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The art of interpreting photography and jazz

Aleksandra Line

Experienced listener and a passionate photographer: jazz through the lens of Arthur Dimenshtein

Anastasija Paškina

In April 2019 during the UNESCO International Jazz Day Latvia at the music bar-restaurant «Trompete TAPROOM» a photo exhibition called «Jazz Faces» by Arthur Dimenshtein was opened. Arthur was born in 1973 in Riga and has been doing photography for 20 years already, so it’s quite interesting that this exhibition has united two of his greatest passions — jazz music and photography. All photos in the exhibition have been taken with a black and white film, which unites both of those art forms even more. I’ve known Arthur as a photographer for quite some time now, and I finally decided to invite him for a talk on both of his passions and parallels that he skilfully draws between the things he truly loves.

If we wouldn’t have been acquainted and I’d ask you to tell about yourself — what would you say to an absolute stranger?

Curious, tactless, can create a mess (laughs). I live in two worlds — on the one hand, I have a business, on the other hand, I’m seriously passionate about the art of photography. I like to socialize, it’s important to me — I don’t like to be alone for a long time, so I often go out, attend some events or just meet somebody. And I love to debate as well, it fills up my intellectual baggage.

Debate on which topics?

Any topic that either I am well aware of, or I am not quite wise on, but it interests me, and while communicating about it, I can enrich my baggage. Either you give your knowledge out as a present or you save it, or it goes in both directions as a two-way exchange — this is the most interesting one.

Serious passion about photography — was there a certain step where it all began?

I clearly remember a time and place when I told myself: «I want to try doing it». I was on vacation in Greece, we were walking by the sea, two unknown girls approached me who didn’t have a single picture with both of them in it — asked me to take one. I wasn’t interested in photography at that time yet, even though my father has been a professional photographer for some time, so I had some knowledge about diaphragm and shutter speed. They gave a DSLR camera, a professional one I’ve never held in my hands before, but I somehow intuitively understood what I had to do. I have no idea if I succeeded — the girls weren’t from Latvia, and I couldn’t see the result, but I clearly remember that feeling of taking the camera into my hands — then I realised what I wanted. I even remember the model, «Minolta Dynax 505Sis», and the time — September of 2000 somewhere in the Aegean sea.

How did you get to have your own camera?

Oh, this is the funniest — at one point every salesperson in Riga most probably was fed up with me because I have been going to the shops, wisely debating with them all, trying to make the right choice. It’s a big mistake which every beginner photographer makes — they spend too much time trying to choose the right, the best camera. The best is, of course, to begin with something else. If somebody approaches me now, asking for advice, I always say — think of buying the camera as of getting yourself some additional material, but buying lenses is an investment. The optics will serve you for a longer time, but you’ll change the cameras often. I also advise them in the beginning to buy something cheaper, relatively universal, and then, as time passes, when they realise where they’re going in terms of the genre (portraits, macro, landscapes, street photography), to buy something related. And almost nobody listens to me — everyone tries to get themselves an expensive camera and a cheap lens.

And where are you going in terms of the genre yourself?

Three main points of my attention are street photography (when I travel, I take lots of photos in the streets), landscape photography and portraits — but I really don’t like to work with impulse lights, don’t like to work in the studio and overall taking still portraits. Some people call it candid portraits, which means a portrait of a person in a natural environment without posing. You can somehow get a person nicely seated from a lighting point of view, without really guiding him — here, put your head up, move a finger — I really dislike that.

Speaking of street photography, I’m your fan, of course. My project’s album with your photo on its cover — I’m not sure which of the two has got more compliments, musical content or the cover.

