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William Ellis: Music On A Chink Of Light

Ian Patterson By

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That mixture of respect and reverence towards Ellis' subjects is tangible in his photos: "From when I first started taking pictures, I felt that musicians—wherever they're performing, at whatever level—are messengers. They bring a point of view, sadness, a joy. I know they're all human like everybody else, but in a performance context they acquire another dimension, so in quite a few of my picture I can see the artist depicted heroically."



Ellis is passionate about the music and its practitioners: "Music drives the whole thing," he explains. "It inspires the image. I am oblivious to anything else. I'm very focused on getting the image that I feel should be there—it has to be discovered."

"I get a feel for what's happening, get a feel for the music. Then I choose my spot to work from. If it's not working, I'll move somewhere else.

"Yeah, you need some luck," acknowledges Ellis, "but I think you have to have something envisaged in your mind to be able to accept what's in front of you—to have a considered view of what you're trying to create, the mood you're trying to reflect. I'm trying to show a moment that's not there—a moment that's not always seen. The luck sometimes is maybe that there's not a mic stand in the way."

The more composed pictures in Ellis' oeuvre tend naturally to be taken offstage, like this photograph of singer Kurt Elling [below] which was shot in '09, shortly after Elling came off stage in Toronto where he had been performing with a big band. "He was doing the whole Sinatra bit," recalls Ellis. "He came off stage, and he was just kind of prowling around in this big room back stage, just coming down a little bit. He was about to go to the door to leave. I went over, introduced myself and said I'd like to make a special portrait of him. He looked at me and said, 'Okay.'

"I'd seen some down lighters to the side of the room, which was effectively the only source of light. That downward light is going to suggest drama, so that's what I went for. This was taken with a standard 50mm lens. I've got it in my mind what I want to do—I want to go for that Brando look, and there we go."

Whether shooting in a club or a festival or taking portrait pictures, however spur-of-the-moment they may be, it is very rare that Ellis is refused permission to shoot. No doubt this has a lot to do with his manner—respectful yet gently persuasive. This respect also extends to the audience whom he is standing in front of and working around, and whom sometimes he asks to move to accommodate the shot he needs.

"The way you speak to people, your manner, is so important," affirms Ellis. "You have to be confident but not a pain in the neck. When you're shooting, you have to be conscious that the audience is actually paying for this. It's a balance of always acting professionally, always being respectful to the musicians primarily—without them we've got nothing—and also respect for the audience.

"If I see that the only place I can get the shot I need is from the front row, I smile at the person, and say, Would you mind for one minute?' It's never happened that I haven't got the smile back. People know what you're doing and are on your side if you're courteous and thoughtful."

This approach to his work has seen Ellis establish an already impressive portfolio, and his talents have been recognized beyond the international jazz festival circuit.

The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester commissioned Ellis to create a document of the different genres of musical performance they have there for an exhibition staged in May, 2010. Ellis photographed Tommy Emmanuel, Liza Minnelli, Buena Vista Social Club and the Halle Orchestra. It has been, as Ellis testifies, a rewarding experience. "It's been very exciting to photograph other genres of music and to see the common link that unites us all in every type of music, in terms of communication and brotherhood."

In recent times, Ellis has spent more time doing photographic portraits than in the past. It's a whole different ball game from shooting concert pictures, but again, capturing intimacy for Ellis is the key. "It's more personal; on stage it's more of an arena, and I do enjoy that side of my work, but a portrait has a different significance.

"In the portraits, I'm very relaxed and quiet, and that is reflected back. One of the things that I enjoy and place most value on is that personal contact, that eye-to eye, even if it's only for two minutes. It's very intense, but at the same time relaxed and intimate.

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