Saturday, October 1, 2011

It does not end with Louis Armstrong's death on July 6, 1971

Here is Louis Armstrong, present through absence: the dressing room, a pitcher, a glass of juice, some pills, lip salve, the horn case with trumpet and handkerchiefs. Like his smile and his trumpet, this simple piece of cloth is an essential element in constructing his identity.

Dennis Stock’s 1958 copyrighted photo[1] belongs to a series, a study Stock made of Louis backstage. Each of the photos reveals Armstrong in a contemplative state, one rarely seen by the public. He is about to go on, lost in another world or, post performance, he relaxes. In some of the photographs Louis wears a handkerchief tied around his head, knotted in front or back. In one, he reclines on a lounger, barelegged, wearing only a large open necked white shirt and checkered jacket, handkerchief knotted in back. His eyes are closed, a satisfied smile, cigarette in hand. In another, a profile, he faces an unseen mirror, his handkerchief, knotted in front. He wears a white shirt, cuffs folded back as he tightens his tie at the unseen mirror. He’s not smiling; he looks to be miles away.

There are thousands of photographs of Louis Armstrong; the vast majority are snapshots.  Louis was a champ in front of the camera, snapshots, publicity photos, stills from his films. In hundreds Louis holds his horn and his handkerchief. He’s often with the Hot Five or the All Stars, in the dressing room or at the typewriter, at home tinkering with his home-recorded tapes, or with Lucille and friends. Louis smiling, almost always, Louis smiling. Stock’s series is dramatic, (think of Stock’s photo of James Dean in Times Square). Each photo, tonally rich, employs strong contrasts. And in each, Stock’s subject appears simultaneously spontaneous and absolutely frozen, one reason why these photographs are so compelling.

Photography is now center stage. I am spending many hours with Dorothea Lange dead at 70 (1895-1965). While I’ve long paid photographs close attention and taken my fair share, I know little about the history of photography. I’m learning how photographers pictured and influenced the nation’s history from 1920 through 1960, the decades Lange worked.

As well, I am finding similarities in the lives and attitudes of Armstrong and Lange. Both looked at life as a series of choices not the pursuit of a goal. In an interview conducted by Richard Doud for the Archives of American Art, Smithson Institution, Lange said: “I never had any sense in making a career out of it [photography]. It was more a sense of personal commitment; in fact I have never had a conscious career…I feel myself more like a cipher, a person that can be used for lots of things and I like that. But I don’t feel that I personally stand for anything so great, you know. That is the way in which I kind of slid into this. You asked me about deciding to be a photographer, but over everything, I think, all my decisions right along, even working in the field when I was doing documentary work, have been instinctive; and I trust my instincts…They haven’t led me astray.”[2]

Armstrong went about his life in like manner. Performing was simply what he did. He wanted the best recording studios, nightclubs, tour arrangements, but a career was not his goal, rather to work. He made choices, found excellent musicians to team with, found a manager who handled the nitty-gritty absolving Louis from making unpleasant decisions. 

At work each moved with ease. Louis’s enormous following came from his crowd-pleasing instincts. He loved to sing and, almost as much, he loved to talk. He was a magnet, his dressing room always full of friends and strangers. Dorothea was a more private person. Patient and persistent, she was forthright with those she wanted to photograph. She wanted to hear their stories and she valued them. But this is only part of the story. Their lives were complex (as one would expect)—in personal relationships, intimate ones and professional ones where others held the strings.

Each year, living in the Dead at world is an opportunity to learn from someone, not only a new story, but also to view history through a particular lens, science, entertainment, poetry, visual art. I can’t say I understand physics after a year with J. Robert Oppenheimer, but I have a clear picture of the communist movement in the U.S. in 1930s and the force of anti-communism in the 1950s, helpful a couple of years later when I embarked on Walt Disney.

While I, no doubt, chose Elizabeth Bishop because I wanted to spend a year with her poems and learn her life, her life complemented this time frame. Louis Armstrong and Dorothea Lange expand my understanding of this historical province, adding the imperative of social issues. Geography also matters. Dorothea Lange’s life work in photography is the crux, but her California location adds a new angle.

In the past three years I have traveled from poetry to jazz to photography—words, music, pictures.  Elizabeth Bishop, Louis Armstrong, Dorothea Lange lived in different worlds. Their lives did not touch, but I like to think they did. As the population of my Dead at community grows, I often circle back to someone I’ve previously followed. It’s a game I play, a bit like playing dollhouse. What if I move Joan Mitchell from her attic studio to the library? Will she run into Elizabeth Bishop revising poems? Will they find anything to say to each to other? Or I could move Louis from the study where he’s organizing his home recorded tapes to the kitchen. There’s Dorothea making Christmas dinner. Will they talk jazz or the Farm Security Administration?

