Skip to main content

Distributed for Intellect Ltd

Sight Readings

Photographers and American Jazz, 1900–1960

With a Foreword by Darius Brubeck
A revelatory look at the photography that shaped the American jazz age. 

In this book, Alan John Ainsworth considers the work of a range of American jazz photographers from the turn of the twentieth century through the Jazz Age and into the 1960s. Drawing on extensive archival research, Ainsworth examines jazz as a visual subject, explores its attraction to different types of photographers, and analyzes why and how they approached the subject in the ways they did.

While some of the photographers are widely recognized today, the volume also explores lesser-known figures of the period—including African American photojournalists, studio photographers, early-twentieth-century emigres, and Jewish exiles of the 1930s—whose contributions are often overlooked. Informed by ideas from contemporary photographic theory and with a foreword by Darius Brubeck, Sight Readings is a wide-ranging, eye-opening new look at twentieth-century jazz photography and the people behind it.

Read the first chapter.

472 pages | 132 halftones | 6 3/4 x 9 1/2

Intellect Ltd image

View all books from Intellect Ltd


"Here we have a thinking man's guide to early jazz photography that will appeal to fans of the art and science of photography, fans of history and fans of the photos and photographers who take the shots. It only makes sense when looking at author Alan John Ainsworth's resume. . . . It makes for insightful reading and viewing."


"The most fascinating chapter explores early African American photographers, and here the book is invaluable—collating information about key figures, including Arthur Bedou, James Van Der Zee, Edward Elcha and Carroll T. Maynard. No previous study has shed such light on this vital and important era. . . . A timely, thorough and absorbing addition to the study of jazz iconography."

Alyn Shipton, JazzWise

"This fascinating and beautifully produced book addresses a neglected issue in jazz studies: the nature of the images which have plentifully illustrated writing on the medium. Alan John Ainsworth considers the work of American jazz photographers through the first sixty years of the twentieth century. . . . [Ainsworth] has insightful discussion of neglected areas including studio publicity portraiture, the canonisation of white photographers that has largely been accepted in the jazz literature, and work done for the segregated press. . . . Sight Readings is a groundbreaking contribution to its subject."

Andy Hamilton, London Jazz News

"The book's originality lies in its ambition and range. There is nothing else in the market that covers the range of issues discussed in this book, draws on such a variety of scholarly and non-scholarly written material, or provides so much information about so many photographers. The persuasive power of this work rests on its careful documentation and determined naming of photographers."

Simon Frith, University of Edinburgh

"Like an expansive jazz solo, Sight Readings both digs deep and flies high, remapping the history and redefining the conceptualization of jazz photography as a subgenre. Ainsworth uncovers studio publicity portraiture, vernacular photography, and work done for the segregated black press, among other new directions, while illuminating the faded jazz image of the early twentieth century."

Benjamin Cawthra, author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz

"Sight Readings is an instant classic, a work of breathtakingly thorough research and seasoned erudition that shows how African American, Jewish émigré, and other photographers created a vast archive of jazz imagery that both reflected and shaped the emergence of American multiracial modernity. Himself a superb photographer and learned historian of the form, Ainsworth’s concern is how photographers have gone about framing jazz as a space of aesthetic, cultural, and political meaning. Sight Readings teaches us how photographers approached their jazz subjects with a view to their expressive potential and social importance, and how jazz writers, listeners, and musicians themselves can better grasp the richness and complexity of jazz history through visual evidence. An exemplary model of multi-sensorial music criticism, this excellent book enables us to see, hear, feel, and think about jazz much more deeply."

John Gennari, author of Blowin' Hot & Cool: Jazz and Its Critics

"The definitive book on jazz photography. I admire its theoretical sophistication as well as its exhaustive account of the many artists who devoted themselves to creating a photographic record of jazz."

Krin Gabbard, author of Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus

Table of Contents

Foreword by Darius Brubeck 



Introduction: Approaching jazz photography

Chapter 1: Jazz photography and photographers 1900-1960

Chapter 2: Jazz writing and the photographic image

Chapter 3: The Jazz image as document

Chapter 4: Expression in the jazz image

Chapter 5: The Play of Gestures: Jazz in the Studio

Chapter 6: Document and realism: early African American jazz photography

Chapter 7: Expressive realism in African American photography

Chapter 8: Authenticity and art: ‘New generation’ white photography

Chapter 9: Interrogating jazz: exiles and Jewish photography

Chapter 10: Looking forward, looking back: Jazz photography after 1960

Conclusion: Herb Snitzer, Pops (1960)

Appendix: Photographic agency and jazz photography



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press