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Facing the Music: The Performance Photography of Eric L. Smith

Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Gallery, 2931 Kingston Pike

Through Jan. 27

The Message is the Medium

Photographer Eric L. Smith translates music into image

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

I like writing about music. I'm not sure I'm particularly good at it, but I like the challenge. It's essentially a matter of reinterpreting one medium for another. There's an adage about it—"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"—that is true only insofar as I think dancing about architecture is a perfectly good idea.

If you believe (and I do) that the essence of art is communication, the act of saying or showing or somehow conveying an idea or emotion or state of being, then the ideas conveyed in one form can and should be endlessly retransmitted through other forms.

At the same time, I'm wary of visual or verbal portraits of artists. It's one thing to take a book or song or movie and try to turn it into a movie or book or song. (See Zak Weisfeld's incisive thoughts on this in last week's review of All the Pretty Horses.) It's another to focus not on the idea but on the person behind it. I've interviewed my share of artists whose works I enjoy, and I've found that most of them are at their most interesting in the works themselves. You're not going to learn as much talking to Steve Earle or David Byrne for a half-hour as you will by simply listening to their songs.

The most prevalent school of artist (and/or celebrity) photography constantly falls into this trap. Engineered often for maximum impact (usually to sell magazines or books), photos of musicians typically tell us more about the photographer than the subject. I can think of a handful of Annie Leibovitz portraits, for example, that really seemed to reveal their subjects or play with the contrast between their public and private personas; but many of the rest feel more like slick jokes—one-liners, not essays.

All of which is a long way of getting to the heart of Knoxville photographer Eric L. Smith's current exhibit Facing the Music (on display at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church). With few exceptions, Smith's approach is the opposite of Leibovitz's. Willing to forsake control of everything but his own camera, he deals with his subjects on their own turf—the stage—and in the actual act of their work. In that sense, music is uniquely suited to outside documentation. It's one of the few art forms where the experience of the creation is shared almost simultaneously by the artist and the audience, where you can see and hear it as it happens. At its best, it's a complex series of overlapping conversations: between musician and instrument, among musicians, between a band and an audience.

All of those experiences are evident in Smith's portraits. Largely (and most successfully) in black and white, and mostly intimate views of one or two people, they explore concretely what music feels like. As Smith (who's been partly deaf most of his life) writes in an introductory essay, "The music you are facing is what I have heard."

The exhibit opens with a joined series of four tinted photos of pianist Marcus Roberts waiting backstage, his hands clasped in front of him. From there, almost all of the shots are onstage, in the midst of performances at assorted Knoxville venues over the past 10 years. They cover a broad range of musical styles, though there's more jazz and blues than anything else. All are engaging, and a good many are marvelous. Smith's feel for each of his subjects, for the moments when they are most revealed and direct in their expression, is striking.

One thing that surprised me is how little it mattered whether I knew or liked the music of the performer in question. The photograph of Melissa Etheridge reaching skyward, head thrown back as a suspended stage bulb casts angelic light on her, reveals more depth of heart and feeling than I've ever been able to find in her awkward folk-rock. On the other hand, the triptych of Crosby, Stills, and Nash looking comically like the "see no, hear no, speak no" monkeys, perfectly captures their smug, hazy hippiedom.

Several pictures explore the relationship between a musician and his or her instrument. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson is seen from below, frowning at the keys in front of him with the patient forbearance of a schoolmaster determined to whip some sense into an errant child. In another shot of Marcus Roberts, his small head and shoulders are framed by the massive shadow and gaping hinged top of his piano, which looks ready to swallow him. My favorite is a close-up of Buddy Guy (the best of several blues-guitarist-in-action frames). At first, all you see is the intense exhilaration on his sweat-beaded face, his gold fillings gleaming, his mouth caught between a smile and a yelp. Then, in the foreground, you notice the shiny top of his instrument's body, reflecting a piece of that same joyous grin—even his guitar is laughing.

There are plenty of other highlights: Alison Krauss, eyes downcast, letting her fiddle take her to places you sense she can't reach without it; James Brown, radiating unworldly heat, looking like a golem ready to melt back into clay; Martin Fay of The Chieftains, his fiddle and half of his face hidden by shadows, the whole of it only suggested by the bow that cuts across the entire picture.

It's not surprising that some of the most famous people in the show are the least interesting—they're too accustomed to being in view, too professional to get caught unguarded. A shot of Gene Simmons, Kiss' demonic bass player, looks pretty much like every other picture of him you've ever seen, because he's all surface. Fortunately, most of Smith's subjects are less protected. And thanks to his skill and even more to his intuitive understanding, you don't have to hear their music to know what they're saying.

January 18, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 3
© 2001 Metro Pulse