In many cases, a show's success is realized several days after actually seeing it. Other times, seeing a work on the spot illuminates the whole experience, and then, later, it's forgotten.
The FAC Modern's newest exhibit falls into the latter category. Portraits of the Golden Age of Jazz is an extensive compilation of photographs taken in the 1930s and '40s by journalist and jazz enthusiast William P. Gottlieb. In a time when America was suffering economic devastation and racial segregation, Gottlieb took it upon himself to photograph the jazz community, capturing the passions, joys and musical breakthroughs.
Astoundingly, Gottlieb was an untrained photographer and had the finances only to take a handful of pictures at each show he covered. Each exposure is crisp, composed and thoughtful.
After 1948, Gottlieb set his camera down permanently. Thirty-one years later, he assembled the photos that now tour the country for exhibits like the one currently showing at the Modern. Many of his shots also have appeared on stamps, and even more have graced the covers of music albums.
Each photograph is accompanied with his own perceptive commentary, an insightful touch for viewers with limited knowledge of jazz history, though something of a hindrance from the art perspective more time is spent reading the commentary than viewing the photographs. What the FAC Modern has done is created a beautiful primer into this era in history, which is the prime focus. To see Portraits is to learn about jazz, and perhaps photography.
Gottlieb's talent is undeniable. By itself, the close-up of a sweaty, impassioned Lionel Hampton makes seeing the show worth it. So is the snapshot of a young Miles Davis gazing at one of his idols. In the blink of an eye, Gottlieb was able to capture a livelihood and vigor that is synonymous with these figures and their music.
Still, it's tough not to feel unsure about the jazz exhibit. It's well done, and the photos are quite striking, but little of it stays in the viewer's mind afterward. Much of this might stem from a limited knowledge of jazz, and of photography a predisposition not limited to myself, the reviewer.
The difficulty here is that the artists in this show operate through music, and this is how we know them. But much of the power of visual art, as a whole, lies in its silence, with the mind providing the music. When the visual spotlight shines on the muted aural, it's an unfinished sentence.
Gottlieb and the FAC Modern's efforts are not in vain, but there is a disconnect of focus. Jazz plays in the background, but it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, little more than background music. That is the struggle of music photography: Everyone wants to hear their favorite artists when they can only see them.
For history's sake, this show is a mild hit. But without the original sounds of the jazz legends pictured here, it falls short as a complete performance.
Portraits from the Golden Age of Jazz
FAC Modern, 121 S. Tejon St., Suite 121
Through June 24; Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets: $3.75-$7.50; visit csfineartscenter.org or call 634-5581 for more information.