[William Gottlieb and Dr. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, examine a photograph of Thelonious Monk (1920-1982), a pianist, composer, combo leader, and developer of bop. Photographer: Jim Higgins]. (Photoduplication Service)
The Library recently acquired an important collection of photographs by William P. Gottlieb, a jazz columnist who shot some 1,500 portraits of more than 250 jazz musicians from 1938 to the late 1940s.
Mr. Gottlieb's photographs have great appeal in the jazz world because they are not only what one critic called "very penetrating pictures of real people," but they also seem to express the essence of jazz.
"His particular genius seems to have been portraiture," said Jon Newsom, acting chief of the Music Division. "He got a sense of the character, the individual, he had a feel for what they were like."
Added Bernard Reilly, head of the Curatorial Section of the Prints and Photographs Division, "He also worked at a particularly important period in jazz in the United States."
The collection presents many major jazz musicians from the fertile 10-year period between 1938 and 1948, and includes earlier pioneers and stylists as well as the up-and-coming boppers, said Robert Bamberger, head of the Fuels and Minerals Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division in the Congressional Research Service who also hosts a weekly jazz program, "Hot Jazz Saturday Night" on Washington public radio station WAMU, 88.5 FM.
"Boy, how it makes you wish, looking at them, that you could hear the music of the instant," Mr. Bamberger said. "Bill's photos are of performance art captured through the lens of another art," that of writing critical reviews.
Mr. Gottlieb began work at the Washington Post as an advertising agent and later started a jazz column for the newspaper on the side. He could not convince the management to pay a photographer overtime regularly to shoot the shows that he covered in his column--so he taught himself photography.
Mr. Gottlieb said the secret to the richness of his photographs lay in the needs of his weekly column, first for the newspaper and later for Down Beat magazine.
"I have what may be the key to it but I'm not sure. I took those photographs as a writer would," Mr. Gottlieb said. He said he would ask himself, "What can I say visually to augment the message that I said in so many words?"
When he photographed French gypsy guitarist Jean-Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt, whom he did not know well, Mr. Gottlieb focused on Reinhardt's accident-disfigured hand. "He didn't know what I was doing," Mr. Gottlieb said, "but I knew what I was doing. It wasn't as subtle [a shot] as trying to capture the emotion of Billie [Holiday]," he said, adding that his photographs range from gimmickry--Reinhardt's hand--to subtle expression--Holiday's singing.
Other subjects of Mr. Gottlieb's incisive portraits are such legendary figures as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat "King" Cole, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Charles Parker, Frank Sinatra, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Art Tatum and Lester Young.
"The most elusive quality I tried to get was personality, but that was a hit or miss operation," he said.
Today's photographers, armed with automatic film winders, shutter speed and focus, expensive flash units and high-speed film, would probably have predicted failure for Mr. Gottlieb. He took only two or three photographs per session, in part because flash bulbs were so expensive. To conserve film, yet catch the best moments, Mr. Gottlieb would wait until the second or third chorus, when the music and emotion became most intense, he said.
His photographic principle became "don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes," he said.
"The creative process is exhilarating and wonderful but it's also sort of painful. Bill's photos capture different aspects of that creative process," Mr. Bamberger said.
Many Gottlieb photos find the musicians warming up backstage or congregating outside the clubs for a smoke between sets, Mr. Bamberger said. "We can see how they hold their horns, we can see their dress, and the settings in which these artists worked and lived. Bill's pictures add a dimension that recordings just can't conjure," Mr. Bamberger said.
"Music didn't have anything approaching the visual component that has become second nature today, what with cable and video," Mr. Bamberger said. "In Bill's photos, we have images of people whose names and music may be familiar, but whose appearance may not."
"Yet, Bill's photos are never intrusive," he continued. "They're revelatory, capturing the immediacy of performance and those intangible forces behind it," he said.
The Prints and Photographs Division has acquired all Mr. Gottlieb's negatives, as well as a set of prints. The Music Division retains and makes available to the public for study purposes a second set of reference prints as well as 64 framed exhibition prints. The Library purchased the collection of 1,500 negatives and additional prints through financial support from the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund.
Although Mr. Gottlieb now charges $400 and up for reproductions of his prints, he has agreed to transfer his copyright to the public domain in 15 years. Therefore, in the year 2010, all of his photos will be copyright-free, unlike many of the Library's photographic holdings. "It's more the rule than the exception that photographers and their estates tend to maintain copyright restrictions," said Mr. Reilly.
"His collection is an extremely valuable commodity for him; the fact that he decided to give it to us is very generous. He has given something that is very important to the research community," Mr. Reilly said.
Exhibitions of Mr. Gottlieb's work have appeared in nearly 100 institutions throughout the world, from the Navio Museum in Osaka, Japan, to the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden. His photographs have appeared in books, magazines and newspapers, as well as on posters and T-shirts. They were also the basis for the portraits of four jazz artists who have appeared on U.S. commemorative postage stamps.
"His photos, in my mind, are like songs--"Heart and Soul," for example--that everybody recognizes but virtually no one could name the composer. Under the Library's stewardship and owing to greater public access to the collection, Bill Gottlieb's name will become more closely recognized and linked with his work," Mr. Reilly said.
In fact, the Interpretive Programs Office is preparing for an exhibition of some of the prints at the Performing Arts Library at the Kennedy Center, according to Mr. Newsom.
For his part, Mr. Gottlieb said that one of his favorite images is the shot of Holiday singing. In The Golden Age of Jazz, his 150-page overview of the collection, he wrote, "The haunting, anguished voice of Billie Holiday . . . is one of the glories of music; so I was fortunate to have heard her in the late 1930s and early 1940s when she was at her peak."
Fortunately for the nation, he not only heard Holiday and her contemporaries--but took their photographs too.
Originally published in the October 2, 1995 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.
-Will Dalrymple, a Cornell University student, worked in the Public Affairs Office during the summer.