Sunday, May 22, 2005

Profile - John Spragens, Jr. - Jazz Photographer

Profile is a regular feature on the Redhouse Jazz blog in which you get to know a San Francisco bay area jazz musician (a photographer in this case) a little better. Check out previous Profiles from the pull down menu in the right hand column.

John Spragens, Jr. is a jazz fan and takes photographs at jazz festivals mainly within bike riding distance of his Palo Alto home. He generously displays his work - over 500 pictures of local and visiting jazz musicians - on his web site (click here.) I think his interview below is interesting to musicians, photographers and jazz fans alike.

When did you get interested and what got you interested in photography?
I started to get serious about photography in my college days, when I was on the yearbook staff and wore a camera around my neck just about any time I wasn't sleeping. Hard to say what it was about photography that appealed to me so much. Capturing particular moments was part of it. Framing patterns within a larger environment. And partly just the darkroom magic of watching an image appear on photo paper in the developer.

What equipment do you use?
Most of the shots you see on the Web site were taken with the long-suffering Nikon F3 that has been my workhorse for over 20 years. I've shot tighter and tighter in recent years. (Paul Mehling is a notable victim of some efforts to see how minimal I could get -- how little I could show while still conveying some sense that music was being made.) That has meant that my favorite lens the last couple of years is a 300mm telephoto. I've tended to shoot ISO 800 color negative film and take it to my local store -- Keeble & Shuchat -- which does a good, clean job of developing the film. I had a Polaroid film scanner for a couple of years, then moved to a Minolta DiMage Scan Multi Pro. I use Photoshop to take care of dust spots, color balance and other technical chores. A Windows 2000 computer. Calibrating the monitor (I used the Eye One Display for the job) makes it a lot easier to get prints that match what I see on screen. But ... last year some digital photos crept onto the Web site. I shot them with a Nikon D70, which I pulled out of the bag after I shot my ration of film for a particular concert. I was pleased enough with those results that I got a Nikon D2x this year. Chances are, all my 2005 postings will be shot with the new digi.

The vast majority of pictures in your gallery are of jazz musicians. You obviously listen to jazz. Do you play an instrument? What are your jazz interests?
Oh, my. I think we're all better off if I don't play an instrument. I was a drummer and percussionist in my high school band, and I probably pay closer attention than most to the drummers in groups I hear. I'm particularly attracted to the fluid, melodic styles of folks like Scott Amendola, Akira Tana, Albert "Tootie"Heath, George Marsh. I also get a kick out of watching some of the young musicians in the area develop. I think of a couple of drummers I've seen at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and elsewhere over the years -- Ruthie Price and Mohini Rustagi. And pianist Yuma Sung. Flute player Daniel Riera. (I'm not mentioning pianist Taylor Eigsti and guitarist Julian Lage because they were both so far along by the time I first heard them.)

You are good at shooting around all the obstacles on stage. What are you thinking when you compose or crop a shot?
At the time I'm shooting, it's all a visual kind of thinking -- not words. It's only before and after that I try to put words to it. I mentioned playing with this minimalist thing -- trying to see how tight I could come in on a player and instrument and still give a sense of music being made. Another thing is shooting through the obstacles on stage instead of trying to avoid them -- the cables, stands, mikes and all that. Even other musicians and their instruments. I particularly like a couple of shots down a line of musicians, so the subject is framed by bodies and instruments -- one (not on the site) of bassist Miles Perkins, leader of Mingus Amungus, and another of sax player Theo "Hurricane" Kirk, a member of Marcus Shelby's jazz orchestra.

There are over 500 pictures of musicians on your web page. I take pictures and are often only happy with 1 out of 10. How many pictures do you think you have taken to get this collection?
One out of 10 is good! I typically shoot a couple of rolls of film at a concert and hope I'm pleased with at least one shot of each member of the group. So 70-some shots to get four or five. With the digital camera, I'm even freer with the shutter button. No telling what the ratio will be in this summer's shooting.

Do you have any new photo projects planned?
For the past couple of years, I've been playing with extreme motion blur in indoor shots under stage lighting. Haven't yet whittled the selection down to a manageable number or figured out how I want to present those on the Web, though.

Are you works for sale or your services for hire?
The main reason the collection of photos is on the Web site is just to celebrate the music. I do occasionally get queries about print sales or publication, and I'm happy to respond. Contract shooting? That's rare now. My day job (I'm a technical writer for a software company in Palo Alto) keeps me pretty busy.


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