Striking Poses | Art Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Striking Poses 

The Sixties / Jazz: William Claxton

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

The Sixties

at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through June 22

Jazz: William Claxton

at the Harold Washington Library Center, through June 9

By Fred Camper

When I heard about Ehlers Caudill's exhibit "The Sixties," which included photographs by Larry Clark and Duane Michals and Lee Friedlander, I started to reflect on that era. It was a time when people learned to think in new ways, when boundaries were crossed, when the idea of limits being placed on art, thought, or action was questioned. But seeing the exhibit reminded me of another aspect of the 60s, one that is regrettably still with us: it was a time for looking and being looked at, when many dressed or posed to put on a public show, when appearances counted for more than they should have whether one was attired in hippie beads or a business suit. In the 39 photos of this exhibit, the eight photographers mostly see the world as theater, as scenes that cry out for attention. While each photographer's approach is a bit different, each powerfully illuminates some aspect of narcissistic display.

Diane Arbus turns the people she shoots into theater of the absurd. Each subject seems larger than life. The performer in Albino Sword Swallower at a Carnival, Maryland (1970) faces us, head tilted back, with a sword in her mouth, her arms spread to form a cross. The sword's ornate handle resembles the frills on her blouse and skirt, reminding us that everything about this image has been designed for our viewing pleasure. In A Young Man and His Pregnant Wife in Washington Square Park, New York City (1965), Arbus has framed the wife's extravagant bouffant hairdo tightly; the woman and her hair seem too large for the photograph, heightening the excess also seen in her heavy makeup.

Long before Larry Clark directed the movie Kids he was a still photographer known for his portraits of teenagers on the pharmaceutical and sexual brink. His best photographs capture with raw directness a seamy underside few of us would otherwise see. But his untitled 1968 photo of two attractive teenagers in a bathtub also questions our participation in such scenes. This shot has been taken from the perspective of a standing adult, which not only makes us aware of the presence of an observer but also implicates us as voyeurs. Is the subject here the kids, or our erotic interest in them?

Duane Michals's images include several series. Arranged in a grid a little like a comic strip, each fanciful narrative group is witty, a bit sexy, and highly theatrical; he treats the frame like a proscenium arch that sets off the highly improbable scenes within. The Fallen Angel (1968) shows a man with large, fake-looking wings in bed with a woman. This series comes across as a slightly campy modern fairy tale that's perhaps a little too self-consciously cute. At the same time its seductive subject and dramatic interest highlight our vulnerability to such confections.

Arbus, Clark, and Michals all focus on their human subjects as sources of erotic interest and absurd humor. Looking at these subjects, we think about the ways in which we look at each other. Ken Josephson, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander address the act of looking more abstractly. A number of Josephson's photos of outdoor scenes also include a hand in the foreground holding a photo of the same scene. Drottningholm, Sweden (1967) shows a large palace with a postcard of the same building. A row of statues visible in the postcard is covered with wooden sheds in the larger photo, a discrepancy that reminds us that every photo is merely a provisional representation of its subject, seen from a particular angle and taken at a particular time.

Winogrand makes a similar point in a different way: his street photographs, often taken on the run with the camera slightly tilted, announce themselves as fleeting moments. Yet he too is interested in theatrical display: several of the Winogrands in this exhibit record public scenes of the 60s. In an untitled 1968 photo of New York's Central Park, a huge crowd on a lawn has just launched a bunch of balloons. In Apollo 11 Moon Shot, Cape Kennedy, Florida (1969), a crowd observes the launch with binoculars and cameras, while a woman in the foreground points an Instamatic at the photographer, and hence at us. This shot recalls the way NASA timed its launches for maximum public impact; it even managed to have a capsule revolving around the moon on Christmas Eve of 1968. At the same time, the foreground woman reminds us that once something as important as a moon shot becomes theater, so does everything else: looking and being looked at are the true subjects of this image. For all five of these photographers, the subject is less important than the act of looking at it.

Lee Friedlander, a great photographer and this exhibit's strongest, presents the process of seeing as profoundly problematic. Reflective glass, a mirror, or a TV converts each photo into a thicket of smaller images that entrap and circumscribe the others. Often these images can't be clearly decoded--which is precisely Friedlander's point. He presents seeing as a labyrinth of possibilities, none more true than any other. Route 9W, New York (1969) unfolds gradually. First one notices a roadside shrine in the center background; a small sign to its left invites travelers to "Stop and Pray Awhile." Then one sees that the left side of the photo is filled with a sideview mirror, which reflects the side of a car or truck, Friedlander's face, and part of his camera. We react very differently to the image of him photographing the scene than we do to the shrine itself; now we're thinking about how the picture was made. The mirror at the left and a car window on the right provide a theatrical "curtain" for the loud, self-proclaiming building, designed to be seen at a glance from a passing car. But Friedlander doesn't celebrate the shrine as Arbus might have; rather he creates a strong visual tension between his relatively large face and the view through the window, each of which engages the eye and mind in a different way. By juxtaposing theatrical and self-reflexive seeing, he illuminates the nature of both.

