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Interviews

William Ellis: Music On A Chink Of Light

By Published: February 15, 2013
Similarly, when asked about the photograph that got away, Ellis' anecdote reveals an uncommon respect for artist and audience alike: "The one that really sticks in my mind was the Miles Davis tribute tour in '92, with Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
b.1960
trumpet
, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
and Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
. I saw it in Glasgow. I can't recall what they were playing, but it was a really quiet part, and on the backdrop there was a massive shadow of Wallace Roney playing just like Miles, and it makes me tingle now to think of it, but it was simply too quiet to go 'click.' I just thought, 'I can't do it.' The music was too important."



In conversation with Ellis, one of the things that come across is that there is some kind of an exchange going on when he photographs a musician—two artists giving of themselves. Full in the knowledge that he is both taking and receiving something from his subject, Ellis is quick to reciprocate: "I always like, if I see the musician again, to give them a nice print" Ellis says.



"This is Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
's tenor, and that's Randy, his brother, in the background. It's a picture which is obviously very poignant now, though at the time, you don't think about what can happen. I gave him this print when I saw McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
and Michael Brecker at the Iridium, NY, and he just looked at it and said, 'That's a nice one' and disappeared—beautiful, like a big butterfly breezing in and out."

There is a unifying thread to Ellis' work, whether it be a performance shot in a club, a concert hall or festival, or a portrait of the musicians he so admires; that common denominator is intimacy. Action shots, per se, are not what he's about. Many of the subjects of Ellis' photography are captured, revealing a softer, more vulnerable side to their often larger-than-life personas on stage.

This is something about his work that Ellis readily recognizes: "It's a very considered thing; when I look through the work that I've done, there's a definite feel to it. Maybe I'm too close to it, but they are quite peaceful pictures, really. I think there's a bit of the blues in my pictures, and that's possibly part of what people connect with as well—that kind of slight poignancy, the emotion that music gives us and the shared humanity."

This ability to capture the essence of a musician, stripped of the mantle of entertainer is seen to great effect in Ellis' photograph of jazz's greatest clown, Dizzy Gillespie: "This picture of Dizzy Gillespie [below] is a very gentle picture, a very contemplative picture. The light is beautiful and soft—he's turning to the side of the stage. That's giving us shape to the face, it's giving us definition, and it's giving us a little bit of contrast, but not too much. It's still a gentle picture which matches the expression. Sometimes all these elements come together, and that's what makes a picture. Having that appear and recognizing it and recording it—to me, that's what I'm about."

Light is never far from any discussion of photography with Ellis. When describing a photograph of pianist Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
Mulgrew Miller
1955 - 2013
piano
he refers to the "Rembrandt quality" of the light falling on his cheek: "The light and the movement and the shapes that it makes are what make the picture.

"Maybe because I'm so conscious of the light, I'm trying to make a picture that will last, one that isn't tiring to the eye. It shows the person clearly, not just in terms of focus but in terms of who they are and where they're at, and what kind of feeling you receive from the musicians as a viewer.

"In a way, I'm trying to define what the music means to me and what that musician means to me. I don't know them personally, but I can know them a little through their music; we all feel we know the musician to some extent."

Ellis is not the type of photographer who shoots off hundreds of photos and selects the one that most appeals. He has an idea of the picture he wants, and he waits for it: The picture of pianist McCoy Tyner [next page] was one of only six shots Ellis took at this session, and the result is undeniably powerful.



Tyner—the great pianist of John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's '60s quartet and a living jazz legend—appears in Ellis' photograph with the intensity of an Evangelical preacher, the commanding strength of a heavyweight boxer. "You can see the shadows under his nose and the shadows under his fingers—this is a very three-dimensional figure, very strong, very powerful, but kind of soft at the same time.

"As a picture, it's a kind of homage to Karsh," continues Ellis. "One of my big influences was [Yousef] Karsh, the way he used light and lit things. It's fairly studied, though it is a stolen moment. You have the light and the tungsten look. He looks elder statesman-like, respectfully observed—a respectfully observed master."


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