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Portland Jazz Fest Visual Essay

  • 4 min read

By Guy Brooksbank on 3/23/16

Guy Brooksbank is a professional photographer and award-winning educator of visual media based in Portland, Oregon and Delray Beach, Florida. in 2009, Guy founded a non-profit called Handheld Stories. Recognizing the profound role media can play in advocating change and raising awareness, especially in communities confronting critical social issues, Handhelds mission is to provide these communities with the tools to digitally document their experiences in unique narratives and promote them online. You can see his work at and his organizations work at

Here's Guy's account of shooting the 2016 Portland Jazz Festival:

Some of the best Concert Photography lends itself to the histrionics that occur on stage - that moment when the artist is seemingly overwhelmed by his or her own performance. Weve all seen those images: a characteristic dance move, fists pumping in the air, or shots framed by a sea of waving and cheering fans.

Most jazz artists tend to be more reserved on stage. In four decades of attending jazz performances I scarcely recall any raised and clenched fists. The jazz tradition seems to demand a sense of humility and restraint. That doesnt mean it lacks the intensity of a rock and roll performance its just more personal, a type of engaging and intimate conversation with the audience.

Of course, because conversation inherently lacks a certain visual appeal, shooting those nuances poses a special challenge to the photographer. As a jazz festival is predicated on performance, however, I chose to focus on the intensely personal relationship artists have with their music as well as their audience, and recognize the countless private hours of they spent honing their craft - playing songs ad nauseam where the only audience is a blank wall or a disgruntled neighbor. This is where the Lensbaby Edge 80 Optic offered a lot of creativity in the way I approached my subjects. photo of Jazz musician taken by Guy Brooks

Sonny Fortune

Sonny Fortune appeared the first night of the PDX Jazz Festival at Jimmy Maks, the legendary holdout for Portland Jazz - safe to say the oldest authentic jazz club in town. I was able to lean out over the balcony enough to get this angle and simply let the characteristic blurring of the Edge 80 do the rest of the work for me. I was looking for a way to portray the artist in a deeply private moment, but allude to the public aspect of the performance. The other instruments or performers occupy the edges of the frame, deemphasized by the soft focus but still informing the image.

photo of Jazz musician Alicia and Diane taken by Guy Brooks

Left: Alicia Olatuja; Right: Diane Reeves

The importance in controlling just how much or how little (more on that later) you choose to incorporate that soft focus by tilting the lens cannnot be overstated. This is not a one-trick pony - you can dial in just where you want that clarity to land.

photo of Jazz musician Pat Martino taken by Guy Brooks

Above: Pat Martino

photo of Jazz musician Torres Jackson taken by Guy Brooks

Left: Bobby Torres, Right: Javon Jackson

photo of Jazz taken by Guy Brooksbank

Brandee Younger

I love the organic transition from that soft focus to the crisp clarity the Edge 80 delivers - something that just cant be recreated in post.

photo of Jazz taken by Guy Brooksbank

Left: Ravi Coltrane, Right: Melvin Butler

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of working with the Edge 80 was what it did not offer - autofocus. I think a lot of professionals lean heavily on this (and for good reason), but forcing yourself to be aware of just where and how to choose that focus enables you to get back to authentically composing within the frame. Allowing the spontaneity of a live performance to combine with the mechanics of focus and aperture creates a level of intention and immediateness you just dont get when much of that work is done for you. Perhaps this is more of a confession than a statement, but I found myself being far more deliberate in creating my compositions with this lens.

photo of Jazz taken by Guy Brooksbank

Marquis Hill

I do feel theres a tendency to play to the dream-like quality that the softness in these images suggests - but it would be a shame to overlook the potential in capturing a sort of bottled up energy or perhaps even pent up frustration waiting to be released. I like the fact that this lens allows you to be expressive across a range of emotions.

photo of Jazz taken by Guy Brooksbank

Joe Lovano

Of course there were times I felt a need to back away from the tilt-shift effect and rather than switching lenses (or grabbing another camera body with a standard prime attached) I found with just a slight tilt of the ball and socket mechanism, I could control the plane of focus to where it is just a suggestion, muting out a microphone or just the bare edges of the frame.

photo of Jazz taken by Guy Brooksbank

Marquis Hill

No discussion or portrayal of jazz would be complete without documenting the collaboration that exists between band members onstage, the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. as Bill Evans wrote in the liner notes for Kind of Blue. Evans suggests that the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. The challenge for me, then, was to capture a moment that reflects that framework. Whether its two artists deeply invested in creating a groove together or sharing a silent moment, the notes you dont play, as Miles Davis is often quoted as saying. Both offer rich visual material and insight into the process of creation and performance.

Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Edge 80 is currently $50 off. Get yours here.

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