Funky Fridays make me happy. It's a chance to show off music (and other funky stuff) that puts a glide in my stride and a dip in my hip. (By the way, if you're here for the tunes, skip all my talking and scroll down to the videos.)
Convergences make me happy, too. This is a series of blog posts where I talk about two photographs -- by well known photographers -- that echo each other.
Today's post has two origins. First, I'm just finishing two long articles about the photos that Margaret Bourke-White made in South Africa, in 1949-50, on assignment for Life magazine. The second starting poing is Maurice Berger's wonderful post on the New York Times Lens Blog about the photos that Gordon Parks made for Life's 1956 series of articles on segregation in the South. Berger made me ask -- did Bourke-White also work on the segregation series? You bet she did. Her photos are terrific. One's from a juke joint -- and that's the point of this post.
Margaret Bourke-White: In "Harlem Cafe" Negroes dance to a jukebox. The city operates a more sedate club for Negro teen-agers, but juke joints get more business. Life, 17 September 1956. [Click on either photo to see a larger version.]
Fifteen of Bourke-White's photos appear in the article, "The Background of Segregation, Part III: The Voices of the White South." (The work of other photographers is used as well.) They're surprising on all sorts of levels. First, they're in color. Throughout her long career, Bourke-White preferred and is best remember for black and white photography. Second, she used small cameras -- a Rollei TLR and a 35mm camera of unknown make. Once again, throughout her career she was known for using bulky large-format cameras. Third, the small cameras allowed her to create photos have a loose, unmannered feel that's very different from her usual meticulous style.
I'll write a blog post about these photos next week. For now, it's enough to say that the photo above, made in a South Carolina juke joint, instantly brought to mind a much more famous photo from another juke joint in the South.
Marion Post Wolcott: Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. November 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Marion Post Wolcott made this photo while she was working for Roy Stryker's epic Farm Security Administration [FSA] documentary project of the 1930s and '40s. She was on her first assignment in the South, and she hated the place. In his book about FSA photography, Nicholas Natanson says that she wrote to Stryker complaining about "small-minded local officials, about a stifling cultural environment, about racism and sexism, even about 'polite reform women... with their unrealistic and sentimental way of handling [problems].... After a whole day of that crap and listening to them playing Jesus I could just plain puke!'"
Wolcott was young, white, and liberal. I imagine that shooting in the juke joint was something of a relief. Those small-minded local officials weren't particularly happy about the idea of a pretty white woman spending time with Negroes, of course, so they sent along a cop as her escort. She made a glorious picture nevertheless.
Well, all this hanging out in juke joints made me want to hear some juke joint music. Who better than the great Louis Jordan? Nobody, actually.
Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, "Five Guys Named Moe."
That was so much fun, let's hear another.
Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, "Saturday Night Fish Fry."
If Louis and the boys sound like they're playing rock & roll... Well, yes. The roots of rock & roll lie in the rhythm & blues that was played in the juke joints of the South.
* * *
Some readers might argue Bourke-White's and Wolcott's photos (and the Jordan videos as well) reproduce and reinforce old stereotypes about the special affinity that African Americans have for music and dance. In addition, the joyful expressions on the faces of the main subjects can be seen to undercut condemnations of segregation and racial discrimination. After all, if the purported victims are so happy, how bad can things really be?
Seen in isolation, the photos do lend themselves to that reading. But Bourke-White's picture needs to be seen in the context in which it was published -- the Life story on segregation. Taken together, the 14 other photos that she contributed to the article give a much more rounded view of black life. At least one of them pointedly underscores racial injustice and inequality. (Follow the link above to see the story.)
Update, 13 August 2012: I now think that I was wrong about the message that Bourke-White's photo sent, when it was published in 1956. In the context of the article, it did tend to reinforce negative stereotypes about African-Americans. You can read more about this, here.
In the same way, Wolcott's photo should be read in the context of the thousands of photos that she made for the FSA, many hundreds of which included African Americans. All portray blacks with dignity (as does the one above, in fact). One of her most iconic photos directly addresses the injustice of segregation.
As for Louis Jordan... The man was a signifyin' fool.