Musicians, like actors, assume a persona in our imaginations that may or may not have anything to do with who they are in reality. Furthermore, whilst we often have the pleasure of seeing our favorite interpreters perform live, we most often enjoy their talents by way of recording. In other words, this physical art form is frequently disembodied.
Enter Cambridge Jones, photographer. Mr. Jones has a large repertoire of portraiture. Thus, an aspect of his work is about embodying.
Currently, you have the opportunity to see one of Mr. Jones’ portrait exhibits, “Talking Pictures,” which is featured in one of the Pop-Up galleries conveniently located in the Loop, which I visited the evening it opened.
“Talking Pictures” has an audio element (headsets and players are provided), an idea that was transferred from one of Mr. Jones’ previous exhibits, “Face The Music,” in which each subject spoke about his or her favorite music. In the current exhibit – of all Welsh born performers (Mr. Jones’ is also from Wales) – visitors listen to each recounting stories of what inspires them. As someone who needs to have music be a piece of his work, Mr. Jones features opera stars Bryn Terfel and Robert Lloyd, singers Dame Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, conductor Maestro Carlo Rizzi, as well as John Cale (renowned prior to his rock career as the pianist to first perform Erik Satie’s “Vexations” in its entirety – all 18 hours of it), Robert Plant, and David Gray. Fans of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Eddie Izzard, Michael Sheen, and Terry Jones will be delighted to see their portraits alongside numerous other actors, comedians, and even fashion designers. A point of interest, perhaps particularly for us Americans, is the realization all these luminaries are Welsh. (A friend of mine quipped that during the recent Vancouver Olympics the most popular phrase heard at his opening ceremony party was, “he/she is Canadian?” A similar phenomenon may strike you to utter, “he/she is Welsh?”)
One of the most arresting aspects of Mr. Jones’ work is its intentness via minimalism. His press has likened him to legendary American photographer Annie Liebovitz (“The Brit's answer to Annie Leibovitz,” a reference to Mr. Jones expressed to me some slight dismay). The reference, I surmised, is to their mutual focus on society and celebrity portraiture. Beyond that, they are entirely different artists. Ms. Leibovitz’s portraiture world, after all, is built upon fantasy and often involves extravagantly expensive sets in which her subjects are conveying a specific storyline. Mr. Jones’ method is the reverse. In many of his portraits he strips away absolutely everything except the subjects. At first glance they can seem almost painfully bare. But, as with anything minimalistic, a great responsibility is then placed upon the viewer to not just look but to engage and thus authentically observe.
I had the pleasure of chatting for a long time with the exceedingly affable Mr. Jones at a party a week after seeing his exhibit for the first time. When I mentioned the minimal nature of his portraits he spoke to me about how the photographs are taken. Nothing is planned. The end product is purely and simply the image captured for posterity of the simple interaction of two people, which, in this case, happens to be photographer and subject. And in this case, the audio element heightens the one-on-one intimacy.
It’s an oddly unsettling feeling to view some of the pictures. We are used to mitigated images that impose an opinion upon us of how we are supposed to feel when confronted by them. Here, there is nothing but you and the subject (as Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?”)
Perhaps it is even less about our pre-conceived notions than it is about forgetting to view them simply as men and women rather than “stars.” When asked by someone how, if at all, coming from Wales influences his work, Mr. Jones responded that his culture instructed him from childhood to view everyone as an equal – whether prince or pauper. Certainly, we all desire our artists to be people with whom we can escape into a world other than our own. We laud them and uphold them in return for granting this desire. But perhaps, if you can look beyond the frame to the person it encases, you will see an equal – a fellow human being – and discover something about yourself in the process of discovering the embodied man or woman behind the instrument.
“Talking Pictures” is currently on view at 23 East Madison, Chicago, Illinois. Gallery hours are Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11:30am-5:30pm. Admission is free.