Jazz music and documentary photography have a lot in common. I’m in the middle of reading Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities. There is one particular story, amongst many great ones, that stands out.
But first, a little crash course on jazz and documentary photography. I don’t claim to be anything close to an expert on jazz, but I know WAY more now than I did last week, prior to reading the first couple chapters of Herbie’s book. Jazz is a style of performance, not a musical method. Documentary photography is a process of making photos, not a photographic technique. The style of jazz can be used with almost any style of music. Documentary photography can be used as an influence or process for any type of photography.
Improvisation is a key element of jazz. Documentary photographers must be able to improvise, go with the flow, with what’s happening around them.
Jazz artists need to know their craft well enough to improvise on the spot. Documentary photographers need to know their craft well enough to improvise on the spot.
Jazz musicians need to be present enough to be in touch with what the other group members are doing. Documentary photographers need to be open and present to the scene unfolding before their eyes.
Instead of me trying to retell Herbie’s story, here’s a short but amazing clip of him telling his story, in his own words, and in his own wonderful voice. You can watch it here.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
*tapping my fingers, tap-tap-tappity-tap*
Powerful, right? This story is the epitome of non-judgment. Miles Davis took that “wrong note” and turned it into something workable. He didn’t judge the note as right or wrong. He didn’t judge it all. He just used the note as it was presented and made something beautiful from it.
When things go “wrong” at an event, whether it’s a family session, a wedding, or even during posted portraits we often judge things as having gone wrong. It started raining. The bride was running 45 minutes behind. The groomsmen bumped into a vase and spilled water all over the aisle. The kid is having a temper tantrum. But, what if we didn’t judge at all. What if we just jazzed it up, let it be, and made the most of it. With our cameras up, ready to record the real things that unfolded in front of it.
That is the true essence of documentary photography. And the true essence of jazz.
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