And that surprises me — it wasn’t, after all, photography with some certain idea, but just a previously selected shot from my archive. I can’t even tell that this shot itself brings out some specific strong emotion in me — I remember a place, remember how it happened, daily view on what was happening on one of Cyclades, Mykonos or Naxos. This photo itself isn’t too powerful, but when it got connected to an album content, it got colored with absolutely different hues. It’s very pleasant that there was some resonance. When someone likes what you’re doing not just because you’re friends or are acquainted and all of it is just a thumb up on Facebook, but when a person can explain why he or she likes it, why it emotionally resonated, and use it in his work — this is a great compliment. I’m not a commercial photographer, I don’t need to earn with photography, so such happy coincidences seem very precious to me.

Where did you get your love towards jazz? Right now I’m a guest in your living room, there’s a great vinyl collection behind my back, and among them — many jazz albums. How did this happen?

There was a process of changing my musical taste. Music in my parents’ house has sounded non—stop, they have always listened to something, especially my father. But he had a different taste, there hasn’t been any jazz at home. Then, of course, in the second half of the 80’s, when I was a teenager, there was «Depeche Mode», but then, around the beginning of the 90’s it all ended. I began listening to the other sort of music, gained access to more information, I got attracted to blues, and then moved on to jazz. What I like in jazz is when it’s more acoustic, closer, I don’t like big bands, I like smaller ensembles, 3 to 6 people, when I can relate the music I’m hearing to my club or concert experience, smaller venues or restaurants — that feeling of a closed cosy space for a narrow audience — I like this idea. The amount of energy that musicians radiate into the audience, in my opinion, can be divided among smaller amount of people. So I personally get more.

Once I felt it especially strong — I’m talking about a concert of Richard Bona. In the beginning the big concert happened in the Congress hall, I loved his bass guitar sounds and vocals. In the end he said that afterparty and jam session will be taking place in «Kaļķu Vārti« the same night. Me and my friends came early, booked a cosy table by the stage, I was just a big further from it than I am from you right now. There was a jam, and at one point Richard sat by the table near us, work day ended, the clock showed almost one a.m., the waiters were putting empty chairs on the tables, some 6–7 people were left inside — three of us, some Latvian musicians and Richard with his pianist and drummer.

And suddenly he jumps up and says — I want to play some more. Took out his guitar again, was on stage, took his musicians, and three of them kept playing for more than an hour — just for us, around 10 people, including the waiters. That is, he played a whole concert to 2–3 thousands of people, and the same day played something he wanted to play in front of 10 people. To me the feeling in that one day, a big concert and a small audience, was absolutely different, and the second feeling was way stronger and more precious. Those were so powerful feelings, even now, 14 years after it happened, I am telling about it and feeling the same excitement that I felt then. I don’t believe that one can feel such a broad spectrum of emotions, such a strong influence. I’ve been to huge concerts with charismatic artists on stage, a crowd around you, but this is different — there’s a drive, and emotions are absolutely simple. This is like eating very spicy food, getting pleasure, or enjoy true aromas during a wine tasting. It’s really delicious in both places, but a spectrum of emotions is absolutely different. Besides, of course, in order enjoy the wines, it’s necessary to get oriented in them, at least a bit, train your taste.

Overall I like analysing, and when I’m listening to jazz music, there are some difficult moments in it and it’s interesting to somehow try to put it in order. I, of course, lack knowledge about music composition — I’m not a musician, after all, so all I can do is talk about the feelings, but that’s also interesting.

Anastasija Paškina

Being a listener without a musical education, which are the criteria upon which you analyse jazz music?

Whether I liked it or not — very simple. If you want to listen again, come to their concert, buy their music, bring it home — means you liked it. If you don’t — nothing stayed in your mind. And, speaking of analysis, it isn’t that easy to talk about it now, because there are professional musicians within my circle of friends who understand it, but I understand only with my feelings. Every composition which is finished, if it had a free form, improvisation or full avantgarde, not rehearsed before, when just played, got its form, there are some certain phrases, repetitions, quotations from some other compositions, reminiscences. It’s interesting to compare those forms, quotes from other compositions, along with a simple, clean emotion which you can gain when you feel a resonance with artists. Remember the quotes, look at a rhythmical consequence, at how time signatures are changed in the process of play — it entertains me and gives me pleasure. This is a charge for your brains and this makes you emotionally fuller — what else do you need from a concert?

