08 diciembre 2015

Of Princes, Duchesses and a Posh Little Cardie

This is a BBC radio 4 interview of Arthur Edwards, the Sun newspaper’s royal photographer recorded on Nov. 30th, 2015 for Today Programme on the occasion of Kensington Palace releasing pictures of Princess Charlotte taken by her mother, the Duchess of Cambridge.
While the interviewer seems to be trying to lead Mr. Edwards to say he is now out of a job as a royal photographer, Edwards has nothing but kind comments towards Kate Middleton and goes on to praising the Duchess' skills.
The end result is a small triumph of domestic photography, just a mother sharing a picture of her baby. What could be an ordinary daily life moment has wider connotations.

When the journalist suggests Mr. Edwards might be out of the job, he answers « not until she starts catching planes and taking pictures of the royals around the globe » implying he's still the one in charge of immortalizing that kind of events. Maybe they won't need him indoors to take the family portraits anymore but he still does and covers the official visits as well as the domestic events – their births (besides their baby pics), deaths and marriages The journalist  says « your job will be in public places » as if he were trying to redefine his job already.
Historically and traditionally those with direct access to the prince or the royals in general benefit of social and political status. To be appointed to the staff of the chamber of the King was a sign of great privilege and assured high rank. The royal painter was included among these valets de chambre and they would swear an oath to serve loyally. This closeness to the king and the access to his intimacy was a great honor for artists and would propel the career of a common artisan to the highest possible step of the ladder. I can think of artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, just to name a few. All held at one point in their careers a position at court. But since it's the picture of baby Charlotte that made the buzz, I can't help but think of Diego Velazquez's famous painting entitled « Las Meninas » where the Infanta Margarita or Infant Margaret is surrounded by all her courtesans preparing her to be portrayed.
But even without going back so much in time, in this very same interview, Mr. Edwards talks about his relationship to Diana and how it was him the one in charge of the intimate family portraits.
The Brits love their royals and the media machine that surrounds the Windsors has become as much of a British institution as the Royal Family themselves. They went from distant beings dressed in velvet and sitting in thrones to being celebrities. We would all recognize any member of the family if they drove past but this was of course not the case not that many generations ago. The Palace would have to print portraits of the monarchs so people would know who to cheer. Since the invention of photography it then became the norm for a camera to accompany the King or Queen on every royal walk, especially when they were meeting with ordinary people. I believe that showing the public the King's daily duties helped to justify the British monarchy at a time when most of Europe was getting rid of it.

Edwards talks with affection of the family as if he were part of it. He saw the princes grow in front of his camera lens and now it's the grandchildren that get to be portrayed by someone else... their mother, for that matter. He doesn't seem worried that his heyday as the royal photographer is behind. He has been loyally serving for many decades and he shouldn't be far from retirement. But his successor's job description will certainly be modified.

Nowadays we can all do a photo-portrait, a practice historically limited to only a few . You no longer have to be a professional photographer to take portraits: Everybody is a photographer

The camera used to be a way of conveying truth and recording a memory while representing a symbolic appropriation or selection of the world. Now this art has evolved drastically as to include digital retouching, filtering and all sorts of different methods to enhance reality.
But as the journalist himself puts it, it's not so much the fact that the Duchess has taken a picture -as she probably takes thousands of them- but that she's shared it. Even the more artistic, less special event-driven kind of photography that used to be reserved for hobbyists is now democratized by photo-sharing apps like Instagram or, in this case, Twitter as it was the official Kensington Palace Twitter account the one that first published the pictures. So it's not only the fact that we can all take any kind of picture with the ubiquity of mobile photography, but that they can also be shared without any further effort.
Mr Edwards compliments Kate Middleton's photographic talent and says that despite « SOME technical imperfections the pictures are just brilliant « .
The decisive moment, Cartier-Bressons' staple style, has lost relevance as now digitally manipulated images can render almost any effect. Composition and exposure are less of a skill as everything can be cropped, deleted, added or in every way modified. Just by clicking on any of the dozens of filters Instagram has to offer, we can add that romantic vintage look that, paradoxically, analog pictures have.

What are those « technical imperfections » Edwards talks about ? Or is he just saying that to make the point they weren't taken by a professional?.
The pictures seem more than acceptable to me, have you ever tried to shoot a 6 month old baby ?. That leaves me to question what's the difference between a  professional and an amateur shot when now we can all have access to the same high-end cameras and post processing tools. While the answer exceeds the limits of this presentation I can't help but wonder how this art is changing in an online visual world. Could it be that being a professional photographer at the present time is only about the privilege of being in the front bench of events ?.
« Tell her to carry on » he says. “You’ve just got to adapt, you’ve just got to accept, and still find something to do every day,” Mr Edwards tells presenter Justin Webb. Aware of the changing nature of his profession.

