Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Passion Exhibited Through Photos


I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Ellis Marsalis III has jazz in his blood. He's the son of pianist Ellis Marsalis. His brothers are the tenor sax player Branford, trumpet player Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason. But instead of sticking to the family business, this Marsalis pursued a very different passion - photography.

His current exhibition "Voices and Visions of Tha Bloc" blends prose, poetry, and black and white photographs from his East Baltimore neighborhood. Ellis Marsalis III, welcome.

Mr. Ellis Marsalis III (Photographer; Poet): Welcome. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, again, I'm from Baltimore. Great to have you showing a bit of the city. And you know, it's a very strange city. It has so much joy, and beauty, and hope, and so much depression, and degradation. What kind of lens do you try to bring to the city?

Mr. MARSALIS III: Well, one of the things I was really trying to do is I'm trying to cut through a lot of the deception or really, you know, everything is when you talk about a city, when you're certainly talking about a black city. Things get to be contrived, which means that what it becomes is controlled by the dominant culture vision of that city. And it's difficult to cut through it and what I try to do is to try to paint a picture say well, look, here - we're going to take one block in Baltimore city and take a look at it in its entirety, not just from the standpoint or I'm going to try to make it look good. I'm going to try to make everybody look a certain way.

I try to allow everything to be exactly what it is and say look, here it is and there's wonderful things and there's not so wonderful things in it, but there's a certain beauty that comes out of it if you take it in whole like it is, as opposed to in little sort of components. You know, in a sense, we tend to pull things out of their context.

CHIDEYA: What was it like to shoot on your block? There must be a very intimate relationship. Did people ever get upset when they saw the photographs or did they have ecstatic moments when they saw the photographs that you shot of them?

Mr. MARSALIS III: Well, you know, I got a little bit of both. You know, I didn't get too many people that were upset. No one was really mad. There were a few people who, I think, were annoyed. Although a lot of people who were, you know, fascinated by it. At the very beginning, because the project sort of started in the mid-90s and I photographed all the way through, pretty much, 2003 before the book. The book was published in 2004.

And it was difficult to explain what I was doing especially over that length of time. There was a lot of people who saw me and I said well, I'm working on a book about, you know, the neighborhood. And there was a lot of disconnection between, well, you're taking pictures. Are you writing a book? Is this a picture book or what is it? And I explained, you know, I'm actually working on a photo-narrative, and there's a certain, you know, sort of - kind of a market for that. Less than a market, but it's sort of like a genre and that's the medium of my choice, you know, from an artistic standpoint. And I was really trying to tell a story. And I had to allow - give it the time to let the story unfold as best as I could. And it took me just a little bit shy of 10 years…


Mr. MARSALIS III: …to piece it all together.

CHIDEYA: I want you to describe a photograph for us, "Man Child."

Mr. MARSALIS III: "Man Child" is essentially a - that's a 13-year-old boy sitting on a stoop next to two guns. Both of the guns were his. And he's sucking his thumb. And it is a — I always look at the photograph and it's hard for me because I know the kid. I know him. So, I don't bring to it as much pathos as a lot of people bring to it. Sort of like the shame, and this is a tragedy and I find the photograph utterly absurd.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean by that? What do you mean by absurd?

Mr. MARSALIS III: Well, it's absurd. I mean, you have a 13-year-old kid with guns, sucking his thumb. I can't think of nothing. It's like when you think of the community or, you know, I comment all the time that I live in a black working-class community and I know that when the dominant culture describes -they use the word, working class. The word black is never around the word working class. It's always like working class blue collar is always about white towns. Little small villages or towns with, you know, coal miners or steel workers or (unintelligible), or, you know, ex-auto workers. But you never hear the word working class in black, and that's what this is. This is a working-class black community.

Inside of it, there is this other - these are all the things that are going on in it. And when you hear about a black community, and they oftentimes referred to it as a ghetto, you know, a dangerous place prowling with drug dealers. Everybody's - nobody's afraid, you know, everybody's afraid to come out of their homes, and all of this absurd talk. Out of the absurd talk, is this genuinely absurd thing, which is the exact opposite of what you would think.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you before we let you go. We have a couple of minutes left. You're a New Orleans native. You come from a very storied family of musicians. What did you bring with you from New Orleans when you came to Baltimore, and when you came to photograph Baltimore?

Mr. MARSALIS III: Well, I think, what I brought is that - it wasn't so much growing up in New Orleans, it was growing up in New Orleans with your father being a jazz musician. It brings you - you get to see things that I don't think a lot of people see. And I think you get to see things, I don't think a lot of black people see. Sort of how to - there's a workmanship about the craft that you do, very much like jazz.

I mean, there's something very simple about jazz in the sense that, if you're a jazz musician, you know, people say how do you get to be a jazz musician, you just show up. You know, you show up and you play. You know, degrees aren't going to help you. Having so and so being the tutelage or - you have to play. You have to do the thing.

And when I attack a project, I look at it in that very sense. You know, you got to show up, you got to meet the people. You got to photograph. You got to tell the story. And so, that's sort of how I approached it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ellis Marsalis III, thank you so much.

Mr. MARSALIS III: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And Ellis Marsalis III is a photographer and poet. He joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. His exhibition "Voices and Visions of Tha Bloc" is on view now to August 12th at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. And to see selected images from the show including "Man Child," go to our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.