Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Clarence Acox has been a force on the Seattle Jazz Scene since his arrival in 1971. He came to Seattle by way of New Orleans to accept a job running the music program at Garfield High School. Over the years, he managed to create one of the finest high school jazz programs in the United States and probably, the world. All the while, Clarence established himself as a permanent fixture on the Seattle scene working not only as a drummer, but as a band leader, leading his own group in addition to co-leading highly regarded groups with Floyd Standifer and the Seattle Jazz Orchestra with Michael Brockman.
I was very pleased when Clarence accepted my invitation to participate in the Leading Questions project. I think there are a couple of players that really must be a part of this project if it is to truly represent jazz in Seattle. Clarence is one those players.
Clarence completed his interview in December and I considered trying to photograph him before Christmas. I had a couple of different ideas in mind. I considered photographing him in front of a dark background, with a small soft box in front and a bit above him to light his face, and then use a large octabank behind myself to add a very subtle bit of fill light. I also thought about shooting Clarence in his office. However, I've never been in Clarence's office and I have no idea what it looks like or if it would lend itself well to a picture that would communicate what I want to say about Clarence. It is a danger that has to be monitored when trying to conceive of a shot. I can imagine Clarence in an office, I can see him sitting at his desk with light coming through a window, a career's worth of books lining the shelves. Yeah that would be a great picture. But, again, I haven't seen his office, so I have to keep an idea like that pretty low on the list.
Garfield High School is a beautiful old building. I could imagine shooting Clarence in one of the hallways. When I talked to Clarence about meeting for the shoot, he suggested we meet at the grand staircase that leads to the main entrance of the school. This sounded like a good plan, but something in the back of my mind started to suggest to me that I was heading down the wrong path. I realized that I didn't really want to make the presence of the school somehow overshadow who Clarence is. Of course, the school's successful jazz program is a tremendous accomplishment, but it almost seems a disservice to Clarence, the person, to define him by this single facet. There's a lot to the guy and to place him in the context of the school almost seems like placing him in a box, not to mention the fact that shooting him there seems a little cliche. It seems like the obvious choice, what every photographer would do.
So I did it.
Well, you know, you have to be willing to try anything and who knows, maybe it will work. It didn't work. I don't like these images. The second thing I did was to shoot Clarence from below. This was another choice, that I knew walking in, that I didn't want to do. Clarence is an imposing figure. He's a confident person with a deep resonant voice and when he speaks, people listen. He is comfortable in his own skin and you can sense it by the way he carries himself. No pretense, just real. So, why would I not want to shoot him from below, clearly expressing the traits I've just described? Two reasons. First, again, I don't want to fall into the cliche. It's the shot anyone would take, it's the obvious picture. I'm not really interested in the obvious picture, I want the one that shows a truth about a person that only people who know that person and who have talked to that person understand. This brings me to the second reason, I have talked to Clarence, I've taught his students. I won't tell you that I know Clarence well, but I know him well enough to know that there is the Clarence I described above and there is a Clarence that really cares about his students. If someone asked me about Clarence, I would say he is a sweetheart of a guy, and it seems odd to me to say that, because Clarence doesn't act like a sweetheart of a guy. He's not effusive or emotional, but if you talk to him and listen closely, you can hear how much heart this guy has and how much he cares about every kid he's worked with over the years.
So, this is why I chose the picture at the top of the page. To me it expresses something different about Clarence. His head is bowed, he is drawn in instead of having a commanding outward presence. To me, it's as close as I could get to a visual representation of the man inside.
When I arrived at the school, I saw the stairs but I also noticed the very modern looking brushed metal panels on the exterior of the new Quincy Jones Performance Center. They immediatley struck me as a potential background, so I set up two separate light plans. For the images on the steps of the school I used a White Lightning X1600 through a 60" Softlighter 2. For the images in front of the performance center I used an Alien Bees B800 shot into a 45" silver bounce umbrella. Both set ups were powered by Vagabond II's. Having two set ups made it very easily to quickly move from one place to the next enabling me to complete the shoot in about 15 minutes.
The contrast of the two separate set ups is huge. One is very old school, literally an old school, the other very modern and sleek. This modern element was really appealing to me because I think it also helped to cast Clarence in a different light. Jazz doesn't have to always look like 1955. This is the 21st century and though the music may have a long history, it is still vital and alive in this modern age.
Here is a link to Clarence's interview: http://seattlejazzscene.com/?p=1034
The lead image was shot with a Canon 5D MK II w/ef 24-70 2.8L USM at f/11 1/160th, ISO 100.
The lighting was provided by an Alien Bees B800 bounced into a 45" silver umbrella to get a little bit of a contrasty quality.
The school image was shot with a Mamiya RZ67 w/110mm 2.8 lens at f/9, 1/60th of a second, using Kodak Portra 160 VC film rated at ISO 100.
The lighting was provided by a White Lightning X1600 into a 60" Photek Softlighter II.
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