Recording (vinyl, CD) or live performance?

Live, of course. I am an engineer — electrotechnician, speaking of my education. If we’re talking about physics — the more any signal or information gets transformed, the more interferences happen in it. During a recording process any take changes the signal. Then a sound engineer with his mastering comes in, then a matrix to press it, then the plate comes on top of a player that creates even more additional interferences. We lose something in each of those steps. If we think there’s some esoteric substance which gets transmitted from a creator of music to a listener, then during a concert you feel it directly. Listening to a musical material works way more powerful if you’ve been listening to it live before. This connection is powerful because then you from the depth of your emotional memory build something you’ve heard once, and emotions you have lived through.

Has there ever been any Latvian jazz musician who left a powerful impression on you?

I can mention one person who left a huge impact on my musical taste and my musical «education» — bassist Oleg Grishin. Some 15 years ago I have communicated with him on musical topics a lot, attended concerts together, he told me his news — helped make a step from just collecting Miles Davis’ albums to a wiser comprehension of what I really like and why. He has filled up holes in my musical education and left a powerful legacy in my head. He performs in smooth jazz style himself, so as a musician, he can’t influence me that much, but his impact on my musical taste was huge. I liked a lot the things that a saxophone player Vadim Makarov did on stage before he moved away from here — I liked his lightness. Even taking into consideration his attitude towards alcohol at the concerts, there was a fresh breeze inside him, and I liked it.

I like Deniss Pashkevich a lot, I follow his artistic life since the end of 90ies, even before I started doing photography — «Time After Time», «Green Petroleum Funk». I’ve been following his growth, it was interesting to observe how his artistry, vision and visual presentation change. I liked «Pieneņu Vīns» band when Yuri Koshkin was there. I don’t like vocal in jazz that much, neither I like scat — or maybe I haven’t grown up so much to be able to understand it. I highly appreciate everything Evilena Protektore does, she’s a person who does so much for jazz in our country. The atmosphere is very important, and with a great warmth I remember concerts at the Student club of the Latvian Music Academy called «Joseph Willow’s Jazz Club» — I’ve taken lots of pictures there as well. I went there every time, tried not to miss any concerts.

Tell me one thing — this year we’ve opened International Jazz Day with your photo exhibition. How did it happen that you began photographing jazz musicians, taking their portraits?

That’s simple — I have a camera, I attend concerts, why not try picturing something that entertains me? I also got into that musical environment consisting of half-professional enthusiasts, began photographing them, got access to more important concerts. I guess, the most serious jazz event I’ve photographed was a concert of Pashkevich, Ganelin and Gotesman in September of 2018. I photographed backstage and stage, filled up many films, went home dripping sweat, got invited to an afterparty, and had a chance to talk to Vyacheslav (Ganelin) — it was an interesting talk that pushed forward all my knowledge about music composition.

The main question that I tried to discuss with him was — how does the music perception happen? Is it right that a musician has thought about something and the listener thinks the same while listening, or when a musician plays, everyone thinks of something different, and it causes a wide spectrum of various emotions to different people? This question was important to me because I kept thinking about the same thing in photography — should I expect a reaction to my photographs which is similar to the one that I’ve felt myself? Here our opinions with Ganelin differed, even though it’s very difficult to disagree with legends. He thinks that the music is a very abstract thing, there’s a precise compositional thought into it, and if everything is done right, perception will be unequivocal, whatever the interpretation. Ganelin thinks a direct channel has to open from one brain to another brain with the help of a musically-informative message.