In the 1920s Armstrong and Lange were young and exuberant. They were finding out how to go about what they wanted to do. Armstrong moved to Chicago with a brief stint in New York. He recorded prodigiously, played in and formed several bands. Lange left New York at twenty-three, moved to San Francisco opening her own portrait photography studio, a fly by the seat of the pants endeavor.

Louis Armstrong left New Orleans in 1922, swiftly became a big city man, but his early life, Storyville and Perdido, brothels and hard times, remained close to his skin. He would always embrace New Orleans’s traditions; he relished being chosen King of the Zulus in 1947. But living in the south was out of the question.

After Lange photographed migrant families, the Dust Bowl and its aftermath in California, the FSA sent her to the rural south in 1936. She photographed tenant families, black and white. The photographs show individuals and families who did not look destitute or woebegone (a word Lange used to describe the migrants in California). Her photographs of the rural south have been characterized as “frankly idealized” in their difference from the ones she took in the west. In the south she found a stable population grounded in generations of working the land. While she recorded familial warmth, she also underscored the nuances of wary races in constant contact. In Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1936, one can read into the alignment and expressions of the people in the photograph. In the foreground the white boss, a large man, drapes one leg over the license plate of his auto, placing his foot on the back bumper, while his black workers sit behind him on the steps.

The segregated south in the 1930s is demonstrated in Lange’s photographs and in Armstrong’s encounters, where he always walked a tightrope between black and white worlds. Traveling with the band, overnight accommodations had to be arranged when tour bus arrived in a city or town. A band member’s wife would go into the black community to find families able to put them up. At a certain point Armstrong said no, he would not tour in the south.

Armstrong spent most of the early 1930s in Europe where he enchanted thousands and established a fan base still strong today. Back in Chicago he adapted to popular music’s shift to swing. He branched out, went to Hollywood, made movies. He continued to play the clown, a role he loved but one embedded with racial stigmas that angered many.

Once Armstrong hit his stride, he continued in the same path with minor alterations whereas Lange made a wide swoop. As she recognized the changes the Depression was bringing she made the street her studio:

“I had made some photographs...in an area of San Francisco which revealed how deep the depression was. It was at that time beginning to cut very deep…Life, for people, begins to crumble on the edges; they don’t realize it. But this particular section was not far from the place where my studio was and I observed some things that were happening. My powers of observation are fairly good…Sometimes I’m aware of what’s going on behind me. My angle of vision is 360°. That’s training. But I have done some photographs of this. One of them is my most famed photograph [White Angel Bread Line]. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, “Oh, don’t go there.” It was the first day I ever made a photograph on the street.[3]

The Depression had little financial effect on Armstrong. By mid-decade Joe Glaser managed his career, doling out whatever amounts Armstrong requested. Lange was employed by the government and made good money in hard times. Her FSA pay was less than the male photographers she worked with, but she was employed and relatively handsomely. Neither was ever rich or wanted to be, but they had the means to live comfortably.

In the 1950s, Armstrong was in his fifties, Lange in her late fifties and early sixties. They continued working full time and hard. Now it was Armstrong’s turn for a government assignment. Sponsored by the State Department, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars went all over the globe playing to huge crowds, in Ghana over 100,000 people. He turned in some amazing performances, yet routine was set and the path straight ahead. Lange also went global. She traveled to Ireland, the Middle East and Vietnam with her husband, Paul Taylor, an economist working as a consultant on agrarian reform. In this way she nurtured her creativity.

In the 1950s both faced serious illness bringing physical vulnerability. Armstrong suffered his first heart attack in Rome in 1959. Though he chose not to accept this diagnosis, his life was circumscribed from that moment. Lange’s digestive problems began in 1936. By 1954 she suffered from bleeding ulcers and esophageal constriction resulting in extreme weight loss and severe pain. Both conditions gradually worsened and plagued her the rest of her life.

It’s early autumn now, a sudden cold snap and then warm, humid days again. But it’s coming, the end of the growing season bringing short days, long nights of winter. My birthday is in early October, and so I see autumn offering beginning as well as ending. My Dead at project thrives on continuum, one year rolls over into the next until it does not, as in the beginning of W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”:
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out

Realization will no longer exist. What matters is how one arrives there and my hope, like everyone’s, is to retain the physical strength and mental alacrity to die in the middle of things.

[1] Listed as a Magnum photo but not retrievable or available for sale on website. I found it in “Still Life (Louis Armstrong’s Horn Case)” in Seeing Jazz, Chronicle Books catalogue for an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 78.
[2] Dorothea Lange The Crucial Years 1930-1948, La Fabrica Editoral, 129-130.
[3] ibid, 30.