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‘Music’ and all that jazz

Look at Deborah Feingold’s photographs and you can hear jazz.

Feingold’s pictures include leading lights from across the musical landscape: Madonna. B.B. King. David Byrne (in his famous “Stop Making Sense” Big Suit). James Brown. Pharrell Williams. Keith Richards. Some of the photos have the grit of urban streetscapes. Others appear carefully posed or are loose and improvisational.

So, where is the jazz? It’s between the lines, Feingold said. Jazz musicians were among her first portraits, and she took the lessons of their music to heart.

“I knew how to improv in the theater, but seeing it musically was really interesting because I was watching it, not in it,” Feingold recalled. “It taught me photographically the basics of what’s still at the core of my work, which is throwing yourself into something and making it up as you go along.”

Feingold’s new book, “Music,” collects more than three decades of her work. The Cranston, Rhode Island, native was a photo hobbyist as an adolescent, but it wasn’t until she got to college in Boston — where she intended to major in theater — that she saw the possibility of using the skill in other ways.

“From a very early age I used the camera as a tool to help others communicate,” said Feingold, who describes her younger self as shy. “The whole theater attraction was because the words were in front of you, so I didn’t feel shy, but what (photography) became for me was a way to express myself without having to speak.”

When Feingold followed a jazz musician boyfriend to New York, she got a job with a photo agency, where she learned more about the medium. Then a small jazz label asked to use her pictures, and she was on her way professionally.

She soon became a staff photographer for Musician magazine. Her first assignment was trumpeter Chet Baker, and she hasn’t looked back since.

The magazine, she observes, was its own education.

“How lucky could this girl be? I’m photographing Keith Jarrett for them. I’m photographing Brian Eno,” she said. “Musician was the dream gig. Nobody was covering that wide an array of contemporary music of that time.”

Throughout it all, Feingold has kept her ideas simple, often shooting in conference rooms or homes with a minimum of frills. In her early years, this idea arose from necessity — she wasn’t given much time with the artists. But it’s still an abiding goal.

“My challenge — and this came from the jazzers — is how do I make this not look like what it is? How do I transform it?” she said.

So a 1990 Yoko Ono session took place in a room in Ono’s Dakota apartment, a portrait of John Lennon over the fireplace. Ono sits quietly in a chair, bathed in shadow.

For another shoot, Madonna arrived at Feingold’s small West Village studio already dressed and made up. Feingold was armed with a brand-new Hasselblad camera and a bowl of Tootsie Pops and bubble gum. She shot four rolls — 48 exposures — and in 20 minutes, they were done.

The resulting 1982 image is one of the Material Girl’s most iconic.

Feingold, who has branched out to do book covers and author photos, is both proud and a little surprised at what she’s accomplished.

“I’ve waited 40 years to do this book,” she said. “I don’t know that I saw it as a body of work. I just kept working.”

It helps that she still has a youthful outlook.

“I still have the same enthusiasm and excitement that I had when I started, and it doesn’t really matter what it is. I find something to throw that part of me in that’s still 12 years old,” she said, laughing. “And when you see me on a shoot, I’m definitely still 12 years old.”

- Todd Leopold, CNN