Jati Lindsay's Bright Moments
Jazz and photography are twin arts. Both matured in the 20th century and came to exemplify the rigors and expressive potential of the modernist impulse. In the 21st century, both arts have had to adapt to new realities to avoid becoming obsolete. For some, jazz will never regain the majesty of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and photography will never again boast the predominance it enjoyed in the age of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Diane Arbus.
Jati Lindsay pays no attention to those dismal forecasts. The optimistically titled Bright Moments: The Contemporary Jazz Scene was named after a live album by Rahsaan Roland Kirk—a testament to the artist’s fluency in old and new idioms. The one-day exhibition presented his large-scale photographs of contemporary jazz musicians, including Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, and Christian Scott. “I listen to everything,” he says. “And this music is still relevant in the age of hip-hop.”
The photograph of Scott, a trumpeter who has recorded with Prince, X-Clan, and DJ Logic, is particularly revealing. Scott’s razored haircut and the MTV t-shirt and Yankees cap worn by his bassist announce that this is far from a purely retro exercise. The vitality of the music scene that Lindsay documents—and inhabits—was loud and clear on the night of the exhibition, thanks to performances by the Karriem Riggins Quartet and ERIMAJ.
And yet Lindsay is defiantly old school in his approach to photography, shooting in black and white on film that he develops himself. “It’s not like I’m trying to revive or revise anything,” he explains, “I just like the way film works.”
When taking assignments for such publications as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Jazz Times, he uses digital cameras, but when he shoots for himself he uses Leicas and other equipment from the heyday of photography, maintaining, “The lens, the glass, give you a better image.”
Lindsay taught himself the techniques of the past century, which perhaps accounts for the eccentric way he shoots musicians like Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, a renowned bassist about whom a Pitchfork reviewer recently wrote, “He translate[s] virtuosity into something that hits you right in the heart”; and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, whose music has been described by a Guardian critic as “an experience that was unmistakably American jazz, but which didn't clone anything or anyone.”
Lindsay’s mastery of black-and-white photography is equally unmistakable. “It seems like you’re adding something, even though you’re taking it away technically,” he says. “I think in shapes, not colors.”
There is something about Lindsay’s work that just cries out to be an album cover, even in this era when “album covers” normally appear smaller than a postage stamp on our iPod screens. A rapturous headshot of the Bay Area vocalist Mara Hruby evokes photos seen on the covers of Billie Holiday records, just as Hruby’s voice brings similar comparisons to mind.
The large-format photos that graced the walls of this pop-up underground D.C. space, selected by well-connected curator and art collector, Schwanda Rountree embrace jazz’s past and future—and photography’s. It is a testament to Lindsay’s unerring eye that when I asked him whether, in blowing up the images, he saw any details he hadn’t noticed before, he swiftly and confidently answered, “There were no surprises. I knew everything that was there.”
Bright Moments conceived by Lindsay in conjunction with curator Schwanda Rountree will travel to other cities. This is the first in a series of projects organized by the creative duo.
Mark Swartz is a novelist and critic living in Takoma Park, MD.