For those of us who struggle through the menu options of our handy-dandy digital cameras, and then apply a liberal dose of Photoshop to make everything come out looking at least reasonably normal, hearing legendary photographer Bill Gottlieb recount his history with the bulky and totally counter-intuitive Speed Graphic camera, with which he took most of his famous photographs of jazz greats, is at once inspiring and maybe a little disheartening. To think that this master of his craft was limited to two exposures at a time, as opposed to the hundreds those of us using modern digital cameras are accustomed to, and yet was able to create one classic image after another is, frankly, mind-boggling.
If you think you haven't seen a Gottlieb photo, chances are you're mistaken, especially if you've ever mailed a picture with a Legends of Jazz stamp. The Billie Holiday likeness recreated on that stamp is a pretty much verbatim recreation of one of Gottlieb's most famous photos. But Gottlieb didn't capture just Lady Day in her heyday--he was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and his catalog of classic photos includes virtually everyone who was active in the post-WWII jazz scene, especially greats like Goodman, Christy, Ellington, Armstrong, Gillespie, Davis, and Sinatra.
The fascinating thing that this involving documentary uncovers is that Gottlieb's entrance into the photographers' hall of fame was completely fortuitous--he actually started his career as a writer, covering jazz for the Washington Post (among others), and it was only after his editor told him having a separate photographer along was too expensive that Gottlieb decided to combine talents to save money. The rest, as they say, is history.
Riffs balances a plethora of Gottlieb images with some articulate commentary by such notables as Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun and current jazz great Wynton Marsalis (who fumbles somewhat in trying to over-analyze what "cool" is, with an unintended comic result), as well as Gottlieb himself (recorded before his death in 2006). But it's the images that are the focus (no pun intended) of this documentary, and the bulk of the piece is given over to one ravishing image after another, largely in black and white (though his color photo of 52nd Street in the rain has passed into the annals of photographic legend, and is dealt with in some detail here).
This may be a niche product for those interested in photography and jazz history, but the public at large may find its visual presentation engaging enough to entertain those without a particular interest in either of those subjects.