Festival X is Ottawa's Photography Festival. The 2010 edition starts on September 23. To mark the start of Festival X this week, and Culture Days, we present a review of a jazz photography book by longtime Ottawa jazz photographer and jazz fan John R. Fowler.
Renee Rosnes Playing Glen (sic) Gould's Steinway - Images of Canadian Jazz
by John R. Fowler, 2009
self-published at blurb.com
Preview and order at www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/626018
reviewed by Brett Delmage
It is perhaps not surprising that as a jazz photojournalist I own and enjoy a collection of jazz photography and written word books. I found early personal inspiration in these books, including the late William Claxton's Jazz Seen.
Jazz Life - A journey for jazz across American in 1960 is the most expensive book of any kind I ever expect to own. Retailing for $300+ (yay for Chapters half-off sales), it's 695 pages of 29 x 41 cm each, a massive 7.8 kg. It's the only book I own that came in a box with a carrying handle.
Heavy. Expensive. Large. Why would anyone want a jazz photography book anyway, now that we can view photos on the Internet for free, on a device that fits in our pocket?
'Fine art' is a term most strongly associated with work on physical media, not cellphone displays. There are ongoing, and not only historical, reasons for this. Photo books like Jazz Life are heavy because they use high quality, coated paper. It is capable of showing the details in the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights captured by the photographer.
Most critically, the photographer, with the support of a caring and skilled book production/printing team, can ensure the image they made is reproduced accurately, as they created and edited it. There is simply no guarantee that images displayed on individual screens will display faithfully or consistently. Very few users have calibrated monitors. It is quite possible that shadows will disappear, crushed into a single black void, or rich blacks will become grey and washed out, or subtle highlights will be blown to patches of featureless white. Users' displays may shift hues, giving subjects the 'blues', or skew saturation, washing out a scene of vibrant life.
The more laborious process and cost of preparing images for print, including a book, can be a quality filter. While anyone can post 30 unedited photos of dubious quality to Facebook in a single blast (and regrettably some do), producing a book generally requires a higher level of commitment and care. Unless self-published, the photographer must first convince a publisher of the value of her or his work, and then make it past an editor who will accept or reject parts of it. Even when self-publishing, there are economic limits on the book size (size and number of pages, print run) which will encourage the photographer to do careful selection and preparation of the photos that will be printed. Printed books reflect on the creator for a long time; they cannot as easily be recalled as deleting images on a website.
The reader/viewer of a photographic book expects a higher quality product: images that have been more carefully prepared, edited, and reproduced, because of the greater effort and cost required to produce the book. Because book sales generate revenue, the photographer may be rewarded for this additional effort and risk. And compared to publishing photos on the web, where infringement of photographic copyright is easy and all too frequent, images published in print form are less likely to be republished elsewhere without permission, payment, and credit.
And let's not forget the wonderful smell of the printer's ink! A book is a physical pleasure in multiple dimensions, just like attending a live concert.
Fowler has captured Bill as though he has just played the best, most dreamy note of his life on his tenor sax.
One of my more recent jazz photography book purchases is by John R. Fowler, an Ottawa jazz listener and photographer. His artist statement notes that his work reflects a love of the music and a sincere admiration for the artists he portrays. He tries to capture on film the energy, emotion, dedication and skill that these talented artists display while performing. Fowler's work has been exhibited at the National Arts Centre, National Library of Canada, the National Press Club, and at the Ginn Gallery and at Arts and Architecture Gallery. John’s photographs have been published in CODA, Down Beat and Planet Jazz magazines and used on CD covers, web sites and posters. Ottawa-area jazz fans may have seen his work at an Ottawa Jazz Festival exhibit.
Fowler's book, Renee Rosnes Playing Glen Gould's Steinway, doesn't come in a box with a handle. It's a perfect-bound softcover that weighs 380g. You can actually read it on the bus. He has self-published it through blurb.com, an on-demand book publisher. The advantage of an on-demand publisher is that books are printed as ordered, in this case on their website. There is no cost or risk having to print hundreds or thousands of copies up front, or having to print a minimum quantity that may be too large for a niche market. The downside is that the cost is slighter greater per book. Also, there are no editorial staff to assist with preparation and polishing of the book's master; that responsibility falls entirely upon the book's creator. For small-run books such as those about Canadian jazz, an on-demand publisher makes the previously impossible, possible.
The seventy-nine pages of Fowler's book show 107 Canadian jazz musicians in performance. The book isn't marketed as a comprehensive or complete photographic guide to Canadian jazz musicians. So one cannot be critical of it failing to tell 'the story' or overreaching. It's a selection of artists that Fowler has personally seen and photographed, often in Ottawa.
The book's layout includes single, landscape-format photos on one page against two portrait (vertical) photos on the opposite page. The single large photo always has a white border around it; the two-photo page places the photos adjacent to each other without a margin. This makes full use of the book's smaller 24 cm wide x 20 cm-high pages, and accommodates more photos of saxophonists, vocalists, and double-bassists which tend to be in taller, portrait format.
This layout of two images together works in some cases, for example, the placement of Chris Mitchell's higher-key photo against Michel Donato's low-key (mostly dark-toned) image. I felt that many of the photos would have benefited from a border, which would be more supportive of Fowler's closely-cropped, frame-filling style. That aside, the overall care in layout is evident. Jean Derome's low key image on a left page contrasts nicely against Bill Mahar's high key image on the right page. Both musicians play toward the centre, unifying the double spread into a larger visual element.
Missing from the book is a table of contents or index, which would have made it easier to find specific artists. I have listed all the musicians / subjects below.
As is essential for a well-executed jazz photo book, the quality of the images in John's book, all in black and white, is superb. The front cover, a closeup of Renee Rosnes playing Glenn Gould's Steinway at the National Library and Archives, demonstrates the full range of tonality, from the highlights on the ring on her finger to the rich black of the piano.
Like other jazz photography books, this image, like others in the book, has subtle film grain or digital noise in it, and shows some gentle motion blur. These are characteristics of the genre, inevitable when photographing using existing and often inadequate light. This is not a deficiency, but a common element, and perhaps even a pleasing signature of this specific art form.
The cover's composition works well with the book's title. Rosnes' anonymous hand on the keyboard draws you inside, while not representing the book as about one musician.
Fowler's introduction (page 3) reaffirms that the book is not just about Renee Rosnes playing the Steinway. He shares some interesting history about the Gould's CD318 piano that I didn't know, despite seeing it and hearing it played on that occasion and many other times. Other than the names of the musicians and year of the photo, that is the only text that appears until the back cover. If you believe that the photos speak for themselves, then perhaps nothing more need be stated, and additional text would be a distraction on the clean layout. I personally would have liked a bit more information, including the actual date and location and event at which the photo was made, and perhaps the group the subject was playing with. Given this small amount of text, it's unfortunate that spelling errors appear and French accents are missing in six subjects' names. Also, there is a nice photo of drummer 'Jim Doxas' on page 29 – except it's actually of Greg Ritchie. Fortunately, because this is a book that is only printed after you order it, these errors could be eliminated from future copies.
With few exceptions, Fowler's photographs show the musicians in action, making the music that we all enjoy. You can almost hear the note being played, or heard by the subject, at that moment. Almost all the photographs are solely, and perhaps soul-ly, of the subject, ranging from medium closeups (waist-up), to extreme closeups focusing on a face and instrument. Fowler makes wonderful use of existing light, shallow focus, and precise framing to isolate his subjects from the many distractions around a stage. He fills the frame with his choice. There's no wasted space or distractions in his compositions.
His choice of moment brings out character in each performer/subject. Eyes play a prominent part in many of the photos - even when they are closed.
Witness for example, Montreal saxophonist Joel Miller's open eyes looking out of the frame. These are a prominent element of his photo. Only a small fraction of his soprano sax is shown. Is he following the solo of a nearby colleague? Fowler's close crop leaves that to the viewer's imagination -- or perhaps memory if you were at and remembered that 2008 performance. Fowler's photo captures this recognizable visual element of a Joel Miller performance.
André Leroux's image had less impact. A visually defining element of Leroux's playing is the shape of his whole body including his backwards bend and fierce intensity. That can't be best captured with a front-on, top-third view.
Lorraine Desmarais is beautifully captured, intently bent over her piano keyboard, and with a touch of a smile. It would still be a recognizable Desmarais photo if only a silhouette.
It's hard for me to pick a favorite photo. Many photos appeal to me for their individual reasons. At this moment, the 1993 photo of Bill Runge grabs me. Fowler has captured Bill as though he has just played the best, most dreamy note of his life on his tenor sax.
Overall, there is a nice variety of angles and lighting to keep the book interesting from start to finish.
The style is recognizably Fowler's and its consistency helps pull the book together as a body of work. A creative work such as a photography book speaks not only about the subjects but the photographer and his or her relationship to the subjects. The overall impression one might get from this book is Fowler's focused attention and connection with the subject artist's music-making, tuning out a myriad of distractions that might occur at a festival, or perhaps even from the other, accompanying band members.
Sadly, already a number of great Canadian jazz musicians whom Fowler photographed for this book have died, including Maynard Ferguson, Moe Koffman, Jeff Healey, Rob McConnell, and Bernard Primeau. But in this book, we still have an artistic record of them in live performance.
Does this book deserve space on a jazz fan's bookshelf? Yes, if you are a fan of Canadian jazz artists. My experience with jazz photography books is they get even better with age, like cheese or wine. For me, it's fascinating to look at photos of U.S. jazz in 1960 in Jazz Life, and see the icons and culture no longer with us. It's fun to see how some musicians have or have not changed greatly in appearance since Fowler photographed them (e.g. Jim Vivian without a beard!) If you like the book now, it will likely age well.
Who knows what photos will remain on the Internet in ten or twenty years' time, or if you will be able to find the gems among 20 billion snapshots? But Renee Rosnes Playing Glen Gould's Steinway - Images of Canadian Jazz will be waiting for you on your bookshelf, right where you left it.
You can view more of John Fowler's photographs of Canadian and other jazz musicians on his website at www.JazzPhotoGuy.com
– Brett Delmage
Brett Delmage is OttawaJazzScene.ca publisher. He has photographed jazz musicians since 2000, sometimes at the same performances and swapping shooting positions with John Fowler.
Canadian Jazz musicians featured in the book