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April 19-25, 2006

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Toledo dancer

Photograph by Charlie Nucci
Frozen in Time: A Toledo dancer writhes in one of Charlie Nucci's striking photographs.

Better Days

Ajax Lounge door man and photographer Charlie Nucci captures a bygone era

By Todd Inoue

DURING its brief run from 1991 to 1995, the space above Eulipia restaurant, now occupied by Sofa Lounge, was an enclave. Up until a change in ownership in 1995, managers Chris Esparza and Chris Elliman cultivated an atmosphere of urban sophistication, booking a worldly mix of Latin, soul, rockabilly, acid jazz, spoken word and hip-hop. Those that experienced it are endlessly nostalgic, so much so that the stories of Ajax Lounge have taken on mythical proportions: Medeski, Martin & Wood's early gigs; Charlie Hunter Trio, Ohnedaruth, Slide 5 and Groove Collective's appearances during acid jazz's heyday; the Roots and the Fugees' throwing down before blowing up.

When he turned 21, Charlie Nucci worked the door at Ajax during its height. He checked IDs, helped bands load in, bussed tables and tossed out the occasional knucklehead. At the same time, Nucci was studying photography at San Jose State University, so he kept his camera with him. What began as a hobby turned into important documentation, helping define the image of the subterranean scene. On Friday, Nucci will present 25 of his prized golden-era shots—taken at Ajax Lounge and Fuel, F/X and Gordon Biersch—at the Cardiff Lounge in Campbell.

"It was straight reportage," says Nucci. "It was what I was doing, working downtown. I was man on the street, shooting idiosyncratic things that interested me."

The original prints have been enlarged from 2-by-4-feet to 8-by-4-feet, black-and-white, flush-mounted, full-bleed on archival Kodak paper with UV laminate. There's a dirty beauty to them: a Toledo dancer writhing on the floor; a woman catching a smoke on the Ajax Lounge steps; a saxophonist hurrying down the block; Raul Rekow's hands working a conga. There's a romantic, voyeuristic noir—mysterious and timeless. Nucci extrudes the soul out of downtown, treating San Jose 1993-97 with the reverence that Woody Allen has for Manhattan or Spike Lee for Brooklyn.

Nucci says he was influenced by photographers Roy DeCarava and Robert Doisneau. Robert Frank's photo collection from the 1950s, The Americans, also had an impact. "It was seeing how he photographed using heavy black-and-white and grainy, ambient light or whatever the natural light was," Nucci says. "It gave it a real gritty look that appealed to me." Like Frank, Nucci snaps with an unobtrusive clarity, allowing subjects to be captured in their most natural state.

Today, Nucci works out of San Francisco—shooting for magazines, advertising, collateral and portrait work. He's done jobs for Cisco, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo shoes, PC World and Macy's. It's been a while since Nucci was back in South Bay. A couple years ago, he met some friends for a late-night snack at Original Joe's. He remembers seeing the police herd the ultra-lounge lizards to their cars.

"I kind of avoid it," he says. "It's different, man. I'm looking for something more mellow. It seems like a different crowd."

Most of the people who experienced the Ajax Lounge days probably share the same opinion. They have real jobs, kids and responsibilities now, too. The exhibit will be a chance for them to gather and reflect on a time when the only thing that mattered was getting off work, meeting friends for a drink and seeing an act who would blow up a year later.

"I just think people would get a kick out of it, to bring back memories to some people," says Nucci. "That was a really cool time back then."

"When I want to look back at what I remember of Ajax, I look at Charlie Nucci's photos—not my own, not ones given to me," says Chris Esparza, now of the Naglee Park Garage. "He has a passion for capturing photographs with soul."

Photographic Works By Charlie Nucci opens with a reception from 7-10pm on Friday, April 21, at the Cardiff Lounge, 260 E. Campbell Ave, Campbell. 408.374.7477.

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