Meanwhile I, while working on my new book called «The Other Side», am trying to investigate such a phenomena: you often think of something while taking pictures, but when the others look at this picture, they are thinking about something completely different. I have been frustrating about it for a long time: you all don’t understand anything, how can you not notice what I’ve been thinking. I have created this book as «look how we need to do, look how you can’t see a picture and understand what I’ve been meaning by it». But during the investigation of this process I’ve realized I’ve been mistaken — actually this isn’t that much needed, I cannot expect a precise understanding of my work corresponding to mine. The main thing that changed my point of view was a phrase Tarkovsky told in one of his interviews: one of the journalists told that his movie was so deep, it has surprised everyone so much, but there have been so many interpretations, what did he mean by that — which of the interpretations corresponds to his one? And Tarkovsky who was maniacally detail-oriented, said that you cannot expect the most right interpretation from a work of art and that a work of art has a huge number of interpretations, and the point of view of the author isn’t always the right one. It changed my view on this phenomena, and as a result, the book will be completely different.

Is there any jazz musician, Latvian or foreign, whom you dream to picture?

There are many musicians who have already died, whom I’d gladly picture. (laughs) I often regret I haven’t been a 20 year old guy in New York in the 60ies. Here, I guess, I’d like to picture Edvīns Ozols. I have some concert pictures of his, even though I now think I could have done it better. I like a double bass and double bassists a lot, it is a very massive instrument that ties a person to one point, so all his plasticism, all his body language is very static, and they do a lot with their pose and face. So it’s very interesting to watch and photograph them. And I’d like to photograph Edvīns under the circumstances when I’d have more freedom in terms of moving around — often a double-bassist stands in the middle of the stage, with wires all around him, people and stage that I cannot be on — all of it narrows the opportunities of the photographer. Edvīns isn’t just a musician, he is also a performer — it’s interesting to watch him as a mime, he is very plastic, with a very live face.

Here I’m not talking about the value of the music product, but about things I’d like to fix visually — some other aspects work here. It’s hard to picture plastically stingy musicians — they’re static, it isn’t interesting. Any concert pictures, especially if that’s a vocalist — it’s just a head, mouth and a microphone from some 3–4 points of view, all pictures look the same, and I really don’t like to picture just one more of such. It would also be interesting to film a concert from above.

I know you photograph not only concerts, but also rehearsals. Why do you like it?

Oh, this one is the best. Being non–formal. An opportunity to lie under a guitarist and picture him from below, or put your head into a bass drum — I’ve once been portraying people while lying inside a kick drum with my ear. Afterwards, sure thing, I couldn’t hear anything with that ear, but that was fun. As well as the fact that there’s no audience — I’m free in what I do and how I move. I can suddenly stumble and nobody will shush me for it, I can accidentally tear a jack out of the guitar, and nobody will kill me for it. Will tell — yeah, well, be careful, put the jack back in and continue playing. I haven’t pictured a lot of jazz rehearsals specifically — I don’t have such a close relationship with serious musicians, so I can hardly tell them: «listen, take me to your rehearsal, I’ll photograph». Right now I can’t ask something like this yet, but overall it’s way more interesting than a concert — there, between musicians, absolutely different connections come into action. There’s an opportunity to communicate with a musician, while you’re picturing him. Besides, rehearsals are lots of fun. If musicians let you enter their world — it’s like a cat, if he lets you scratch his stomach, he trusts you, and the whole photographical process happens on another level. You’re picturing from the inside. I love this feeling a lot, the feeling of picturing rehearsals — that feeling is of a high value to me.

Have any funny stories that happened during concerts?

Yes. One band at their concert tried to bring me to the microphone. That one wasn’t jazz, but once I was taking pictures and they brought me to the mic and I sang a song. My 15 seconds of fame.

Has anyone pictured it?

No. I, of course, would have been happy to look at myself from aside, but I’ll stick to my idealized memories.

What would you wish a jazz musicians?

I’d rather state my readiness instead of wishing something — I’d like to collaborate with local musicians more often, and if someone reads this text and then asks me to film his rehearsal, I’ll be happy.