Billie Holiday was a fantastic subject for a photographer. Whatever the location or situation, whatever the lighting or the angle, the turn of her head or the expression on her face, the result was almost always extraordinary. Here’s an example, taken in Paris by Jean-Claude Bernath in 1958, during the second of her two visits to Europe. It was first used in France’s Jazz Magazine, and is among the images reproduced in a two-volume publication accompanying “Jazz Power!”, an exhibition of the monthly magazine’s photographs and artwork between 1954 and 1974, currently in show at the Rencontres d’Arles, the annual festival of photography.
The first of the two paperback volumes folds out into a panoramic reproduction of spreads from the magazine through those years, from Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Clifford Brown to Sun Ra, Sam Rivers and Sonny Sharrock. It’s a reminder of how, founded by Nicole and Eddy Barclay, nurtured by Frank Ténot and Daniel Filipacchi, with editors including Jacques Souplet, Jean-Louis Ginibre and Philippe Carles, Jazz Magazine did a wonderful job of reflecting the excitement of the music and its evolution during those 20 years. As it still seems to be doing under the current editor in chief, Frédéric Goaty.
The second of the volumes contains a text history of the magazine and full-page A4 reproductions of 22 memorable images from its history, of which the photo of Holiday is one. On the reverse of each is a reproduction of the back of the original print, with its photographer’s stamp and the mark-up pencilled in by the sub-editor or designer responsible for sizing it up and indicating how it was to be cropped it for use.
What you see on the reverse of the Holiday print is a set of marks clearly indicating that the page designer wanted to tighten the image to concentrate the focus on the singer, completely eliminating two of the three men surrounding her. That’s understandable in the light of the editorial priority: a picture of Billie Holiday, not of some bystanders. Looking at it today, more than 60 years later, we’re interested in the context.
Besides Bernath, who also took the image on the cover of Chet Baker’s celebrated album of Bob Zieff tunes, recorded for the Barclay label in Paris in 1954, those whose work is featured in the exhibition and the book include such great names of jazz photography as Jean-Pierre Leloir, Herman Leonard, Giuseppe Pino and Val Wilmer. Under its various editors, Jazz Magazine used their images well, consistent in its desire to stress the role of the emerging black consciousness and of women as full participants in the music.
Twenty-odd years ago I was fortunate enough to be in Arles on the eve of the Rencontres, and I remember the wonderful atmosphere surrounding the festival. No doubt the “Jazz Power!” exhibition would be worth the detour, if such a thing were possible this summer. As things are, this handsome publication will have to do.
* Jazz Power: L’aventure Jazz Magazine 1954-74 by Clara Bastid and Marie Robert is published by and available from Delpire & Co, €58 (www.delpireandco.com). Exhibition details are here: https://www.rencontres-arles.com/fr/expositions/view/992/jazz-power