29 September 2013

Margrethe Mather: Photographer

"Satisfy your reason
It will occupy your mind
Even when you're dreaming
Find another meaning
To determine what you need
Experience this feeling
And believe"

"In a world so confused
If you find love refused
In a life so defined
You could find time
To change your mind
 excerpted from Occupy Your Mind by Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe, 1989.

When Margrethe Mather (1886-1952) met Billy Justema in 1922, she was 36 and he was 17.  Through spending time with the handsome young Justema, Mather found a way out of  her grief over the unexpected suicide of her close friend Florence Deshon.  Through their relationship, Justema searched for a state of mind that would allow him to define  both his artistic path and his sexuality.  Mather photographed him as an enigma, as he was at the time to himself, in the process creating a portfolio to rival that of Alfred Stieglitz's images of Georgia O'Keeffe.  I could point out the sure compositional structure that informs Billy Justema in a Kimono (above), the curves and angles that form a harmonious whole, all things typical of Mather's  work.  But when I first looked at this picture what took my breathe away was the alluring, withheld eroticism of it.  Male or female?  So strong was the impression it made on me that I didn't care.

When Edward Weston called Margrethe Mather "the first important woman in my life"  in  Daybooks, his published journals, he raised damning with faint praise to an art form.  Not only did Weston expunge their love affair from his life, he administered a slap in the face to his wife Flora Chandler Weston, then already the mother of two of his children.  Also, in service to his own myth-making, he erased his artistic collaboration with Mather and her  role n expanding his horizons and his pictorial vocabulary.  Mather's use of form and contrast (she was familiar with Arthur Wesley Dow's theory of notan) is one of the most notablecharacteristics of modern photography and the move away from pictorialism.  For Mather, a strong sense of composition was innate; for Weston it was learned, and learned first from Mather.

When the two met in Los Angeles in 1913, Mather was the flamboyant bohemian to Weston's conventional paterfamilias.  That same year Weston exhibited his work at the Toronto Camera Club and Mather her work with Association Belge de Photographie in Brussels. The woman who was born Emma Caroline Youngren in Salt Lake City in 1886, remains somewhat enigmatic even with the stellar book and exhibition by Beth Gates Warren.  Her mother died when Emma was ten years old and she was taken in by an aunt who served as the housekeeper for Judge Mather, hence the name change.
As an adolescent, Mather realized that she path to independence was through her attraction for men.  Whether and how many times she serviced wealthy businessmen with a taste for young girls is still an open question.  When her close friend Billy Justema came to write his memoir he could not verify some of the things Mather had told him about herself and some of them were untrue. As Mather later explained , by her mid twenties, her shadow life began to disturb her peace of mind.  After an elderly man died during "a particularly vigorous liaison", Mather decided to get a regular job.   Sans family, money, or much education, she picked up a camera and joined the Los Angeles Camera Club, making a studio for herself in an abandoned barn.

Another, younger man, would be more honest and more grateful than Weston.  William Justema (1905-1987) was an aspiring artist when the sixteen year old appeared at the Mather/Weston studio in Glendale.   Mather's relationship with Weston was disintegrating 1922 and, within weeks of their first meeting, Billy Justema was spending with Mather at her studio and in her flat. He  helped her to maintain her equilibrium when, the next year, Weston the moralist decamped to Mexico with another photographer - Tina Modotti
Justema, in a heartfelt tribute said Mather "would nurture and shield me, thoroughly but unwittingly corrupt me, and yet, above all else, would casually set up standards of ethical behavior and artistic excellence from which I have benefited for half a century."   Justema's recollection strikes me as the echo of Plato's  vision of Eros. "there is no one so bad that, once the god Eros had entered him, he would not be directed toward virtue."
Mather's life ended  in an antique shop not far from the Glendale studio she had shared with Weston.  She knew that he was ambivalent about her and wrote in her last letter to Weston, "[it] might be better to just forget me - to pretend that I didn't exist."  In 1976, Billy Justema remembered Weston as " both a more kindly and a more ruthless person than emerges from [the Daybooks].   Mather's generosity might have shamed the successful Weston; it did not.  She died on Christmas day, 1952, from multiple sclerosis. 