To us foreigners the British monarchy appears as a thing from the past and its continued existence is somewhat a mystery. Despite the prestige of the institution being slightly deteriorated in the last decades and its very existence questioned, it is generally felt that the monarch and the Royal Family play an important role in society. They are regarded as role models (this is especially the case for the Queen Mother and Princess Anne, maybe less so for Charles even though Princess Diana is still massively loved) and they are the image of a perfect united family. They are actively involved in charity work, they are the image of unity and morality.

The new generation of royals (Prince William and Harry) are seen as being down-to-earth regular guys. The Duchess of Cambridge is supposedly one of us. The future queen is every fashion magazine coveted cover-girl and the girl next-door who married a prince. They are seemingly ordinary and likable and not the unattainable semi-gods that they once were. Equally, George and Charlotte are the babies of the nation and everybody feels entitled to say how much the boy looks like his father or make a remark about the the baby girl's smile. Gone are the days of oppression and tyranny. These babies grow up in front of our eyes as if they were art of our own family.

The pictures of Princess Charlotte that were shared show a regular baby, dressed in regular baby clothes (a Liberty dress and a posh little cardie) playing with a stuffed dog. Nothing particularly fancy or royal about the picture composition. Maybe this is also another way of justifying the monarchy: showing us that we're not all that different after all.

24 octubre 2015

Black Jazz

In a period when protest music wasn't common, Billie Holiday does a live performance of « Strange Fruit » in a theater or nightclub. Although we cannot see the public in the footage, we can guess that the audience was probably not an exclusive black one. In a 1939 America where racial equality is almost nonexistent, Billie Holiday sings a heartbreaking ballad and we can feel the grief she sings it with. She sings her story, the suffering of her people. She wouldn't have believed that 16 years later, jazz was going to become America's music.

Penny Von Eschen's excerpt of the book  SatchmoBlows up the World : Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War describes the irony of what seems to be two opposed worlds : an intrinsically unequal America and the jazz being the music chosen to show artistic expression to the world. During Eisenhower's Administration, in 1956 Dizzy Gillespie tours the world as the goodwill ambassador of the US.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, father of the Beat Movement so immensely inspired by jazz music. Kerouac's prose is characterized by a style submerged in the stream of consciousness, words spoken out in bursts, in onomatopoeia, sparsely punctuated as if by reading we were playing a trumpet or a saxophone, taking fast breaths in order to carry on reading. The excerpt describes the hectic atmosphere of a jazz club.

Throughout this comment I'll hint at how the same music can be used as a protest, as propaganda and to « let it all out ».

Redemption Songs
« Strange Fruit » is a cry against the atrocities of racism. When Billie Holiday sings we get goosebumps because we feel her pain. She sings this song wholeheartedly and almost as gospel. We barely hear the piano play on the back, all we feel is the extreme sadness that releases from this almost a Capella ballad. The poem describes a very explicit scene of lynching « Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze ». The strange fruit is the one who's different, is the rotten fruit that nobody wants to pick, left « for the crows to pluck ». It's the « strange and bitter crop » that had to be killed in order to avoid spoiling the field.
Lynching is a particular kind of felony, instead of killing the person on the spot and getting rid of the body, leaving the corpse hanging from the tree is a lesson -if that word could ever be used to describe that kind of cruelty-, it's left there for the others to see, it's not a crime but the opposite, it's justice. Its purpose is to maintain the order, the supremacy of the white, to spread terror.
By singing « Strange Fruit » Billie Holiday not only denounces the system but she also break all barriers and codes by performing live.

We can feel the sweat of the mad crowd yelling and dancing in Kerouac's jazzclub scene. Music brings races together and in this nightclub « everybody was rocking and roaring ». People were « tripping and riffing » if I may use the slang of that time. They dance in an altered state of consciousness, they are high on hope, on life, on music.
There is no past, only this present moment where « The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea ». No resentment, the musicians play for all. The euphoric crowd is in a trance state « a six-foot skinny negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell ». It's a religious-like experience, it's exhilarating, it's relieving. « A big fat man was jumping on the platform, making it sag and creak ». Dean « was rubbing his chest, his belly, the sweat splashed from his face ». But it's not only redemptive for the crowds but for the musicians as well : « The tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around ».
The musician is expressing what the crowds are feeling, the sound of their instruments put into music what cannot be expressed with words. « they were all urging that ternoman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes », the sound of the trumpet, like that of Satchmo's, is the repressed cry of resistance of an entire people.

Gillespie's world tour carried the voice of African Americans : « blackness and race operating culturally to project an image of American nationhood ». Jazz is inclusive was the message : « I'm black, I'm American and this is our music ».
President Eisenhower wanted to expose American culture abroad for the purpose of demonstrating the benefits of freedom -and capitalism for that matter- on artistic expression.  Dizzy Gillespie was probably the first official jazz ambassador but many names followed « In the high profile tours by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington » and also Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and many more.
Worldwide audiences felt in this modern jazz -or Bebop as it was also known when it contained a high degree of improvisation- something rebel and indescribable that spoke for them. It wasn't only music; it became an attitude towards life.

