By Steph Jorgl & Thomas Dworetzky
A photographer, a sculptor, a painter, a filmmaker, a performance artist and a harmonica-playing musician, the multi-talented Jaffe began his photography career in the thick of it. After leaving college at Penn State in 1969, he hit the road, going first to Brazil. In those magical times, photographic fortune smiled on the young artist.
There Jaffe connected with magnum photographer, Miguel Rio Branco. The two started collaborating artistically.
"I did sculpture in Brazil, earthworks, and conceptual works and Miguel photographed them as a way of documenting them," says Jaffe.
Jaffe and Rio Branco Hit New York
The pair headed for New York where Jaffe did a performance with Vito Acconci—a leader of the conceptual art/performance art movement—that Miguel shot in black and white and slow motion with a 16mm camera. The name of the piece was "Impact." It showed Acconci and Jaffe running full speed from two city blocks apart and smashing into each other.
Jaffe next documented a piece called "Parallel Fears" as part of a group show at MOMA. The show, called "Pier 18," became the first big conceptual art show to ever show in a major museum.
Jaffe Gets Into Filmmaking and Winds Up a Wailer
In yet another chance meeting, Jaffe’s good fortune brought him to befriend and photograph Bob Marley. While chasing his own vision of filmmaking, much like his work in "Impact," it would seem that Jaffe’s artistic lifepath brought him straight into the path of the Jamaican music star. The result was a priceless collection of early Bob Marley photographs.
"I had made a 50-minute Warholian film in Paris with a French cast and crew and people liked it," reflects Jaffe. With things going so well for him, Jaffe started to plan his first feature. The film was to have a mostly French cast, but a Jamaican actress as one of the stars.
Jaffe was visiting London to discuss the film with the actress when she invited him the premier of the groundbreaking film "The Harder They Come." This was his first introduction to Jamaican music.
He returned to New York with his cast and crew to get ready to go to Chile to shoot his feature, which was about the search for a mystical root the Indians use in the Andes, chi cha. Unfortunately, Allende was being overthrown in a CIA backed coup at that moment and, Jaffe explains, "Our Chilean co-producer [suddenly] disappeared."
Still in New York, Jaffe decided to attend the last show of Traffic, in Madison Square Garden. When he went backstage to visit Capaldi, he met "this Jamaican guy who had this cassette of a record he had just finished." The "guy" was Bob Marley and the cassette was Bob Marley and The Wailers’ groundbreaking "Catch a fire."
"The first song was called 'Concrete Jungle,' " he recalls, reciting, "the sun was shining day to day hot yellow moon won't come out to play... That was the best album I ever heard. I still listen to it." The two became friends and Jaffe soon joined The Wailers as a harmonica player.
Jaffe, Marley, and The Wailers.
In 1973 Jaffe and Marley were living at a house on 56 Hope Road in Jamaica. Jaffe had set aside his fine art work in favor of playing with The Wailers, but the urge to create art soon re-emerged, influenced by his earlier collaboration with photographers while a performance artist.
"All I had at first was a Polaroid—an old one on which you could change the aperture," he says. "Then I got a hold of a 35mm and the later a Hasselblad. I was there in Jamaica and I just thought it would be good to start taking pictures. I wasn't doing sculpture—I was more interested in making music and getting the music out to the world. But at the same time, I thought it would be really important to document what was happening, to have pictures of all of it."
Jaffe—even while deeply immersed in the music scene—considered himself a visual artist. "Taking photographs kept that side of me happy," he says. Jaffe played with The Wailers for three years, performing on the classic Natty Dread album as well as on tour. But the two drifted apart and Jaffe returned to the states, his timeless photographs in toe.
Jaffe Returns To His Art
In the decades that followed, Jaffe has kept up his music, but focused more on his art. His work has been shown around the world including at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland; the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden; the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England; and most recently, at M+B Fine Art Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California.
Recently music has resurfaced for Jaffe and again it is merging with his photography, in part thanks to Chris Blackwell, his friend from the Traffic and Wailer days. Blackwell introduced Jaffe to Tricky, the British musician, rapper, producer, and founding member of the seminal group Massive Attack. Tricky and Blackwell have a joint venture in a new music label called Brown Punk.
