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The Portfolio: Geoff Dyer

Photographs sometimes work on you strangely and simply: at first glance you see things you subsequently discover are not there. Or rather, when you look again you notice things you initially didn’t realise were there.

In Milt Hinton’s photograph of Ben Webster, Red Allen and Pee Wee Russell, for example, I thought that Allen’s foot was resting on the chair in front of him, that Russell was actually drawing on his cigarette, that …

The fact that it is not as you remember it is one of the strengths of Hinton’s photograph (or any other for that matter), for although it depicts only a split-second, the felt duration of the picture extends several seconds either side of that frozen moment to include — or so it seems — what has just happened or is about to happen: Ben tilting back his hat and blowing his nose, Red reaching over to take a cigarette from Pee Wee …

Oil paintings leave even the Battles of Britain or Trafalgar strangely silent. Photography, on the other hand, can be as sensitive to sound as to light. Good photographs are there to be listened to as well as looked at; the better the photograph the more there is to hear. The best jazz photographs are those saturated in the sound of their subject. 

In Carol Reiff’s photo of Chet Baker on stage at Birdland we hear not just the sound of the musicians as they are crowded into the small stage of the frame but the background chat and clinking glasses of the night club. Similarly, in Hinton’s photo we hear the sound of Ben turning the pages of the paper, the rustle of the cloth as Pee Wee crosses his legs. Had we the means to decipher them, could we not go further still to use photographs like this to hear what was actually being said? Or even, since the best photos seem to extend beyond the moments they depict, what has just been said, what is about to be said … 

In describing his process in But Beautiful (Picador), writer Geoff Dyer admits to being buoyed by a sense of synaesthesia. Parts of the text were the product of walks through New York City, ears sealed off by jazz music. “There’d be this constant traffic between what I was seeing and what I was hearing,” said Dyer in an interview with Picador. 

The “invented scenes” that drive the book were his way of writing into the music, to cover his “lack of recourse to musical terminology”, he says. 

In the preface, Dyer maintains that the scenes, as imaginative as they were, “were still intended as commentary on a piece of music or the particular qualities of a musician”. With many of these scenes based on “legendary episodes” — “standards”, as it were — his tendency towards fabulation “keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form” of jazz. 

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