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Above: S’Wonderful by Natalie Jackson O’Neal, on display at Peoria Magazines

It’s really no wonder that photographer Natalie Jackson O’Neal’s favorite subjects are musicians. “I grew up in a home constantly pulsating with many genres of musical rhythms,” she recalls. “Jazz has always been my favorite.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that two of her favorite people are well-known musicians—her father Preston Jackson plays jazz guitar, and husband Dexter O’Neal is a singer, guitarist and leader of the Funk Yard. But Natalie really honed her photographic chops as staff photographer for Good News magazine in Atlanta, where she was a regular at jazz clubs. Eventually, many of the musicians she photographed asked her to shoot their gig posters and CD covers.

Jazz vocalist René Marie made a particularly indelible impact on her, Natalie explains. “She was so soulful and strong, energetic and beautiful. She was a treat to shoot because she always gave so much to her audience—and you always captured something new and exciting.”

Natalie’s photographic jazz series, entitled “Straight, No Chaser,” is a visual soundtrack to the Thelonious Monk tune of the same name—“a nod to its fluidity and extreme unpredictability.” Each piece in the series is named after a different jazz number.

At left, “Hit That Jive Jack” ispart of Natalie Jackson O’Neal’s “Straight, No Chaser” series.

She describes the work as improvised and distorted—anything but straight photography. “I capture an image and alter it so the viewer only sees what I deem important,” she explains. “I eliminate many details, letting your mind fill in the gaps, and what you finally see is only limited by your imagination. As Monk once said, ‘Don’t play everything… What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.’”

“This body of work depicts jazz—an African American art form that is truly a universal treasure,” Natalie continues. “It’s a vibrant, rhythmically visual expression of music that I hope viewers will not only see, but also hear.”

Her favorite image in the series is “Hit That Jive Jack,” named for the Nat King Cole song, which spotlights a couple dancing. “I used layers to give some texture to [the woman’s] dress so you can feel the movement and mood,” she describes. Indeed, all of the images capture a rhythmic moment in which the viewer is transported to the performance, with a painterly quality adding an extra layer of intrigue.  

While Natalie has many favorite songs, she singles out “All Blues” by Miles Davis—from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue—noting, “If I could have photographed him for this series, it would have been blue, cool, smooth and ethereal, with no erratic movements.” In fact, her dream project would have been designing album covers during that classic mid-century jazz era. Given the timeless qualities of these images, it’s easy to imagine her doing just that.

At right, “Green Dolphin Street” hangs in the Peoria Magazines’ office. 

For another series of photographs, “Crowns of Empowerment,” Natalie was inspired by photographer Irving Penn, who was known for his fashion photography, still lifes and portraits. (Incidentally, Penn’s portrait of Miles Davis graced the cover of Davis’ 1986 album Tutu). Here she challenges viewers to consider a standard of beauty absent from popular cultural images of a certain time.

“I admire the fact that [Penn’s] eye for art and fashion collided,” she says. “His style and sense of social injustice were a cornerstone of this series.”

Several photographs from Natalie Jackson O’Neal’s “Straight, No Chaser” series are on display and for sale in the Peoria Magazines’ office at 4736 N. University Street in Peoria. We encourage people to stop in and view her work, along with that of artist Elizabeth Davis and photographer James Burnham. Learn more about the photographer and her body of work at PS