For further reading: Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum: 2011.
Margrethe Mather: A Memoir by William Justema, Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, University of Arizona: 1979
See an extensive collection of photographs at the Center For Creative photography by   Margrethe Mather
Margrethe Mather - c. 1923, Center for creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson.

1. Margrethe Mather -  Billy Justema in a kimono, c. 1923, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson.
2. Imogen Cunningham - Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston, c. 1922,  Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson.
3. Edward Weston - Margrethe Mather, c. 1914, Center for creative photography, University of Arizona,Tucson.

23 September 2013

The Peacocks: Dexter Gordon

"The window looked out onto a pattern never-ending
A flower and trees and little pathways far descending
To the garden far below us, the pavilions in the sunlight
Where the peacocks proudly grace the scene.

The vision, a timeless place, another way of living
You moved in so close I really thought that you were giving
I allowed myself a moment to believe that you could meet me
To reflect upon what might have been.

The summer sky I saw reflected in the colour of your eyes
But somehow I could never peel away the layers of disguise
I'm drowning now, I'm slowly sinking in a sea of blue and green
Where what you are is never seen.  How can anybody know you?

I still hear the ringing of the church bells in the morning
The peacocks still call out their sad and bitter warning
Talk a final look around you.  Hold the memory forever.
Find a quiet place inside where you can listen to what your heart is saying
Beauty's only an illusion.  Here your truth is an intrusion.
A mirage is all it's ever been." 
 - A Timeless Place, lyrics by Norma Winstone

If you bear with me on this circuitous route from New York to Paris and back again,  I may be able to convince you that a jazz tune is an art song. Words can't make you hear the music, but if these words get you to listen to the music, that's fine with me.

From its original title, The Peacocks, you can almost hear the virtuoso flutter-stopping of Stan Getz on tenor saxophone that awed the tune's early audiences.   But you don't have to, because there is a recording of a concert in Antwerp, Belgium from August,  1974.    Getz and pianist Bill Evans had worked together a decade earlier and, having enough time pass to finesse their differences, the two musicians were touring Europe with recording engineers in tow.  Zoot Sims once described Getz as " a nice bunch of guys" in reference to Stan's unpredictability.   August 16th was also the 44th birthday of the heroin-addicted Evans, who often beat the arm he had just shot up in against the piano to restore his circulation before playing.  That they made the first recording of The Peacocks in Belgium, where Adolphe Sax had invented the saxophone seems like some kind of poetic justice.  Through the applause that follows, you can hear Stan Getz say "Happy birthday, Bill."

But the recording was not released and, the next year, to thank composer Jimmy Rowles for giving  The Peacocks to him, Getz paired with Rowles for an album Stan Getz Introduces Jimmy Rowles: The Peacocks, with Rowles at the piano instead of Bill Evans.  Like Getz and Evans, Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996) had his musical roots in bebop.  Rowles, who worked as an accompanist for Billie Holiday and later taught Diana Krall, was admired as an uncommon harmonist at the keyboard.  Bebop also made Rowles' elegant composition possible. Musicians had used the technique of breaking apart and reshuffling familiar chord sequences, (e.g. I IV V became I VI II V) to reinvent classic popular tunes (A A B A).  Reading the lyrics of A Timeless Place (1994) by Norma Winstone  (see above) you know you are looking at the traces of a complex musical form.

Before that happened,  another tenor saxophonist entered the story.  Dexter Gordon (1923-1990) was known as a baffling improvisor even in bebop circles.  Like several others, Gordon's heroin habit landed him in jail (in 1952) and led to the loss of his cabaret license.  (The cabaret license, in force from 1940 to 1967, was intended to exclude persons of "bad character" from performing on licensed premises.  In practice, it prevented many musicians from earning a living and its impact on black musicians was horrendous.)  Although Gordon went clean and began recording again for Blue Note Records, he wss unable to get work in New York clubs so he moved to Europe in 1962.  By the time he returned to New York in 1976, things had changed enough that his music was greeted ecstatically but, his health failing, Gordon's performing days were dwindling.

