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William Ellis: Music On A Chink Of Light

Ian Patterson By

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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, Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Chet Baker and Miles Davis 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.

"As in every endeavor, determination and commitment are vital to achieve what you need to do, but being polite and using a little charm are as important.

"I'd been lucky enough to photograph some major figures there like Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist, and Burl Ives, believe it or not! All these amazing characters; a lot of them have left us now. It gave me a taste for performance photography. I was in my early 20s, and it kind of got under my skin a bit."



Ellis would soon all but abandon photography, only to take it up some years later, inspired by another passion: "I left photography for a while until my late twenties, when I started getting into jazz seriously. My feel for the music came from Frank Sinatra, Count Basie's orchestra and all those tremendous orchestrations my mother played on the radio. Then I got into Miles."

The turning point, however, was in '89, when Ellis read that Miles Davis [left] was coming to play in England. "I just had to go and see him, though I never thought I'd be able to photograph him. I was scrabbling all over Manchester with my contacts to get accreditation to shoot, and I couldn't. Everybody wanted to shoot Miles Davis."

Ellis eventually tracked down the promoter, who was obviously impressed with the fact that Ellis had actually paid for his tickets for both nights. A compliment slip was left for Ellis to collect at the booking office, and he had the necessary permission to photograph Miles. Getting in was one thing, getting a picture which would set him apart from all the other photographers was another.

As Ellis is the first to admit, an element of luck can play a part in the capturing of a photograph, without a doubt. "In this situation with Miles, there's a strong side light coming in from Miles' right, which creates drama and strength. The stance of the subject is very direct, confrontational almost. That was lucky that light was there, he stood there like that, and I saw it. "

Ellis' photograph of Miles was used for the program of the trumpeter's concert in Glasgow the following year. "That's what opened all the doors," explains Ellis. "If you get the chance you take it. That gave me some credibility and the accreditation to shoot at jazz events and festivals and get other things rolling. I started to get work and commissions. From there I was able to build up the archive—the body of work of all the other great musicians—so thank you, Miles."

Since that evening at the Manchester Apollo over 20 years ago, Ellis has come a very long way. In the last year alone, he has photographed all the major jazz festivals in the UK, and has also clicked his shutter at festivals in Bremen, Mexico, New York, Hong Kong, Cuba, Ireland and Malaysia. Then there is all the stuff that happens in between, like organizing exhibitions and giving seminars.

Needless to say, in the last two decades, Ellis has photographed a lot of the greats in jazz, both historical and contemporary, and he talks of his profession as a privilege which he never takes for granted. "How could you ever meet these people?" enthuses Ellis, shaking his head slowly in wonder. "Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath—it just amazes me."

These days, Ellis is in demand around the world, but in the early years before invitations to festivals like Cape Town or artist-in-residence status at North Sea Jazz became the norm, Ellis would drive 500 miles from Manchester to Glasgow in an evening to photograph Bobby King or Dizzy Gillespie and then drive 500 back.

"You've got to be determined and you only get out of it what you put in. It's very much a case of paying your dues, and I still am. You should take nothing for granted, but have a presence, a respect for yourself and the pictures you've shot over the years, and for who you've photographed."



The respect that Ellis has for his subjects can be measured not only by how he always shoots with permission, but by the way he talks about the musicians: "I remember some years ago photographing Albert King in Glasgow, and he was in a wheelchair; he gets up, picks up his Flying V and just plays the life out of it, then gets back in his chair and then they wheel him back out. Clark Terry, the same; I photographed him at Birdland a couple of years ago, and again they wheeled him in, he got up, picked up his horn and he was a different man. That's what music can do. I'm still blown away just by being within ten feet of these people."

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, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. 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.

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