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Sight Readings

Photographers and American Jazz, 1900–1960

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.

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

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"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



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