FD Photoessay: A little casual jazz

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Sometimes, you can’t help but feel that the mood of a particular event or evening fits a particular camera; some time back I was invited out to a casual evening jazz concert/ jam session. There is something about black and white film and jazz; I don’t know what it is exactly, but I think the two compliment each other perfectly. Perhaps it’s the way the smooth richness of the brass instruments is the auditory compliment to the rich 3/4 tones of film*; or perhaps it’s because the whole affair invokes another, earlier, era. That said, the relatively low light was challenging due to the inherent sensitivity limitations of film, traded off against image quality – the tonal look I prefer for film requires mid tones, which tend to be pretty thin with faster emulsions. Not to mention the challenge of focusing under such low light – fortunately, I had the F2 Titan, whose focusing screen is really quite excellent – snappy, and easy to discriminate the focus transition even with very fast lenses. I hadn’t used that camera in so long, I’d forgotten how transparent a photographic experience it was; your view of the world is reduced to what’s inside the large finder, and your fingers are only the three controls – focus, aperture and shutter, with a thumb cocked around the winding lever to help secure the right-sized body, and nothing more. It’s what the Df should have been.

*A discourse on the relationship and similarities between photography and music is something I’ve been meaning to write for some time, but I’m still trying to learn enough about music to have enough descriptive language to adequately convey the concepts. Increasingly I’m starting to feel that the written/ spoken language really is inadequate for the description and explanation of visual ideas; perhaps that too is another article for another time.

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Coupled with a few rolls of Ilford Delta 400 (shot at 400), the 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor and Zeiss 2/135 APO, I certainly enjoyed my evening. On the developing front, these rolls were a bit of an experiment – stand development in DDX, to see if the longer development time would reduce grain or improve tonality. I couldn’t find any recipes for this online, so I guesstimated based on the parameters that I found worked for Acros, scaled to match the difference in normal developing times for 1+4 dilution. I ran a 1:60 dilution for 1h20min with a prewash and 10min fix; subjectively, tones seemed a bit smoother and dynamic range a bit wider than with 1+4, but there was no change in grain, and a few other parameters suffered – base fog was significantly higher than normal, to the point that even the unexposed areas film itself were somewhat clouded/ dark, there was bromide drag visible from the sprocket holes despite inversions every 20min, and a distinct colour cast from top to bottom of the negative. Finally, there seemed to be a lot more dust on the negatives than usual; this is particularly puzzling as nothing else in the process was changed. Fortunately, neither the colour cast nor bromide drag seemed to be much of an issue for the final conversion following the scan; however I can’t help but feel if I could find a way to remove the base fog, the overall tonality would be even better still. In any case, more experimentation is required – which of course means more images; not that I really need an excuse to use the Titan. Enjoy! MT

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  1. Hi Ming, my name is Danyealah. I am a young writer and lover of jazz. 🙂 I really enjoyed reading/viewing your photoessay. Your perspective on the relationship between photography and music – trying to capture the awe of the music via the quality of the photograph – really struck me. Very nice!

  2. Reblogged this on When Life Gives you Lemons… and commented:
    As a lover of jazz, I really enjoyed reading/viewing this photoessay. The photographer Ming Thein remarks on the relationship between music and photography – trying to capture the awe of music with the photographic quality that suits the music itself. Very interesting!

  3. Reblogged this on Giai01's Blog and commented:

  4. liramusic says:


  5. Great set of images….really captured a sense of who they might be!

  6. For me, Jazz (hard bop in particular) and black & white photography are inseparable in large part because of the beautiful photography of Francis Wolff, whose session photographs grace the cover of hundreds of Blue Note albums (and CD reissues as well). His photography is totally “in tune” with the music and the musicians – intimate, intelligent, serious, beautiful, clean, crisp, elegant.

    I encourage your readers to “check him out” if they have not already done so: https://www.mosaicrecords.com/franciswolff/
    Besides being just great photos, it is an important documenting of jazz history!

    No surprise that you feel the jazz/b&w vibe also, Ming. Nice post and photos!

  7. liramusic says:

    I do mistype sometimes. Please forgive. I meant “struggle” (2nd to last line) and typed b for g. I have a hurt hand as I type. Best wishes.

  8. liramusic says:

    I hope that I was helpful? I think the jazz player operates on three levels, or maybe I suggested four levels. I felt that there was a real spiritual and psychological part to jazz– to the player and not so obvious at all to the observer. I’ll play with a trumpet player tonight that once was in Frank Sanatra’s band. I suppose my point is that I do think deeply about jazz– yet I am not 1/100th the photographer that Ming is.
    I think I suggested that jazz is hugely inward. The audience happens to be there but is not even required. Unlike proprietary music, jazz is well depicted when the player is lost and centered within. I also suggested that their instrument is an extension of them, their body, their soul. There is a silent code in music whereby no one would touch another’s instrument any sooner than a patting someone on the butt or something. It is all so very personal. I mentioned a broader stubble within. No one player can really do what their mind is saying to do. We hold on. We try. We measure hope. We pray with single notes. Can this be shown with no sound and only a photograph, yes absolutely.

