JAZZ DIARY / Jane Richards on Val Wilmer

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The Independent Culture
Jazz photography has often received a bad press for perpetrating the most over-used, cliche-ridden images in photography - cigarette smoke against a black background comes most readily to mind. And British jazz photographer Val Wilmer, who over the past 40 years has consistently managed to steer clear of the cliches, has a good idea of how the reputation has stuck: 'Jazz photography is riddled with people who are not imaginative,' she says. 'It's the most extraordinary contradiction because here you have this vital, historical, revolutionary music, and when it comes to taking pictures, it's as if photographers are so mesmerised by the spectacle that they forget that they have to do something too. It's not enough to just point the camera and take a picture. You've got to get inside that moment - to interpret it, to find more.'

Val Wilmer's work can currently be seen at Smith's Galleries, in an exhibition that demonstrates the inherent understanding and feel for the subject that she insists must be there in the first place (she discovered jazz at the early age of 11 and stayed obsessed). For a close-up of John Coltrane's drummer, Rashied Ali, Wilmer was working with poor light and decided to focus on the fast handiwork of the drummer, highlighting the essence of his performance. The result - a very dark, atmospheric image - draws the eye to the white blur of the drumsticks at work. Tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe was caught leaning on the stairs of a New York subway station as a train rushed through: 'It works,' says Wilmer, 'because his face stands out from the background in a white flash of light.'

In her autobiography, Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This (The Women's Press, 1989), Wilmer said of her life as a jazz photographer, 'It just seemed normal to shoot pictures that showed who the people were rather than merely what they did.' She photographed celebrated saxophonist Archie Shepp at home on the Lower East Side, New York, alongside a poster of Jimi Hendrix: 'Hendrix was not particularly representative of Black Nationalism at the time (the mid-1970s) - he certainly didn't play 'black' music - I thought it said a great deal about Shepp that he obviously respected Hendrix as much as, say, Louis Armstrong.'

And of one of her earliest influences: 'W Eugene Smith was one of the first photographers to show us not just what a person did, but who they were. And I knew instinctively when I first saw his work that this was what I wanted to do.'

Six Jazz Photographers, Oris Gallery at Smith's Galleries, 33 Shelton St, London WC2 (071-836 9701). To 7 Oct.

(Photograph omitted)