Thanks to some dear friends, poetry’s been crossing my path recently. As I read the works I’m being introduced to I’m struck by what I feel are close similarities with the craft of photography. It’s all about the process of selection.
In a poem, words are carefully chosen and when woven together a new creation emerges. And it’s not just the passing of words over one’s tongue that creates the experience…it’s everything in the spaces in between. It’s the beat, the sounds, the rhythm and the flow that sets the table and serves up the meal.
Photography is the process of selection, too. When looking through the lens the photographer selects a portion of a bigger picture to tell the story. Deliberately leaving some parts behind. As the poet leads you down a trail with his or her words, the photographer directs your eyes by taking you to a spot you may not have seen before. In both cases, through the process of selection you are taken somewhere. Somewhere you hadn’t before imagined.
I was at a retirement party for a friend when I got the news Clarence had passed. Texts were coming in and one seemed to sum it up best; “tears fall on E Street”. My body suddenly felt heavy like lead and the sense of simply overwhelmed me. I felt like I had lost a friend.
Bruce and Clarence first met in 1971 and a year later he became a member of the E Street Band. This photo I shot of them in 1974, for me, seemed to depict a glimpse into their friendship. While many great shots of Bruce and Clarence over the years depict one of them leaning on the other, facing each other, cavorting with each other, this one seemed to evoke the opposite. Bruce, his eyes shut, seems almost transcendental and wandering off to wherever the music is taking him. While Clarence appears poised, focused and on note right at his side, giving Bruce the comfort and assurance to let him be who he is.
At the heart of all communication is our inert desire to tell a story. Theatre evolved from a story being shared around a fire. Marshall McLuhan explained it well when he said “the medium is the message”. The mechanisms we use to tell our story craft the way it is told. Social media today is proof point of that assumption. Music is a medium to tell a story. Early folklorists talk of the troubadour and how their travels became the subject of their songs. As they moved from town to town their music became the instrument in which one learned of life outside the boundaries of their physical. emotional and spiritual existence.
While much of music as we know it is rhythm and beat it’s also stories. A craft that begin to wane at one time, Bruce Springsteen resurrected. Perhaps his ability to concoct a tale of love lost, friends in need and personal triumphs and tragedies woven into a steady beat, is one reason for his overwhelming appeal. In our hearts we all love a good story and love the story teller.
From February 1974 to August of the same year, Ernest “Boom” Carter sat behind the drums for the E Street Band. Though only a short stint many “musicologists’ credit him with being instrumental in adding the jazz and funk flavor to the band's early sound. Later he, and E Street Band pianist David Sancious formed “Tone”, a jazz fusion combo that would eventually feature Patti Scialfa. Here's “Boom” at the Harvard Square Theatre show with the E Street Band.
The first time I shot digital at a rock show ( I’d been out of the loop for a while), I sought out advice. One recommendation was for certain size and speed of storage cards so I could save upwards of 500 shots per card. 500 SHOTS? Were you crazy? Who would need that number? In my day (days of film), I would shoot about three rolls per act, per night, and hope in the 100 or so shots per act I might have three of four that were good. That’s what it was about. You, as the photographer, needed to drive your selection of shots. There were limits and those factors were forced you to make decisions, artistic decisions, that made you to take better shots. That was part of the craft.
In the pit at shows today i see these young guns, with better cameras than mine. They shoot, and shoot and shoot. i step back and watch. I do the math. Three songs, one angle, 500 shots, they’re bound to get something. But i can’t help but notice that, the one over there, doesn’t she recognize that her angle is always going to get the microphone in the face of the singer? And that guy over there, is he ever going to try another point of view? Hmm..maybe if you cast a wide, wide net..you will catch something. Is this the new world of concert photography? Tell me it isn’t. Because I couldn’t do it. I don’t the have the top end camera, I just have my eye. So, I decide to look for something interesting.
The band’s manager writes me back after I posted my work for him. “Thank You”, he says. He then continues, and confides, that he is amazed that when photographers send him work from shows it’s typically 90 frames of the same shot. He thanked me for taking another point of view and informed me he’d like to use my work.
It wasn’t really that I offered another point of view, I offered what I though was a good photograph. That’s why you have the camera with you…right?
I’m not sure when it was that I first began to fall in love with Patti Smith. Maybe it was when I heard that her live shows were such driving hard rock and roll and she would spit on the stage whenever it felt right. Not out of spite, just out of “spit”. Or that her music came out of poetry, which came out of living in the East Village., which came out of being an artist. She was totally cool in my mind. A bohemian artist who found rock and roll as her medium of the time.
I finally got to see her live in 1975 when she played The Boarding House in San Francisco. She was only a year into performing on the road to support her first release. It wasn’t until I learned later that this was one of earlier shows in her career.
Today Patti continues to record, continues to perform, write, recite, film, photo document her life, everything. She began as an artist looking for her medium and today still experiments with new ways to express herself. She. to me., is what living your life as an artist is about. I cannot recommend enough her book. “Just Kids”, which is by far the best book I have read that describes the process of becoming an artist. I recommend it not just because it’s a good read, but because it’s about living a life that is driven by a passion inside of you. A passion to celebrate, to create, to explore, to live out loud what drives you and bring it to the rest of us. The life of an artist, lived as an artist, as we all wish, we could live our own. And we can.
Her life is a gift to us and today I say thank you Patti Smith