The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff Documentary
At Blue Note recording sessions in the '50s and '60s, Francis Wolff was building an archive of great photographic value and a visual documentation of jazz history unmatched at any other record company. His ability to light, frame and capture a shot was astonishing. He had an instant with a preoccupied musician to create a magnificent portrait. His eye and his technique nailed it, usually in the first shot...not unlike the way great jazz soloists can nail a masterpiece on the first take.
Francis Wolff was born in Berlin on April 6, 1907. His lifelong passions for jazz and photography began as a teenager. His escape from Nazi Germany on the last boat from Berlin bound for New York in October 1939 saved his life and changed it in every conceivable way. The comfortable, Bohemian environment in which he'd been raised in Berlin was finally shattered; his siblings made it to England and he to the United States. For the rest of his family, denial of the dangers of The Third Reich proved fatal.
An accomplished photographer in his native Germany, Wolff came to New York without means. He got a job in photographic studio by day and reunited with his boyhood friend Alfred Lion to work on Blue Note Records by night. His passion for jazz ran as deep as his love of photography, and soon he was completely immersed in the record company. By the end of World War Two, Francis and Alfred were able to make a living working solely on Blue Note. Two men running a small, struggling business is an all-consuming affair. For Frank, photography took a back seat to the demands of Blue Note (which, in that era of the 78 single records in plain brown sleeves, did not include artwork or photographs).
Still, he took his camera to each Blue Note session, taking candid shots of the proceedings at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio while Alfred produced the sessions. His eye was as remarkable as his technique. He captured wonderful, evocative moments, perfectly framed.
By the mid-fifties, Frank's photography suddenly had a use, albeit a functionary one. In the hands of designer Reid Miles, Frank's heavily cropped and tinted images would become an integral part of the Blue Note's album covers. What could not have been divined from those covers was that Francis Wolff, while running a record company 16 hours a day, had evolved into a master photographer.
Van Gelder, an avid photographer himself, remembers, "The majority of the pictures that Frank took were with the Rolleiflex with a hand-held flash, held at arm’s length. He'd hold the camera in his left hand and hold the flash up with his right hand - statue-of-liberty style- trying to get the light source in the proper position. At Blue Note sessions, Art Blakey was the thunder and Frank was the lightning."
Rizzoli has published two volumes of his Blue Note photography. In 2009, the year of the label’s 70th Anniversary, the German publisher Jazzprezzo published A History Of Blue Note Records In Photographs this fall, covering the entire life of the label through the photographs of Wolff and Jimmy Katz.