photography • field recordings • world music • subconscious
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Alan Lomax — Ethnomusicologist and Photojournalist

Alan Lomax, wandering somewhere in Arkansas. This photograph of Alan conjures up the audio vision I have of the legend. October, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins

Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.

This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.

The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.

Alan Lomax dreamed of being able to give back to those he recorded. With the advent of technology, today the Association for Cultural Equity — the institution he started — is reaching out to living family members, finding ways to generate royalties to the late artists and their families. Here Alan is having Raphael Hurtault listen to playback of his recordings in La Plaine, Dominica. Ironically, I was in La Plaine for a National Geographic story last year. Have a feeling little had changed since the 1960's. June 25, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Antoinette Marchand.

Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!

Even the film and photographic archive is accessible for searching and viewing, for free.

Clearly Alan Lomax is passionate, utterly oblivious that his fly is open and probably sweating like a pig in the summer heat on the island of Mallorca yet still the gentlemen donning a tie while testing microphone at the Palma Festival, Palma, Mallorca, Spain June 23, 1952 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Jeannette Bell

For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~

Wade Ward, old-time music banjo player and fiddler from Virginia, clearly enjoying the playback Alan Lomax had just made. Take a look at the size of this Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder kit…and we complain that a Fostex or a Sound Devices is big! Galax, Virginia. August 31, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins.

I love this period-based photograph. Why? Look around the room and tell me what you see; Alan Lomax traveled/worked no different than we do today...living hotel to hotel in hot, tropical climates. Instead of a MacBook Pro, he used a portable typewriter. Jeez, remember TWA? Alan Lomax reading notes in Radix Village, Trinidad. May 20, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Antoinette Marchand

Seems Alan Lomax also used a Canon camera, seen here at the Delta Blues Festival, Greenville, Mississippi. September 8, 1979 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Bill Ferris.

When you go to the Cultural Equity website and stream Alan Lomax's recordings, you'll be amazed by how much sound he picked up with these truly tinny microphones. In this photograph, Alan is using a Midgetape which weighed 3 pounds. I bet Alan would be blown away by how compact audio recording kits are these days. Here Alan is recording the Pratcher brothers — Miles on guitar, Bob on fiddle — in Como, Mississippi. September 21, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins

Alan Lomax inspecting film in Albarracín, Aragón, Spain. 400,000 feet of film and 3,000 videotapes make up the moving film archive of the Alan Lomax collection, which is now completely available online. October 15, 1952 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Jeannette Bell.

When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.

During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.

This is huge on many levels.

Why?

Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.

Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~

Some lovely portraits seen on this rare contact sheet during his years when he traveled with his father, John Lomax, while working for the Library of Congress. Contact. He seemed to already have a keen eye for composition at the age of around 19 when these photographs were taken. The musicians are portraits of Stavin' Chain and Wayne Perry performing in Lafayette, LA, June 1935 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photographs by Alan Lomax

More insight into how Alan Lomax worked behind the camera when not making audio recordings. This contact sheet shows portraits of of musicians Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring — Frederica, Georgia, June 1935 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photographs by Alan Lomax

His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.

Alan clearly understood magazine gutters yet was not a magazine photographer, placing the bamboo support smack in the middle with all sorts of lovely moments happening on the right and left. The white hands on the rear wall and the silhouette of the veiled women tops this image for me which was taken during a Hindu wedding ceremony in Charlo Village, Trinidad. May 12, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.

When Alan Lomax was 17, he began traveling with his father, pioneering folklorist and author John Lomax, taking photographs and helping is dad with his audio recordings. Some of his early work with his father was at prison camps. Here is a photograph of a prisoner inside the camp hospital taken when Lomax was around 19 year-old — Darrington State Farm, Texas, April 1934 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Full frame — cropping in camera — clearly was how Alan Lomax saw the world. Unfortunately the cover image of the recordings, Prison Songs (next image) ended up being cropped. Tragic the art team removed the ax in the upper right of this photograph of prisoners chopping wood in order to make it a square album/CD format. Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary), Parchman, Mississippi. September 16, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Final photograph by Alan Lomax as it appeared on the Prison Songs recordings. Seems the design team had a significant hand in making this work as a square, even go as far as using Photoshop to remove all background detail and getting a bit overly creative by adding clouds in the top right.

Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.

This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:

“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972

I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.

My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.

Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.

Alan Lomax could see, working the entire frame of the images in this scene while recording workers clearing land in The Valley, North Side, Anguilla. July 4, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Portrait of two women seated in front of their home, singing and shaking rattles during a visit to Andros Island in the Bahamas. This was taken when Alan was 20 in 1935 when he traveled to the Bahamas with anthropologist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Young boy, crying — Unknown Location, between 1933 and 1935 ~ Image courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Beautifully composed baptism near Mineola, Texas. Alan would have been only around 19 or 20 years-old when this photograph was taken in the summer of 1935 ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Once again Alan Lomax finds his composition, using the entire frame, pushing the camera button right when a young newspaper boy appears in the frame, whistling. Festa brass band in Cinquefrondi, Calabria, Italy. August 1, 1954 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax clearly knew what he wanted to see in his photographs, here keeping in the row of elegantly hanging hats in the frame while the Rev. I.D. Back sings during recordings with the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church congregation, Blackey, Kentucky. September 5, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Simple yet poetic portrait of Harry Cox with unidentified woman and child at his home in Norfolk, East Anglia, England. Cox was a farmworker and one of the most important singers of traditional English music of the twentieth century. October 9, 1953 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.

These days we tend to call it multimedia.

Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.

Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.

 

 

 

NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.

2 comments

1 Stella Kramer { 04.09.12 at 15:08 }

A wonderful tribute to an exceptional man and his work. I too hope everyone listens and looks at the work of Lomax to reconnect to the world as it was, to be able to document the world as it is.

2 Preamp Madness!!! | Little Golden Book Studio { 04.20.12 at 18:13 }

[...] the Ampex 600 series of portable tape decks. They are a classic of ’50s American engineering; Alan Lomax did much of his best work with this deck. More recently, John Mellencamp recorded an album on one [...]

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