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Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson By

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The photography of the great photo essayist W. Eugene Smith made a large impact on Wilmer. "That's what did it for me. I thought he was so perfect." Another photographer who would inspire Wilmer was New York journalist Jacob Riis, author How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890) and The Battle With the Slum (Houghton Miffin, 1901). "He was the first person to document social conditions," explains Wilmer.

"Starting in 1888, he photographed people on the Lower East Side and on The Bowery" Wilmer expands. "I found myself living near The Bowery in the 1970s. It was such an appalling place where the streets were never cleaned, and that made me think about those pictures." Wilmer learned that it was possible to see Riis' original prints in the Museum of the City of New York and she wasted no time in heading there.

"I saw his photographs and that had an enormous effect on me. Then I went back and looked at his books, and I'm also looking at the work of Eugene Smith and the idea of The Concerned Photographer, which involved people like Cornell Capa and Werner Bischof."

When it came to jazz photography, Wilmer was also influenced by the work of Magnum photographer Dennis Stock, as well as Herb Snitzer, both of whom photographed musicians in contexts other than the stage. This was, in part, the inspiration behind Wilmer's early 1970s trips to America's Southern states, where she went in search of the blues -the churches, homes and communities of the people whose lives had birthed the music. It was a dangerous place for a white person to be seen socializing with blacks.

"It was certainly a dangerous place for a black person to be," stresses Wilmer. "Segregation might have been abolished by law but it still existed." Traveling the South and seeking out the blues and gospel music might sound like a romantic escapade, but as Wilmer relates it wasn't a picnic. "A lot of people said to me, 'Oh, I'd love to go down South with you and listen to blues' and I thought 'No you bloody wouldn't, and I wouldn't want you with me,' because it was hard."

Wilmer recalls one day in Mississippi, where she had been staying with some people. "The conversation grew so intense and I was a bit overwhelmed by them. I got into the car and went for a drive and I found myself in this little grove. This was in Bentonia, near where Skip James lived. He had this song called "Cyprus Grove Blues," and then I looked up and there was this branch of a tree sticking out over the road. And you know? Because I had seen those photographs, years before in a book, of two men being lynched and the people pointing at them and laughing. There was another photograph in the same book of a black man tied to a cross and burnt. They were taken by a photographic company who then sold them, commercially, as souvenirs. Some have survived,"

For some black jazz musicians, however, the memories of lynchings were all too real. "The bassist and photographer Milt Hinton saw someone lynched when he was nine years old. He told me about it," relates Wilmer. "He was living in Vicksburg, Mississippi when this happened. His Mum said, 'Come on, we're going.' And they left the next day. He had seen that with his own eyes. When you've seen those things you never forget them."

There are sixteen pages of black and white photographs in As Serious As Your Life. Of the thirty one photographs therein, about half capture free-jazz musicians playing or rehearsing. The rest are portraits of musicians in more relaxed mode.

There's a rare picture of Coltrane with the ghost of a smile on his face, and one of Cecil Taylor putting on a shoe, backstage at the Five Spot. One of the most touching pictures shows Rashied Ali and young son Khalil, sat on the floor, smiling at each other. Other photographs frame Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton playing pool, and Bea and Sam Rivers in loving embrace. For Wilmer, the musicians she loved and admired were ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

It maybe shouldn't come as any great surprise that of the performance photographs only one woman features -pianist Amina Claudine Myers. In Wilmer's first book, Jazz People, all the essays were on male jazz musicians. If free-jazz and mainstream jazz shared one thing in common in the 1960s and 1970s, it was that both were predominantly male domains.

"The thing is that was how I felt at the time," Wilmer says honestly. "That was how we were brought up -to believe that only what men did was important. There were those of us who thought 'oh, we're above all that' but if you're a feminist, you understand that it doesn't matter how good you are at what you do, you're always going to be vulnerable and open to attack and that may go on evermore. Look what's happening nowadays."


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