William Claxton's 93 photographs of jazz musicians at the Harold Washington Library don't address the subject of looking at all. Born in southern California in 1927, Claxton has loved jazz from childhood. He became a mostly self-taught photographer in his teens and began photographing musicians in his early 20s. We may have seen his shots on album covers and in Life magazine over the years, but seeing a large number of them together in a gallery focuses attention on the amazing way they link their subjects' outward appearance with the music they make.

Claxton's photographs don't have Arbus's irony, Larry Clark's voyeurism, or Friedlander's aestheticized complexity. The performers Claxton shows us--as opposed to, say, current rockers--are not interested in how they look, or indeed in having us look at them at all. Often Claxton catches them with their eyes closed, muscles tense, and mouth open--lost in their music, as in Mahalia Jackson, Chicago, 1961. One is led by her appearance to imagine the gospel song coming from her mouth, while her upward-pointing hand perhaps reflects the lyrics. The pianist in Horace Silver, North Hollywood, 1960 is looking at his keyboard, his back straight, his neck a little hunched. In the space between the piano bench and the keys we see part of his left foot, heel a bit off the floor: Claxton underlines the way Silver's whole body is engaged in making music. In Ornette Coleman, Los Angeles, 1959, Coleman faces us, head tilted down as he blows into the mouthpiece. The photograph's vertical lines unify his body with the music we imagine, leading our eyes down his nose to the sax and back up to his bulging eyes again, which see nothing--his intense stare makes it clear how internal his experience of the music is.

Claxton isn't troubled by the idea that photography is voyeuristic or by the paradoxes of illusionistic representation. Instead his images seem to spring from the music, and from the people engaged body and soul in making it. Claxton celebrates this act--and not passive, narcissistic display. He also respects the highly individual nature of jazz musicianship. Blue Mitchell (Trumpet) and Junior Cook (Tenor Sax), Detroit, 1959 shows the two men side by side, their instruments clashing visually in their angles and shapes--suggesting not only two different sounds but two different personalities. In this picture one's eye tends to move from left to right, from the musicians' mouths to the bells of their instruments, which point in roughly parallel directions as the music of two individualists becomes one composition.

Claxton often photographs musicians not playing, posing unself-consciously outdoors. Their gazes suggest they don't particularly care whether they're being looked at or not, a fact that may heighten our sense of their individualism. In Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, New York City, 1958, two men sit on a slope by a pond; one is apparently laughing, mouth wide open, while the other only smiles. Both are facing right but look in different directions; each is reacting differently to this moment. A shirtless Chet Baker is seen with his wife in Helima and Chet Baker, Redondo Beach, California, 1955, their bodies and his trumpet a maze of diagonals. He looks down and she looks at the camera, but both seem oblivious to being observed even though this is a posed shot. Instead they seem lost in each other.

Several photos also include listeners whose dramatic physical responses to the music make them seem as individualistic as the musicians. As Max Roach plays in Max Roach (Drums), Newport Jazz Festival ("Newport Rebels" Segment), 1960, a man is sprawled in the foreground, his feet pointed not at Roach but at a woman dancing alone off to the left. A man dances in Cootie Williams, New York City, 1960. The trumpeter stands in the doorway of a cheap hotel (the address--120 W. 125th Street, visible above--tells us we're in central Harlem). A shadowy figure behind him has both hands in the air, his right arm a blur of movement. Making the music visible, Claxton also establishes that a person can find joy even in modest surroundings. The musicians in The Tuxedo Brass Band, New Orleans, 1960 proceed down a mostly empty street, their lines endearingly askew, their demeanor only a bit showy. Three very small boys, dwarfed by the man with the tuba, walk a little bit in front of them; one of them looks back at the musicians. Here Claxton balances the mass of the band on the right with the boys in left center, making it clear that the listener, however humble, is as essential to the music as the musician.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Helima and Chet Baker, Redondo Beach, California, 1955" by William Claxton.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Fred Camper

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
June 13
Performing Arts
I Saw You Town Hall Pub
April 12

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories