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The camera and all that jazz

In her essay "On Photography" Susan Sontag remarks that Proust would never be so crude as to provoke a childhood memory of pealing church bells by a simple snapshot of the belfry. Proust's preference for subtlety -- for sensuous circuitry -- required that the triggering device be a cookie dipped in lime tea so that, only after the palate signaled to the inner eye, could the inner ear hear the chimes.

With all proper respect to "Remembrance of Things Past," sight and sound do have a special affinity. One can listen to a recording, shut one's eyes, and with astonishing success conjure up the physical presence of the musicians. Conversely, if one sees a photograph of a beloved musician, chords begin to sound in that inner ear.

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Who can see a picture of Louis Armstrong without hearing him? Indeed it has become a photographic cliche to evoke the blast of the Armstrong horn, the gravel of the Armstrong voice by merely excerpting a close-up of his famous handkerchief or his famous teeth.

Sight, as it were, produces its echo.

Gerry Mulligan, tilted back, carrying the weight of his enormous horn like a Viking in the bow about to signal landfall, seems to mime the vast, deep timbre of the baritone sax. Joe Williams, eyes closed, fingertips to his temple, mouth stretched open to the beginning of a shout, becomes a portrait of the blues.

The camera even makes distinctions between styles. The lens captures Buddy Rich as a blur, falling upon his drums like a mugger: the Mick Jagger of jazz. On the other hand, Jo Jones sits back with his gentle smile, a brush poised like a wand; and the ear of the viewer hears the most exquisite swish of a cymbal.

In the flared nostrils and the deep-grooved frown of Cootie Williams one gauges the explosive pressure behind his growling trumpet. In the broad, smooth face of Jack Teagarden -- smiling even with a trombone in this mouth -- one measures forth serenely the legato Teagarden tone. Pee Wee Russell -- body contorted, arms extended, holding onto his clarinet like a live wire -- perfectly visualizes his own eccentric bursts of sound.

Even Zoot Sims, sitting in a folding steel chair, slumped over his horn, staring at the bare floor during a break in a recording session, seems to suggest the vanished energy of a stomping-tenor solo that has left him so exhausted.

These and other portraits assembled by the German critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt for a new book ("Jazz: A Photo History") indicate that jazz is almost dangerously photogenic. It has become too easy a matter for Billie Holiday fans -- looking at the satin gown, the gardenia in the hair, the mouth twisted in a moan -- to subscribe to a stereotype of tragic elegance.

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And in the end many Armstrong fans would choose to close their eyes and listen to Louis rather than see him. For the eye-rolling, chuckling entertainer -- however charming -- could become seriously at variance with the brilliant, impassioned musician.

The camera, a jazz-portrait viewer comes to realize, is a romantic eye. It arranges the lights, tilts the angle, selects the detail out of context, and then -- and only then -- allows one to see what it sees.

In all the books of photographs suddenly proliferating on all sorts of subjects one cannot help noticing how editorial the supposedly neutral lens of a camera is apt to be in what it records.

Consider the difference between the portrayal of women in Playboy magazine and in the pages of new books by women photographers, like Cynthia MacAdams's "Emergence" and "Self-Portraits by Women" (compiled by Joyce Tenneson Cohen). The camera moves from the realm of soft-focus four-color fantasy to black-and-white scrutiny as firm as a jaw- line.

What a world divides the portrait of war as a flag raised on Iwo Jima and as a child's corpse in the mud of a Vietnam rice paddy!

People have always assumed the recording powers of the camera. We are just beginning to appreciate the power of the camera to argue and persuade -- literally to present a viewpoint. For a generation tending to turn from words to pictures -- finding its poetry at the movies and its primary information in TV news -- the old slogan takes on new, grave meaning: "A picture is worth a thousand words."


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