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William Ellis: Music On A Chink Of Light

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[ Editor's Note: "Music On A Chink Of Light" was originally published on August 4, 2010. This encore presentation coincides with William Ellis's new column One LP. ]

Black and white photographs of jazz legends taken by the likes of Herman Leonard, William P. Gottlieb and William Claxton have gained iconic status over the years. Decades on, their photographs of Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
, Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Chet Baker
Chet Baker
Chet Baker
1929 - 1988
trumpet
and Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
adorn countless walls of jazz aficionados around the world. These photographs may owe their status, at least in part, to the fame of their subjects. Back in '89, as a photographer struggling to build a name for himself, William Ellis knew only too well that for the doors of opportunity to swing wide open for him, he too had to land a big fish.

One photograph of Miles Davis, one captured moment, opened these doors and launched the career of one of the most interesting and dedicated of the modern generation of jazz photographers. However, like the musicians he photographs William Ellis has paid his dues; long years of photographing festivals and local events up and down England honed his talents and gave him a taste for performance photography. When the defining moment came, Ellis was ready to pounce. He hasn't looked back since.

Anyone who has seen Ellis operating, prowling around the edges of the stage, often removed from the scrum of photographers at the bigger festivals, can appreciate that here is an artist at work. There is an intensity about him that utterly belies his gentle, quiet demeanor and quick humor in conversation. His absorption in the task at hand, in his craft, is total. As with a dog jealously guarding a particularly juicy bone, it would not be wise to tap him on the shoulder in this state.

Ellis studies his subject, gets a feel for the music and the personality that is creating that music and decides in his mind what picture he wants. More often than not, that moment presents itself and, in the click of a shutter, is captured. "I want to make a picture that will last," explains Ellis. "That's always what I'm trying to do, otherwise what's the point? I don't just want to turn up and take pictures of something happening, I want something that really affects me and, I hope, affects other people too."

A love of the music and a profound respect for its practitioners drives his work, but the outcome of his labor comes down to the light, which dictates everything. Music may be his muse and light his mistress: music on a chink of light.

"Light is the key," says Ellis. "I don't analyze my pictures, or any pictures too much. I guess it's more instinctive now, more intuitive how a picture's been made in certain respects, but light is definitely the key. In a stage situation, you have got no control over the light. I envisage how I can use the existing light there to create an image that's going to tell you something—that enriches the viewer with an image that rings true."

A lot of Ellis' inspiration has come not from fellow photographers—though he cites a long list of those whose work he admires—but from painters.

"I look a lot at paintings, and how artists use light to shape, accentuate or hide elements to create drama and narrative. The way that light has always been used by painters never changes. I've always been interested in art, the Dutch painters, all the usual suspects who painted portraits and still life. Those influences, European artists and then later American artists like [Edward] Hopper—they're all in your mind at the same time, and it's not a conscious thing; it's subconscious, like film noire." This subconscious association with a classic cinema genre may go some way to explain why many of Ellis' pictures appear to have been shot in the '50s. Still, paintings and not the moving picture, as he reiterates, are his main source of inspiration.



"Over the years, I've made a point of going to galleries and soaking the whole thing up. I was in Guangzhou last October, covering a concert for the Hong Kong Jazz Festival, and I went to the gallery where there was an exhibition to mark the 60th Anniversary of the revolution there. They had all these traditional Chinese artworks right through to Yue Minjun. I feel that any young people who are interested in photography can do nothing better than go and look at paintings. The more reference points the better—local artists, any artists. Any painting you can see, you should go and see it. It's like music—the more you hear, the more you will enjoy."

It all began for Ellis in the late '70s, as he recalls:"I'd done town events and small festivals in the northwest of England; I always shot with permission and charged for the pictures. I was used to working in that kind of environment where you are there to do a job and if you don't get the job done, boy, you're in a pickle.

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