As I walked around “The Jazz Loft Project,” I was transported to another time and place, specifically New York in the 1950s and ’60s.
The combination of jazz music and black-and-white photographs of scenes outside Smith’s apartment, or close-ups of his friends, puts you in a “jazzy” mellow mood, and makes you feel as if you are right there, experiencing life with Smith. As I was taking the exhibit in, I was surprised not only to find “Lee Raney,” but also by my subsequent reactions to the photograph. The only information we are given about the subject is that she was married to Jimmy Raney, a jazz guitarist with whom Smith associated, which makes it that much harder to try to understand her and the composition as a whole.
Everything around her is out of focus, not only putting her in the spotlight, but also making the contrast between herself and the background that much more apparent. While the world around her is busy and chaotic, she just stands there with her drink, also in sharp focus, completely oblivious to anything outside of herself, just thinking. The photograph creates a conflict for the viewer because as much as we feel that we are “seeing the world through her eyes,” because of the angle of the face and by how much we are drawn into the picture, we have no idea what she is thinking about. Hence, we may be looking through her eyes, but we have no idea what we are seeing. We want to know what is on her mind, who she is, what she is keeping from us, but this mystery is what makes the photographs so beautiful. If we knew more about her, the photo would not have the same alluring effect; it would lose its power. Smith’s photography truly did seem to “capture an era,” and through photographs like “Lee Raney” we feel ourselves wanting to know more about, in order to be a part of, “The Jazz Loft Project.”
IMAGE: W. Eugene Smith, “Lee Raney,” c. 1957-1965, Collection of the W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona and The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.