    • Definitely. And very, very interesting. I suspect you’re probably a better jazz player than I am a photographer precisely because you think bout these things.

  9. Wonderful set, MT. Wish you had been around with camera while I was mis-spending my youth at the Village Vanguard,, the Showboat Lounge in DC, and Crawford’s Grill in Pittsburgh. Yes, Pittsburgh,PA — a veritable fountain of jazz back in the day, as they say.

  10. serialphotographer says:

    Wonderful collection Ming

  11. liramusic says:

    I never meter on stage. I test shot and stay in manual. That’s just me. So, my ideas on what it feels like to play jazz. I mentioned how we of course have no sound in a picture. How does sound manifest in a photo? For me, jazz is this sort angular feeling. Let’s run with that as a narrative. A picture could have odd angles. It is stressful, so moods range from eyes closed, to joy, to resignation or regret. It is a performance art so timing should be everything. I sort think the photo has to convey a cold sense of timing. There is ever so slightly a lost feeling somehow wrapped to this spectacle– a lack of any common sense. There is an event horizon and one has no earthly clue what not is going to be played. That might look like anxiety in a photo. There is physicality. For that, it can look like a sport almost; think of a lead trumpet player. There may or may not be, but often so, very very expensive equipment. That is part of the thing of it. A jazz player would walk towards a gun to protect that gear. This is poetically put, but sort of not kidding. The instrument and body are one. That could be seen where a photo shows the way an instrument is handled. it takes not 10,000 hours but 50,000 hours and you just hold one to your horn or whatever. I made reference to the vantage point. To me, face on audience view is blasé. The player looks out. Finally there is an element of tragedy. I am not really kidding. Epic players have died young…Most of us cannot do what we wanted to get to do in our lives. There is an epic tragic note to it, too. That could be shown in a photo and B&W gives us that. It is a feeling of insanity I think where the music talks to us. We hear something and does everyone else hear it? Everyone else is smiling but we as players question it or smile or maybe feel fear; so it makes for the strangest crash of emotions. Keyhole views seem to me to be a way to express the montage. A case, hands, a hat, glasses, some music, shoes, a jacket, the lights. The case & jacket; as jazz players are gypsies. No one is supposed to know that. In a way, there is not any home for us. We visit but hear a distant call that comes in at night… And death terrifies us, but that is a secret, too. In the end, it will all be over. The sacredness of it now will mean nothing in the end. It will all be so over. Never again will a note be played then that we think has to played right now. There is this sense in which it all makes no sense. Jazz was a black hole and we fell in. We went through. There is nothing anyone can do about it. That to me is the emotional feeling of jazz.

    • Tom Liles says:


    • Wow – just wow.

      I can’t help but think the real photographer is something like the musician you describe too – we photograph because we have to, and try to earn a living doing it along the way because we can’t do anything else. And there’s always that persistent fear that your next image isn’t going to be as good as your last one…

  12. Given the venue, I assume you were hand holding the camera. What sort of shutter speeds were you dealing with. I seem to have an issue with camera (Hasselblad) shake in better lighting than you had.

    • Hasselblads have a lot of mirror recoil, so you’re going to need higher shutter speeds. I was working anywhere between 1/30 and 1/250s.

  13. This was a great series. Really enjoy the corns. Gives the correct atmosphere. A practical question, how did you do the metering in this situation?

  14. liramusic says:

    I’d like to write in and describe the mind and how it feels doing jazz. Also re. funk. It very much fits within jazz history once a slightly “wider lens” (mind set) is used. Leonard’s photos were a depiction of the essence of jazz but of what was called Cool Jazz. Finally, I think a photo can be well excited but not necessarily a good jazz photo. Photo 2 might be a lovely photo but not identifiable as jazz exactly– it seems like as an example. Sicne we do not have sound, we “think jazz.” Often/sometimes jazz has an Islamic flavor due to Coltrane and free jazz. Oh, the Funk photo has a wonderful bokeh… I will write in again on all this. and PS, I hope my comments have been enjoyable. I will write in and describe jazz a little more.

  15. It’s funny, I also enjoy B/W for jazz performances, but when I shot rock bands for charity benefit concerts over the past few years, I loved all of the lights and colors that bathed the stage.

    Nice images. I assume you were granted stage access?


    • Color certainly sets the mood. When there isn’t much of it – as in this case – then B&W works better to isolate out and minimize distractions.

      No stage access this time, I was just in the audience.