But that leads me to question why was this music chosen? How did such a revolutionary rhythm came to be representative of a country whose roots were puritan and deeply repressive?

The Glaring contradiction
« Why did American policymakers feel for the first time in history that the country should be represented by jazz ? » asks Von Eschen. Why would Eisenhower's Republican administration take an international stand against racism while indoors the situation was far from ideal ?.
In the context of the Cold War and particularly at this very ideological stage, propaganda against Soviet Communism was major. America needed to show the world the benefits of the « free world and the free market ». Nevertheless the racial issue was brought up as a main concern in global forums. Convinced that cultural influence is irrevocably linked to political and economic power, the Eisenhower administration sponsored America’s leading jazz musicians’ tours abroad as part of its cultural foreign policy agenda, while a young Martin Luther King led the boycott to the bus company. « The prominence of African American jazz artists was critical to the music's potential as a Cold War weapon ». But as Von Escher puts it, this double irony does not end there, « with the stroke of a pen, this hitherto disreputable music- routinely associated in the mass media with drugs and crime- suddenly became America's music ».

Billie Holiday sings a protest song, a call for justice for black people in this theatre where the audience is probably not black. The public had bought their tickets to listen to this beautiful black woman sing the sorrows of her people. This is a live performance, an almost a capella one, and we hear no sound in the room whatsoever. The song generates discomfort among the audience that does not clap at the end. In the final seconds we see a very fragile Billie Holiday standing in front of a mute audience. A public who payed this black woman to tell them what they don't want to hear. What could have possibly go through her head during those seconds? Was she scared that this could put an end to her musical career? How much courage does it take to sing to a white audience a song about crimes perpetrated by... white people, their fellow countrymen? And what does an applause mean, does it celebrate the talent, does it support the cause?
In any case the stake was immense and she won. Almost 80 years later, this song continues to deplore racial discrimination.

The protagonists of On The Road are at a nightclub and it seems its a mainly black people one. We can almost hear the music and see the frenetic public « Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. » This two young men find their peers at this place, among the African Americans. Their cry for freedom is a different one but it perfectly resonates with that of this black crowd and the black musicians. This rundown jazz club echoes their need for non-conformity. Kerouac describes the scene from inside instead of choosing an omniscient voice and by doing so he takes the reader along and we all merge with the crowd. There is no segregation, no classes, no differences, we all let go of our identities, of our ethnicity, there's only music... and humans.

The essential role of African Americans in U.S. national culture

As Von Eschen puts it, the Brown decision, the Gillespie tour and the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King « inaugurated a new phase of the black freedom movement ensuring that jazz tours and the modern civil rights movement would forever be joined ». Though of course the strategy was not intended as a promotion of democracy led by black artists, this unique Cold War strategy unintentionally demonstrated the essential role of African Americans in U.S. national culture.
The Eisenhower Administration, ironically enough, made the claim that jazz was the most unique form of American culture. So not only does this show that Gillespie's tour was designed to counter Soviet propaganda but it also proves that by exporting jazz to the world, the US wanted to reveal racial equality in action. « US officials pursued a self-conscious campaign against worldwide criticism of US racism ».
By dehumanizing the black race, slavery in America managed to delete fundamental traits of African culture but the remains blended in with the local one. This led out to (if I may say so) a 3rd culture, the African American one. American-born black people, several generations along the line, feel as American as the European immigrants. It is only natural that black people were so deeply involved with the civil rights movement. They are as American as everyone else on the territory. They expressed their solidarity with all the struggles for racial equality around the globe.
Billie Holiday sings in a theatre and describes « a pastoral scene of the gallant south » not quite as the audience would picture it. She carries the voice of those silenced Americans to the ears of the other America that, taken with her talent, wishes to listen.
And so is the case of Gillespie and the many other jazzmen that followed : their talent opened doors and they became ambassadors of a cause as well as of their own country. They sold «the universal, race-transcending quality of jazz while depending on the blackness of musicians to legitimize America's global agendas ».
Ever since, all over the world, America is associated with jazz, African American culture, the land of freedom, opportunity and egalitarianism. That is the image they project and the black population played a major role in defining this picture.
And is not surprising that Kerouac's protagonists go to this «sawdust saloon », a negro jazzclub to find this urge for freedom they are after. A place where everybody screams their hearts out, literally « he drew breath and raised the horn and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air ». The 2 young white men know that the black cause calls their name, is appealing to them -in a different way- but it speaks the same rebel language.
The blackness and the American-ness cannot be dissociated.

Jazz music has been playing on the background throughout this text as we I had been shedding light on the crusade of the African American population for equality and recognition. All things duly considered it is still equally impressive that such a music can be used in so many different ways but at the same time congregate different causes under the same rhythm. Jazz music is unquestionably black, it wouldn't exist without its African roots but neither without its American branches. But it's a music that plays to everybody. Jazz sells a dream. And America knew how to use it in its favour.