So that's where Bertrand Tavernier (b. 1941) found Gordon in 1984.  The French filmmaker persuaded Gordon who had never acted, to take the part of Dale Turner, an exiled American jazz musician in 1950s Paris.  The film would be called 'Round Midnight.  In it, Turner is a man struggling to control his alcohol consumption  enough to keep making music, away from his drug-taking friends back in New York City.  Tavernier was determined to cast real jazz musicians playing the other characters, including Ron Carter (bass), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Billy Higgins(drums), Bobby Hutcherson (vubes), Bobby McFerrin, Cedar Walton (piano) and Tony Williams (percussion).  Tavernier, as you have guessed by by now, was an ardent jazz fan; he even knew that the  actress Lonette McKee was also a fine singer and her performance of  Gershwin's How long Has this Been Going On? is a highlight among highlights. Herbie Hancock, who appeared in the movie and composed the score., knew to included  The Peacocks.

"When you explore beautiful things every night, the most beautiful can be painful."  - Dale Turner

For the character of Dale Turner, Tavernier and his screenwriting partner David Rayfiel drew on the lives of saxophonist Lester Young  and pianist Bud Powell. In that same scene in the alley (photo above), Turner explains to his young friend Francis that, like his mentor Lester Young, he needs the words ("I can't remember the words") so that he can make them speak through his instrument.  Both Young and Powell had problems with alcohol, with  Young basically drinking himself to death a few months before his 50th birthday in 1959.   Powell was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years before dying of tuberculosis at age 41 in 1966. Powell had played piano on the first recording of Thelonius Monk's composition 'Round Midnight in 1944, as Tavernier surely knew.  Tavernier was aware of Gordon's substance problems, of Lester Young's role as Gordon's friend and mentor, and of Gordon's love affair with Young's confidante, Billie Holiday.  In a bittersweet touch, the  character of Turner addresses everyone as Lady, Holiday's nickname.  "Well, Lady Sweets, are you ready for tonight?" Turner asks his saxophone before giving an ineffable performance of Body And Soul.  All the music in the film was was recorded live on the set.

"I dreamed you came to Paris." - Dale Turner to Miss Darcy Leigh

Gordon's performance is believable and touching, conveying emotion with minimal drama; when he stares off into space you really want to know what he sees as he speaks in  slow, husky tones.  His scenes with Francis's young daughter Berangere are courtly and gentle, as Turner expresses a tenderness we learn that he has failed to give to hiw own daughter Chan.   When Turner and "Miss Darcy Leigh" (the Billie Holiday figure) played by Lonette McKee duet on George Gershwin's How Long has This Been Going On? my heart melts every time. Gordon was nominated for an Oscar  as Best Actor for this performance.  Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for Best Film Score, his noir-ish composition Chan's Song/ Never Said, with sublime wordless vocals by Bobby McFerrin, overshadowed just slightly by the one he rescued - The Peacocks.

"It's autumn in New York that brings the promise of new love.
Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain.
Dreamers with empty hands may sigh for exotic lands;
It's autumn in New York;
It's good to live it again."
 - the lyrics Dale Turner needed to remember, from Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke

REVISED: 09 - 29 - 13; 04/29/14.

The music, the movie:
A Timeless Place appears on Unsung Heroes by Tierney Sutton, Telarc Records: 2000. (Sutton owns this song now, to my ears.)
The Peacocks appears on Bill Evans & Stan Getz: Live In Belgium, Milestone Records: 1974 not released until 1995. (You can hear it on YouTube)
Stan Getz & Jimmy Rowles, The Peacocks, Koch Jazz, 1975
Dexter Gordon appears in Round Midnight (Autour de minuit), directed by Bertrand Tavernier, Warner Brothers: 1985, now  on DVD. (Several musical performances from the film are also available through YouTube).

Tierney Sutton sings A Timeless Place..
Images:1. Fra Angelico & Fra Filippo Lippi, detail from The Adoration of the Magi, corca 1440-1460, tempura on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
2.- 5.  Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner in still shots from Round Midnight, 1986.