  16. liramusic says:

    I feel so bad to say it, but although “funk” can be jazz, it is only for a moment not quite as much to a purist. Then again ,ok. Funk coveys some mood for sure, and evokes mood. The gold standard in this sort of thing is this: http://hermanleonard.com/index.php/gallery/1/1/20/Print
    How can I make that a hyperlink?
    By that standard, things can be evaluated for their own alternative ideas. Wasn’t the smoke nice! The narrow light to me represents concentration or esoteric ideas. There is such narrowing of things in jazz. Isolation and more and more.

    • Tom Liles says:

      Hello Liramusic!

      I can understand that the purists don’t consider funk to be holy. Does sound a bit like Leica-buffs and their “natural light” schtick, though, don’t you think?
      Funk, the genre, presumably, comes from the word “funky”—an adjective… it’s just a symbol, a linguistic pointer to a feeling that we don’t have any better word to describe (but musical language gets closer). I think Miles was single-mindedly trying to drill down into that reservoir of feeling. That’s isolation, if it’s anything: so maybe his funk-fusion odyssey was purer jazz than the jazz-puritsts would like to admit? It’s all music though!

      Nice to see the photo set lead off with Art Blakey, a firm favorite of mine. I like drummers. And you know I like funk and fusion, so an honorable mention for Buddy Rich here—I listen to The Roar of ’74 a lot. Narada Michael Walden too, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a track he did with Corrado Rustici called “The Dance of Life,” but the drumming at the end — besides Corrado ripping music a new asshole with his guitar solo — the intensity and the precision is fearsome. Wow. Try it?

      Would’ve been nice to see a shot of Thelonius Monk. I love that guy.

      OK, I’m off to bed, cheers Liramusic 🙂

  17. Tom Liles says:

    I’m down with the guy wearing the “Funk” cap. I was so deep into the funk for many years… My hero from that time was Miles Davis—for the funk, not for the jazz.
    I’d first encountered Miles, as most of us probably do, with the Kind of Blue album that seems to be everyone and anyone’s go-to “oh, that’s jazz” reference [I’d choose Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard; or Ahmad Jamal Trio But Not For Me; Live at the Pershing; or even Jazz Hip Trio Starlight, Starbright for an off the wall go-to]. Anyway, rewind. A newbie, looking for a jazz record, I was duly pointed in Kind Of‘s direction. It’s too good an album and too good music to be called cliche, but it wasn’t rugged enough for me and I preferred Miles when he moved away from that. And I feel for him, because jazz greybeards never let him forget it, and never forgave him for it…
    [Imagine HCB throwing the M3 away, disowning Leica and using a Canon 1D or something and flashing studio portraits all day and Ps’ing the data all night, etc—that’s how it must have felt to the jazz monks]

    I loved his fusion years, and Miles seemed to be on a one-man mission, a mission of discovery: an exploration into the funk. Like he was testing just how deep he could go with it. As with the director Michael Mann and macho, Miles seemed to be trying to condense the funk down into a thick primordial animal kind of energy. James Brown is probably the only artist that really understood the project, I think. There is stuff of value in Live:Evil and Agarta, though they aren’t pleasant to sit through, I’d be the first to admit, in fact let me straight up tell you: they aren’t pleasant to sit through… But making some music thereafter with Billy Preston, Miles made a series of tracks released on the disc Panthalassa: and that was, and is, stone-cold gold. The downest funk ever made. I’ve listened to a lot, and that has never been beaten. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that Miles was a trained jazz musician and to get where he got, came the route he came—and you’re right MT, thinking about it now, there is a ton of crossover with ideas you present to us in photography about control/caprice, composition/free-hand, structure/no-structure and music. Makes sense: these subjects should broach every art.

    At any rate, How does this all link into b&w film photography? Umm…

    <a href="http://ak.pinterest.com/pin/417497827927409276/&quot;?This?

    • Tom Liles says:



    • Contrast and tone: funk is stop-start punchy but lyrical and darkly smooth; jazz is overall smooth and flows. Macho is wide angle gritty contrast punch. And classical is obviously fine art B&W still life…

      • And Justin Bieber is Instagram? 😛

      • Tom Liles says:

        There’re all kinds of funk: from glitzy Bootsy Collins star-spectacled flavor to Ohio Players bump, to George Clinton and the p-preparation. The rugged rhythm in James Brown and the condensed abstract funk momentum in Miles… If I were to choose a photographic thread through them all, some common photographic property, I’d choose saturation. I guess that means color photos are the only option—and I’d say, film photos. Let’s go all the way and say slide film.
        I fully agree b/w film seems to be the only possible option when it comes to jazz. It was interesting to see the difference between Irving Penn’s and Anton Corbjin’s b/w portraits of Miles Davis. The poses were similar but the difference in execution was stark. I’d wager Penn didn’t like Miles’s fusion work and preferred the more orthodox days; whereas Corbjin seems more open to the avant garde in Miles. Just me, perhaps.

