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Ming Smith's Romantic Photos Capture the Mood That Is Jazz


The dreamy side of documentary photography takes shape in "Ming Smith: In the Spirit of Jazz," a touching selection of more than 40 photographs the L.A.-based artist has made over the past 25 years. At Watts Towers Art Center, this openly romantic exhibition defines "the spirit of jazz" loosely, presenting everyday street scenes and travel snapshots alongside pictures of musicians posing casually, relaxing backstage and playing with unself-conscious abandon.

For Smith, jazz is not just a genre of music. It is a mood that pervades life's finest moments, when sweet memories come back with such intensity that time seems to stand still.

All of her photographs convey a floating feeling. The best ones anchor this sense of drifting reverie in mundane details, finding magic in the little gestures that give daily life its texture and resonance.

In a New Jersey garden on a hot summer day, "Step One" depicts a man playing a saxophone as his young son stands in front of him, blowing a toy horn with more gusto than his sleepy-eyed father can muster. With feet wide apart, torso bent forward, shoulders turned at an angle and eyes locked in concentration, the boy throws everything he's got into the music. Improvising as he imitates his idol, he captures jazz's emotional aspect, if not its sound.

Smith's black-and-white photograph is slightly grainy, creating the impression that it is an enlarged version of a snapshot from a family album. A similarly printed image, of a family gathered around a park bench that has been made into a swing, does not portray specific individuals so much as it evokes fond memories of Sunday afternoons whiled away among loved ones.

This sense of relaxed intimacy recurs in many of Smith's pictures of people. It plays a big part in her backstage portraits of musicians, including an endearing silhouette of her husband, saxophonist David Murray, and a charming shot of Babs Gonzalez, smiling gleefully as he adjusts the dial of a portable radio in a nondescript hotel room.

When Smith depicts musicians performing onstage, she focuses on in-between moments. Her unpretentious photographs emphasize the unpolished quality of their performances, whether they take place in grungy clubs or on grand stages, before large audiences and rows of television cameras.

Even more blurry, Smith's street scenes have the presence of rapidly cast glances, the quick little glimpses we shoot up and down the street so as not to miss anything. To look at these images is to feel as if you're in a hurry to get somewhere. In Smith's hands, however, the excitement of anticipated events spills over into otherwise mundane surroundings, filling ordinary urban neighborhoods with animated energy that is worth savoring for its own sake.

When Smith aims her camera at tourist monuments and sightseers' highlights, her off-the-cuff approach is less effective. Her casual pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the canals of Venice, Italy, lack the vitality of her other works.

As if sensing this deficiency, she has added washy brush strokes of pink, blue, yellow and violet paint to many of her travel photos (and a handful of portraits). In both cases, these painterly additions make her art less accessible, more of an Expressionist exercise than an open invitation to enter the picture as a participant. Fortunately, Smith's painted photographs are the exception and not the rule, leaving plenty of room for everyone's memories and fantasies to mingle freely.


* "Ming Smith: In the Spirit of Jazz," Watts Towers Art Center, 1727 E. 107th St., (213) 847-4646, through Oct. 10. Closed Mondays.

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