I took in an exhibit of powerful black-and-white photos by W. Eugene Smith this morning at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts. The photos in the Jazz Loft Project exhibit are a study in light and dark with most of the photos being quite dark. One of the exhibit’s iconic photos, of saxophonist Zoot Sims, is a portrait reduced to the essentials. Light areas occupy maybe 5% of the frame. Sims’ eye socket is a dark smudge but his intense concentration, along with the delicate curve of his instrument, shine through. Immediately behind Sims, almost lost in the shadows, is a woman who seems enraptured by his playing. In a photo of Thelonious Monk the only bright part of the shot is the cigarette dangling from Monk’s lips.
The exhibit alternates between street scenes shot from Smith’s fourth-floor apartment in New York and photos of notable jazz musicians who gathered in the city during the years between 1957 and 1965. In many cases, the photos are of seemingly mundane scenes yet they are imbued with a Twilight Zone feeling. In one, a man is inexplicably sitting in the middle of a street facing an oncoming, stopped car. Several men are standing around in rain coats and fedoras looking like they might have stepped out of an episode of The Untouchables.
The light-and-dark theme runs through the exhibit in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense. There is an overpowering sense of good vs. evil in a photo of a skyscraper tightly framed by what appear to be black dagger icicles descending from above. The skyscraper thrusts upward, rising toward the heavens, while the daggers closely framing the building descend threateningly downward. These same dark jagged points are used in other photos to tightly wrap (in a deadly embrace?) people on the street below. Later, in a photo of Smith we see that the drapery in his room has been cut into pointed forms specifically for use as a framing device.
The light and dark theme pervades the exhibit, often with both elements in the frame at the same time. We see a sign that says “Funeral Designs” at a flower market. In another photo a police car suggests danger while a statue of a child in a frilly dress stands near a display of corsages at the opposite corner of the frame.
Although a foreboding feeling is ever-present in these photos W. Eugene Smith is not without a sense of humor. One image shows a woman standing by a sign which reads “No Standing, Bus Stop.” The same sign appears in another photo upside-down, reflected in a puddle. In another photo the sign is shown upside-down and in a mirror image—presumably, reflected twice.