between jazz and street photography? That is what is currently occupying one partially lit corner of my mind.
Many great photographers have shot evocative images of many great jazz musicians, it's true - deep blacks, crisp rim-shot whites, all filtered through a haze of filter-less Gitanes smoke. You can almost hear the flattened fifths of the tenor saxophone. The music and the stylised black and whites take us back to a bygone age when cigarette smoke was de rigeur and a kipper tie, pork pie hat and blacked out shades was the uniform of the new school of jazz. But that particular alley is not where we are heading.
Instead, I want to explore the connections between jazz and shooting on the street.
Music and photography both have their own distinct subcultures or genres, each demanding a different appreciation and I think there are similarities here. Take landscape photography. This requires a considered approach, taking time, preparation and precision to create the greatest images. In this it is a kin to classical music. The holiday snapshot; surely that’s pop music. Immediate, brash, unsophisticated for the most part, disposable yet relevant and life enhancing. Street photography must be jazz.
Jazz relies on certain rules or forms. Structures are learned - scales, cycles, blue notes - forwards and backwards and around. Well known songs, standards, are revisited time and time again as new elements are unearthed and discovered or rediscovered by new bloods eager to make themselves heard. It requires a great deal of technical proficiency. These structures are echoed in street photography with its foundation in other genres of photography and of visual art - the rules of composition, the work of the greats on whose giant shoulders the photographer attempts to climb.
Perhaps the defining feature of jazz is its reliance upon improvisation. True, this is not confined to jazz. Classicists will tell you that the great composers created frameworks for improvisation. However, it is improvisation which defines jazz. This, to me, is where the arcs of jazz and street photography swing closest to one another.
The dictionary will tell you that improvisation can mean making do. Who would want to sit on an improvised chair, or tuck into an improvised meal? Improvisation in jazz is not about making do. Far from it; but it is about making, creating something afresh. It is about an artist at the peak of his/her powers, creating something on the spot whilst referencing the traditions that preceded them and demonstrating their technical prowess in response to a given situation. It means a high level of technical proficiency combined with a high level of creativity.
Isn’t this what the street photographer does? In creating a new image, they bring to bear the knowledge of every image they have ever been influenced by. They use their technical expertise coupled with the inside-out knowledge of their camera, each button and lever falling into place instinctively just as the keys of every piano or saxophone do in the hands of the most skilled jazz musician. And they do this instantaneously; responding to whatever happens along.
It is this ability to react quickly to whatever is going on around them which makes a great street photographer or great jazz musician. It is part anticipation, part learned technique and part luck. The challenge is to rearrange the world into something beautiful from whatever ingredients you are handed at the time.
The moment of creation is one of stepping off into the void. For a jazz musician, it means being able to imagine the sounds before they have been made; for a photographer it is about envisaging the image before the shutter is pressed. Nether moment is repeatable in quite the same way. This is what puts the energy into the piece or the image. This is where the excitement lies.
Perhaps most significantly, jazz also likes to throw away the rules. At its most free, it is simply a celebration of sound and reaction to an environment. Street photography, too, is at its most creative and innovative when it bends the rules, breaks the structures and surprises our expectations. A celebration, a riot of light.
As the great Charlie Parker said: “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”
Jazz has always doffed its pork-pie hat to tradition but forged bravely forwards into new territories and this, to me, is what street photography does best.