REPORT: Val Wilmer - The Wire Salon at Cafe Oto

Val Wilmer at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights reserved


Val Wilmer - The Wire Salon
(Cafe Oto; 16 July 2017; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)


The first of a new series of The Wire Salon evenings was An Audience With Val Wilmer, renowned chronicler, in both photographs and words, of the jazz and blues scenes from the 60s onwards. Val Wilmer was in conversation with the Wire publisher, Tony Herrington, for a fascinating two hours with a dozen carefully selected images from her portfolio projected behind them as the discussion evolved.

Wilmer was truly engaging as raconteur and commentator, with an incisive, self-deprecating wit fielded against some of the lines of questioning. A fine veneer over a no-nonsense, hands-on approach to her art and her observations on situations, often defined by uncomfortable complexities and contradictions.

Wilmer’s experience ranges wide and deep. Her photos were initially made to illustrate her written articles. She talked about the friendships she has made since her days studying photography at Regent Street Poly, often with visiting and UK-based black musicians, celebrated early on in her book The Face of Black Music (1977), with its preface by Archie Shepp, mentioning also how her professional life changed when the handy Pentax SLR camera usurped the bulky, boxy Rolleiflex.

Many she invited to tea at her more-than-supportive mother’s in Streatham, and it’s quite a guest list - not that she wanted to name-drop, but when there’s Mingus, Braxton, Elton John, Buck Clayton, Harry Carney, why not! Others she got to know by writing to them - bluesman Jesse Fuller amongst them.

Her aim was ‘to show something of the people in my photos’, and to do this ‘[you’ve] got to be able to spend time with people’. Her earliest shots include those of Jamaican born saxophonist George Tyndale at Beaulieu Jazz Festival (1960). Dexter Gordon she photographed having his shoes shined in Piccadilly after he declared that he couldn’t believe that a white man was shining shoes! John Coltrane and Art Blakey were each captured having a short back and sides at the Kilburn State - presumably before going on stage, in 1961. Whilst she wasn’t part of the hard-living Soho set, there were, nevertheless, unusual demands on her time in pursuit of that elusive perfect shot - the great bassist Richard Davis, for example, she discovered, went horse-riding in Central Park at 4.30am, which was a challenge!

One of her favourite photos is of the young behatted Marshall Allen caught in a profile view at Moers walking through the rain with Sun Ra trombonist, Tony Bethel, umbrella resting on his shoulder. The shot of Albert Ayler caught as he turned towards her, she said was ‘certainly a number 37’, a reference to the contention that the best photos on a roll of 36 (35mm film) can be 0A and 37. This photo appeared in Melody Maker in 1966, around the time of his BBC appearance on Jazz Goes To College, a recording sadly lost in the Corporation’s space-saving exercise of the time.

Wilmer also wanted to show jazz musicians at work, and like Roy DeCarava, whom she admires and has said, ‘I stay back, and I wait until something happens’, she said of her shot of an adrenalin-tensed Albert King at Hammersmith, ‘[you] just have to wait for the right moment.’ DeCarava supplied the images for the landmark book about Harlem, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaboration with another great friend of Wilmer’s, the writer and poet, Langston Hughes.

Discussing the political angle, she said, ‘as you learn more, you become politicised,’ inevitable when mixing with the likes of the articulate and motivated Archie Shepp, leading to a trip to Mississippi to photograph the black women living there - and in the audience was Maggie Murray, with whom she set up the women’s photographic agency, Format, running for 20 years until 2003.

The bottom line was her unstoppable curiosity - ‘The thing I was really interested in was finding out more about the music - nothing more.’

A hugely illuminating evening - difficult to believe Wilmer packed so much in to just two hours!

Val Wilmer and Tony Herrington at Cafe Oto; photo of George Tyndale on screen
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights reserved

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