Francine Winham

Francine Winham was born in London in the late 1930s, the middle child of a self-made property tycoon. When war broke out in 1939, her father arranged for the family to be evacuated to the relative safety of Colorado in the United States, a move that began for her a lifelong transatlantic relationship. In the late forties, the family returned to London and Winham was sent to the Mitford-Colmer Seminary for Young Ladies in Belgravia, a private school where the daughters of well-to-do families were prepared for their eventual emergence alongside the other well-heeled daughters of well-to-do parents as society debutantes. It may have been her parents' intention that their eldest daughter should follow this conventional path to ideal husband and domestic bliss, but Winham had other ideas. “I remember when I was about ten I heard someone playing Boogie Woogie on an old piano, and I thought it was so wonderful. It was this anarchic music which was the start of my passion for jazz. When I was a teenager in fifties London we were starved of music. There were no clubs for young people, but there were a few jazz clubs like Humphrey Lyttleton's 100 Club, the All Nighter in Earl's Court and the Establishment where Dudley Moore played. So you went to these instead and danced.” Every weekend, unbeknown to her parents, she would host parties at the family's Mayfair home for members of London's soon-to-be smart set. Friends such as the young Michael Caine and Terence Stamp (who were then sharing a flat around the corner) would come and socialize, drinking and dancing to the latest jazz sounds. It was around this time that she met music impresario Chris Blackwell. Blackwell offered her a job as his PA, and so she became the first employee of Blackwell's legendary Island Records. “Working for Chris was a unique experience. It was the early days of Ska and Bluebeat, and off we'd go to clubs, pubs and home-made recording studios in the Jamaican community scouting for talent. Chris would hold impromptu auditions at his rented flat (which also doubled as an office), bashing out the only three chords he knew on a rickety old piano whilst the unphased singer would do his or her thing. It was all very ad hoc. Chris and I did everything between us – the accounts, publicity, the lot. And when my father bought me a Rolliflex camera as a birthday present Chris decided I should shoot the record covers too. If the original artists weren't available, Chris would simply use friends as stand-ins. I was paid £10 a cover (less if I wanted a credit!). So almost by accident I became a photographer”. Bitten by the photography bug and eager to rekindle her American roots, Winham moved to New York in 1963 to study. She found work as an assistant to montage photographer David Attee, and later branched out on her own as a freelance photojournalist. But her overriding passion was for the vibrant energy of the New York jazz scene. “New York was the heart of the jazz world at the time – it was very exciting. You could go down to clubs like the Gate or the Village Vanguard and see all the great names performing live – Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone – the list was endless.” Winham began shooting the stars she had long admired, selling the results to magazines such as Downbeat and the Village Voice. “Jazz clubs were perfect for me. I liked to get close, really close, and see the expression on a performer's face. That's what really interests me, the intimacy.” The results were full-frame facial shots, isolating the subject from their surroundings and capturing the intensity and drama (or comedy) of the moment. It was during this time that Winham developed what she called her “fever” technique. By holding the shot still for half a second and then moving the camera, she created a blurred free-form image that mirrored the dynamic improvisation of the performer (a technique later imitated on jazz record covers and in magazines). Away from the jazz clubs, 60s New York was a hotbed of political unrest: anti-war demonstrations in Central Park, civil rights marches in Harlem. Winham covered these events with her journalist boyfriend Jo Gumede. A former boxer forced to leave South Africa for his opposition to apartheid, Gumede introduced her to his circle of fellow South Africans living in exile, including musicians Hugh Masakela, Jonas Gwanga, and Dollar Brand (later to become Abdullah Ibrahim), and the singer Miriam Makeba. “They were a fiery group, defiantly proud of their African roots – especially Brand. I remember going to photograph a concert at Carnegie Hall, organized by Harry Belafonte in support of the civil rights movement. The audience was predominantly white, and when the performers came out for the curtain-call Brand showed his displeasure by taking out his dick and waving it at them! He was promptly arrested. My one regret is I didn't get a shot of it.” Chris Blackwell was also in New York at the time and employed Winham once more (this time purely as a photographer!), taking her venues such as the Apollo Theatre in Harlem to photograph new acts that had signed to his label. Winham captured acts such as The Soul Sisters and a diminutive teenage prodigy who gave Blackwell his first international success – Millie Small. “When Millie sang ʻMy Boy Lollipop' it became a huge hit. Chris hastily organised a whistle-stop world tour lasting several months and asked me to go along as official photographer, but also partly to chaperone Millie (she was only fifteen!). We went everywhere – South America, Australia, Japan, Europe – and everywhere Millie was greeted by huge crowds verging on hysteria. I'd never seen anything like it.” Returning to New York, Winham renewed her affair with jazz. Wangling a press pass from a friend and armed with her camera she set off for the primary event of the East Coast jazz calendar – the Newport Jazz Festival. “Ever since I'd seen the film ʻJazz on a Summer's Day' I'd wanted to go to Newport. It was like the Holy Grail for me, a chance to see all the stars in one place – and photograph them too.” Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Jerry Mulligan... the list goes on, all captured by Winham. But this was not a dry documentation of history. Every picture is infused with mood and sensuality, living legends in mid-flow, singing, puffing and sweating their way through performance. “What I like about jazz singers and musicians is that their love of the music is combined with a kind of humility. They canʼt describe why they feel happy or sad, it just overwhelms them”. In 1967 Winham returned to London. A visit to the Edinburgh Film Festival the following year led to her joining the Woman's Film Group. “I was always drawn to the dynamic of an image and was beginning to find the static frame very limiting. Photographers at the time had preconceived ideas about the proper way to take pictures. You couldn't have a series, you had to capture everything in one frame. For me it seemed a natural progression into film-making.” After writing, directing and shooting her own short film ʻPut Yourself in My Place' starring Judy Geeson (which was subsequently well-received at Edinburgh), she attended the National Film School in Beaconsfield. She continued working with the Woman's Film Group throughout the 1970s before moving on to her own projects in the early 80s. She returned to photography, working for the newly created radio station Jazz FM. “I think it was the idea of being involved with the UK's first station devoted entirely to jazz which drew me back. I organized an exhibition to launch the station entitled ʻ100 Years of Jazz' and began attending the festivals again, this time in Europe at Maastricht and Nice, as well as the Soho Jazz Festival. It was a strange feeling of nostalgia shooting again some of the old stars I'd shot in the 60s – to see how they'd weathered the years. But there were exciting new talents emerging as well, such as Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine”. Exhibitions in London, Athens and New York have brought her work to a wider audience, and though Winham continues to take photographs her new passion is singing. Always ready for a challenge, she began training as an opera singer in 1991 and has performed in productions both here and abroad. “I'd always loved singing, and I suppose all those years photographing live performers had developed an urge in me to get up there and do it myself. You may think it odd that I chose opera to jazz, but what has struck me is that although they seem at opposite ends of the musical spectrum they have a lot in common - ʻPorgy and Bess' being a good example. I like to think of jazz as opera for the ghetto – it's got all the same power and emotion but with one big difference: if you want to dance, it's got to be jazz!”

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