Into the Soul of the Rhythm
PHOTOS AND TEXT BY JANA BIRCHUM
eople think of me as a photojournalist—someone who tells stories with her camera. Often hard stories, like living on the streets with the street kids for a month, or following a woman with breast cancer through her journey. I come from a background in film. I made several short films, one of which is still in distribution, and I ran women’s film festivals for years. When I decided to move on, it was as a documentary photographer. The photos in this essay are an extension of what I “normally” do. When I document someone’s life, I try to disappear into the story. It’s like closing your eyes and becoming someone else, channeling their experience through the camera. Telling the pain of their stories through gesture and line. And that’s how these photos are made, as well. I was a music major in college—studying to be a concert pianist. I just lacked the talent. But when I listen to music, I go to a special place that all that practicing took me to. Pure sound. Pure pleasure. These photos are my effort to translate that experience into a visual form. Really, that’s it. They are my effort to make visual the energy of the music. I discovered when I started working on this body of work that music images are perceived in a certain way. Most everyone’s first reaction is to say, “who is that?” Music photos are, to most viewers, photos of music celebrities. It’s Willie or it’s Cher or it’s someone you know. But these photos aren’t about “who”. They’re not about the musicians. The question “who is it?” really has no meaning here. I don’t care who it is. I care about what it sounds like. The musician is only a medium for the sound. My goal is to make you hear the music in the movement, the gesture, the vibration, the light. So you can go to that place where the music comes from, which for me is a dark place reached when you close your eyes and just listen. Mostly that’s expressed through the use of line. Line is a major component of the compositions, and I try to use it differently in different settings. So for Polyphonic Spree, a large jam band that plays a sort of trance music, I tried to capture how the chorus works together to take themselves outside of the moment into another space, singing, swaying, shouting. It’s all about the lines: the way the singer’s hair looks when she throws it back; the hands up in the air; the lines in the clothing. Everything is transformed into music. They—the musicians—are transformed into music. That’s the same thing that’s happening in the image of the Ponys. They’re a rock n’ roll band, and ordinarily I wouldn’t be interested in the music all that much. But what I like is the expressiveness: the hair, the movement of the hair, the sweat, the intensity. Just look how hard he’s worked. For someone like Willie, it’s a struggle. Thousands of photos have been taken of Willie. How can you say anything new? I try to do it by getting right up on him, and letting all the lines of his face take you to the place he’s gone in the music. All the places he’s gone in his life, as well, told through the lines in his face when he goes away into the music he makes. I work in the dark areas of composition a lot with these pictures. I use negative space almost as much as positive space, and I let the musicians float in the dark. Lavelle White is a perfect example. She floats in a dark space, almost disappearing into the dark. It’s like she’s in between the real world and the place of the music, floating in between, bringing the music home. Lavelle White is from the old school blues tradition, living the life of the blues singer. She’s a phenomenal musician. Finally, there’s the image that I call “Washboard,” which is a photograph of a zydeco group, the CJ Chenier Band from Louisiana. The photo was shot in black and white, printed in color, and then I added a color wash. I’m just trying to be totally present with the musician; I want to express what the music sounds like. For me, this is a photograph of what zydeco sounds like. Ever since Christo’s exhibition, “The Gates,” opened in New York, I’ve been reading a lot about his philosophy of art, which is probably influencing my thoughts these days. But I agree with him on this: For “Into the Soul of the Rhythm,” it’s really just about the art for the art’s sake. These pictures are solely an effort to bring the viewer pleasure: the pleasure of music in a visual form. Jana Birchum lives in Austin.