        P/S I made a pig’s ear of explaining, but Michael Mann is a film director; throughout his films, you can see him constantly refining ideas and riffs on “macho.” By MIAMI VICE, he’s condensed it down to a single throb, a thick energy pumping through the film. I think Miles came to be as single-minded with the funk in his music: it just started as a few phrases here and there, and by the eighties he’s in black silk shirts and gold chains and wrap-around sunglasses, wearing jerry curls and playing an ebony black trumpet—and taking it down deep into the funk better than anyone.

        It’d be interesting to think: your personal work and styles are quite panoptic, Ming; do you think like Michael Mann or Miles Davis, etc., you’ll happen across something, some aspect or detail within, that seems of little import at first, but ends up being a subject of constant fixation until all you do is that?

        • Not really. I find that if I do one thing exclusively, I get bored, jaded, and unable to see. It’s one of the reasons I do almost no watch photography these days – I just had enough.

    • Iskabibble says:

      Nonsense. Live Evil is a fantastic record. It is an utterly enjoyable experience.

      • Tom Liles says:

        In my best McEnroe pout, you cannot be serious!

        This is the great thing about music, one man’s Live:Evil is another man’s Live:Evil

  18. liramusic says:

    I am a jazz musician first and photographer second. Nice set of course. (You are phenomenal.) People misconstrue the POV of a musician. I made a list, unless I missed one, of your set for my own grasp. The last photo is best –to me. Then secondly is number 11 as I’ve numbered them. Here is why. No musician ever sees the stage the way way the audience does. Stage-right and all that. No way. The musician is inward, and I much like narrow lighting for that idea, and the view is looking out, not at. Musicians see word things; i.e., hands, bells, shoes, silhouettes people, exit signs that poke out (some symbolism there for sure, as in OMG I have to play now), wires, wires, more wires. to be continued…
    1. singer
    2. gtr
    3. trio
    4. dms
    5. gtr
    6. funk
    7. reaction
    8. keys
    9. sx
    10. four
    11. bell
    13. side stage
    14, strat.
    15, share
    16. bass
    17. stage view

    • Interesting perspective. The way things are lit on stage means that performers can almost never see much of the audience. I only discovered this at a large concert a couple of years back when I was shooting on stage and trying to get musician + audience reaction in the background…I wonder if this helps or hinders getting over performance nerves!

  19. This article brings up a concept that is often in the back of my mind when flipping through the countless images I view online or in photography books. With music, there are very few songs that have truly touched me on the first listen. It’s more common to realize I like something about a song after hearing it a few times, then really getting into it, researching the artist, and in the best instances discovering a love for a new artist and eventually most or all of their work. So when viewing images I often wonder how many great ones I’m flipping through that really deserve more time to be appreciated or that I just can’t truly appreciate at the first look.

    • Music is a bit different in that it manages to enforce a set ‘time of consideration’ on you – you have to listen to the whole song at least once. Not so with a photograph. Then there’s also the issue of memory and impression: you can see any part of a photo at any time, in a non-linear order and probably different to what the photographer intended (if the composition was poor). Again not so with music – you have to listen to it in a causal order. I think this makes the initial impression very different: you really have to be listening to it and paying attention from the start.

  20. Eugene Merinov says:

    Enjoy your photos and articles. I’m interested in your scanning rig w/D800E. You have mentioned that it needed further refinement.
    How close are you and will you be offering the rig for sale.

    • We have decided not to offer it for sale because we can’t get the quality right at the price people are willing to pay. Precision manufacturing in small runs is just too expensive.

  21. Wonderful Set Ming! Excellent B&W.

  22. These are good Ming, well done!

  23. Again, nice set of images. There is something with the grain and tones of the analog format that resonate with the sweet soul music of jazz (I am a jazz fan myself). I would like to handle a Titan but I recently dropped some major cash on a Hassy V upgrade (500C/M to 503CXi with PME90 and Winder CW). In a couple of years perhaps, once my first born is a bit older.

  24. Kristian Wannebo says:

    You certainly caught the atmosphere, and you brought the transparency (as you called it) to us viewers.
    ( B/w does emphasizes the mood.)
    And the musicians’ dedicated faces, seeing them I want to hear the music …

    I find that at smaller events, local festivals etc., musicians often play with more joy of playing than at big concerts, perhaps because of the audience or because of less pressure for perfection.

    • Thank you. Yes, I think that simplicity/ purity does come through at smaller events – I wonder if it’s because a lot of them do it because they want to, love to – as a hobby – rather than a job, when things start to become pressured and serious. I know that’s certainly the case at times with my photography.

  25. Great series, Ming. And a fun evening to be sure. Let’s have that music v. photography conversation in Havana over a cigar!


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