Sight Readings (Book)

Photographers and American Jazz, 1900-1960

Discussion of jazz as a visual subject and analysis of how photographers approached their subject. Includes work often overlooked – from African American photojournalists, studio photographers, early twentieth-century émigrés, Jewish exiles of the 1930s and vernacular snapshots.  135 half-tones

Category: Music, Photography


This book explores the work of a wide range of American photographers attracted to jazz during the period 1900–60. It includes discussions of jazz as a visual subject, its attraction to different types of photographers and offers analysis of why and how they approached the subject in the way they did. While some of these photographers are widely recognized for their work, many African American photojournalists, studio photographers, early twentieth-century émigrés, the Jewish exiles of the 1930s and vernacular snapshots are frequently overlooked. Drawing on ideas from contemporary photographic theory backed up by extensive archival research, this book allows the reader to explore and understand twentieth-century jazz photography in both an engaging and comprehensive fashion.

Alan John Ainsworth is an independent scholar based in Edinburgh. He researches and writes on jazz, jazz photography, the history of photography, architecture, and design.



Foreword by Darius Brubeck 



Introduction: Approaching jazz photography

Chapter 1: Jazz photography and photographers 1900-1960

Chapter 2: Jazz writing and the photographic image

Chapter 3: The Jazz image as document

Chapter 4: Expression in the jazz image

Chapter 5: The Play of Gestures: Jazz in the Studio

Chapter 6: Document and realism: early African American jazz photography

Chapter 7: Expressive realism in African American photography

Chapter 8: Authenticity and art: ‘New generation’ white photography

Chapter 9: Interrogating jazz: exiles and Jewish photography

Chapter 10: Looking forward, looking back: Jazz photography after 1960

Conclusion: Herb Snitzer, Pops (1960)

Appendix: Photographic agency and jazz photography



'This fascinating and beautifully-produced book addresses a neglected issue in jazz studies: the nature of the images which have plentifully illustrated writing on the medium. Alan John Ainsworth considers the work of American jazz photographers through the first sixty years of the twentieth century... [Ainsworth] has insightful discussion of neglected areas including studio publicity portraiture, the canonisation of white photographers that has largely been accepted in the jazz literature, and work done for the segregated press... Sight Readings is a groundbreaking contribution to its subject.'

Andy Hamilton, London Jazz News

'Here we have a thinking man's guide to early jazz photography that will appeal to fans of the art and science of photography, fans of history and fans of the photos and photographers who take the shots. It only makes sense when looking at author Alan John Ainsworth's resume. [...] It makes for insightful reading and viewing.'

Frank Alkyer, DownBeat Magazine

'The most fascinating chapter explores early African American photographers, and here the book is invaluable — collating information about key figures, including Arthur Bedou, James Van Der Zee, Edward Elcha and Carroll T. Maynard. No previous study has shed such light on this vital and important era. [...] a timely, thorough and absorbing addition to the study of jazz iconography.'

Alyn Shipton, JazzWise

'The book's originality lies in its ambition and range. There is nothing else in the market that covers the range of issues discussed in this book, draws on such a variety of scholarly and non-scholarly written material, or provides so much information about so many photographers. [...] The persuasive power of this work rests on its careful documentation and determined naming of photographers.'

Simon Frith, emeritus professor of Music at The University of Edinburgh

"Sight Readings is an instant classic, a work of breathtakingly thorough research and seasoned erudition that shows how African American, Jewish émigré, and other photographers created a vast archive of jazz imagery that both reflected and shaped the emergence of American multiracial modernity. Himself a superb photographer and learned historian of the form, Ainsworth’s concern is how photographers have gone about framing jazz as a space of aesthetic, cultural, and political meaning. Sight Readings teaches us how photographers approached their jazz subjects with a view to their expressive potential and social importance, and how jazz writers, listeners, and musicians themselves can better grasp the richness and complexity of jazz history through visual evidence. An exemplary model of multi-sensorial music criticism, this excellent book enables us to see, hear, feel, and think about jazz much more deeply."

John Gennari, professor of English and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont; author of Blowin' Hot & Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (University of Chicago Press. 2006).

"Sight Readings is the definitive book on jazz photography. It will certainly continue to be so well into the future.  I admire its theoretical sophistication as well as its exhaustive account of the many artists who devoted themselves to creating a photographic record of jazz."

Krin Gabbard, author of Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus (University of California Press, 2016).

"Like an expansive jazz solo, Sight Readings both digs deep and flies high, remapping the history and redefining the conceptualization of jazz photography as a subgenre. Alan Ainsworth uncovers studio publicity portraiture, vernacular photography, and work done for the segregated black press, among other new directions, while illuminating the faded jazz image of the early twentieth century."

Benjamin Cawthra, assistant professor of history at California State University, Fullerton; author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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