Following Blackwell’s introduction, Jaffe started collaborating with Tricky on a movie and photo book to be released in conjunction with music from the Brown Punk artists.
Jaffe On Tricky and His Return to Photography
"Tricky is an amazing subject himself, incredible looking, one of the most remarkable looking people I have ever seen," says Jaffe. "He is very exciting to be around, and because of the music he made over the last decade or so he has become a magnet for young talented people." Jaffe also has tremendous faith in Tricky’s Brown Punk label. "The music is very eclectic with people mixing every genre together," he says. "The book will be about the birth of this label. I think the label will have a big impact."
A compilation CD of various Brown Punk artists will come with a book and a movie that Tricky has written and is directing and starring in. "I’ve been working with him as co-director and producer and have also been shooting 2nd camera," says Jaffe. The movie, called “Brown Punk (The Movie)" is a gangster musical with songs from artists on the Brown Punk label integral in advancing the plot. It also stars Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella Marley (Tricky will be producing her 1st solo album later this year), and Elliot Gould.
Tricky’s look is really important to Jaffe. "I'm mostly a portrait guy, so that is real important," says Jaffe. "I also shoot mostly in available light." But he’s not using film anymore. Nowadays, Jaffe shoots digital. "I use the Canon D2," he says.
The switch from film to digital occurred when Jaffe had a book "One Love, Life with Bob Marley and the Wailers," published. "It contains a lot of my photos from when I was living in Jamaica with The Wailers in the 70s," he says. "I wasn't that interested in making a book of those photos until the digital world got expansive enough to let me really control how the images looked by myself."
"I’m just not that interested in all the chemicals involved with film," says Jaffe. "But when Photoshop came in, everything became possible and that got me really interested in making the book. I learned a little bit about Photoshop and then I had no desire to go back to film. For me it was a natural extension of the type of work I had been doing at that time. I was shooting a lot of Polaroids and digital gives you that immediacy, too. It sort of reignited my interest in photography."
The advent of the digital world got him more excited in taking pictures himself. Jaffe’s interest in photography had not been entirely dormant, there was a lot of appropriation of photos in his painting and sculpture. "After Jamaica, I had gone to New York and became more involved in painting and sculpture, and less in photography," he explains. "I was still interested in photographs and was using a lot of them in painting and sculpture. I just wasn't shooting that much myself."
Jaffe Comes To BowHaus
However, when it came time to make large-format prints of his photographic works, Jaffe enlisted the help of BowHaus to make these larger format prints. "I gave them fully retouched files," he says. "But there's a lot more to making good digital prints than the files and BowHaus was awesome—just great! Getting the print right really involves getting the printer right, too."
"Sometimes I would also have trouble getting the file right, but I would bring it to Joe and he would fix a problem in a few minutes [what] I had struggled in Photoshop with for hours," says Jaffe. When Jaffe produced his larger digital prints with BowHaus, he found it convenient to have a smaller compatible Epson to the one BowHaus uses so he could do proofs at his studio as well.
The biggest print in the show shows Bob Marley reading the Bible. "The original was a Polaroid, and had deteriorated quite a bit," says Jaffe. "It took a lot of work in Photoshop, but was worth it. It just seems that the bigger the prints are, the better they look."
Limited Edition: Basquiat
"I love printing digitally, especially because you can use different papers with different textures," says Jaffe. "I used Hahnemuhle for the LA show, but I have another project in which I just released a limited edition box of prints." The project is a series of images shot with the late artist, Jean Michel Basquiat.
"We were close friends and I did a lot of photos with him," Jaffe explains. "This series shows him making a painting. I printed them on 300-pound Arches paper. The company (a legendary French paper mill) started to make a paper they specially coat for digital photography."
While Jaffe is clearly an artist who traverses gracefully between his own varied artistic outlets, he is also taking his works of great artists, taken long before the modern methods of digital imaging, and giving them a rebirth into an artform larger than life. In doing this, he is showing his timelessness as a creator and his evolution beyond the limitations that existed when capturing some of his greatest works.
Jaffe’s works of Marley, Basquiat, and others can now be found in large-formats previously impossible to achieve at these levels of resolution. Some samples of his various works can viewed at: www.leejaffe.com