When bassist Ron Carter and I spoke a few weeks ago about his work for CTI Records in the 1970s, we both remarked how stunning the covers were. "That's Pete Turner," Ron said. "Give him a call." So I did. Like all great jazz album photographers, Pete is as much a part of the music's evolution and the jazz culture as the musicians themselves. [photo of Pete in his studio by George Jardine]
Starting in the mid-1960s, Pete and producer Creed Taylor revolutionized jazz album cover art, ultimately altering the direction of advertising and magazine design. Instead of featuring jazz artists on graphically designed album covers, Creed and Pete went for full-blown, color-saturated photos of African and South American wildlife, geometric shapes, shadows and other images that purposefully created contrasts and worked against the grain of the albums' titles. In other words, the covers made you stare and think.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Pete, the 73-year-old photographer talks about how he started in the business, his long-time professional relationship with Creed Taylor, and his turning-point album covers—Stan Getz's Focus, Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave and Wes Montgomery's Road Song. We also talked about his new book, The Color of Jazz:
JazzWax: How did you get started in photography?
Pete Turner: I’ve always loved cameras and taking pictures. Even in grade school I had a small camera. In high school, in Rochester, New York, I was the photographer for everything, including the yearbook and newspaper. After graduation, I attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, which had a big photography department. It was near Kodak’s headquarters, so the company was always providing the school with the latest cutting-edge film, which at the time was color. I was a top student because I loved photography and had so much fun doing it. That’s where my career started. But as soon as I graduated in 1956, I was drafted into the army.
JW: Where were you stationed?
PT: Wait till you hear this. After basic training, they asked me what I was trained to do. I said I was a photographer. So they sent me to Indianapolis to the Army Finance Center Photo Studio. There was no war on so I was asked to photograph a general. He called me into his office and said, “Son, you don’t belong here. You belong at the Army Pictorial Center, the Second Signal Combat Team.” That sounded great, so I asked him, “Where’s that?” He said, “That’s in New York City.” The center turned out to be in Astoria, Queens, which is now the Kaufman Astoria Studios where they make movies [pictured].
JW: What was it like?
PT: Heaven on earth. They had a brand new lab, and they needed a guy to run it who knew color photography, which I did from school at RIT. I had a sergeant from Hawaii who said if I let him take credit for my work, he’d let me do anything I wanted. So here I am, fresh out of college, I knew everything about color photography and I’m running this $1 million photo lab. It was an official army barracks, with 100 guys in a room on bunk beds. But in the morning, I’d go down to my lab and work and be happy.
JW: How long were you there?
PT: I worked there for a year and half. On weekends I’d go into the city or anywhere I wanted to and photograph whatever I thought was interesting. They called it “on the job training.” During the week, if I wasn’t in the lab, they’d send me off on assignments, like photographing rockets down in Florida. I was living a dream. And learning. And photographing constantly.
JW: What happened when you were discharged?
PT: When I got out of the service, I moved into Manhattan and got a job with a company called the Freelance Photographers Guild. They soon got me an incredible assignment for Airstream, the trailer company, to photograph a group of people traveling overland from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo in their silver vehicles, something that had never been done before. National Geographic provided me with all of the color film. On this trip, big oil tanker trucks followed us because there weren’t any gas stations. We had 43 trailers creeping up Africa—and pre-independent Africa at the time. That was a big deal.
JW: When did you return to New York?
PT: About seven months later. By then, I had put together an amazing portfolio, since I had shot so many photographs in Africa. When I returned, I’d go up to Holiday, Esquire, Sports Illustrated and other magazines to show them a tray of my slides in hopes of getting assignments. I was just 26 years old, and they couldn’t believe my portfolio. Color was brand new, and my portfolio was all color. So I was considered hot.
JW: When did you get a call from record producer Creed Taylor?
PT: I didn’t. On the weekends, when I was in the army, I used to go into Manhattan. I’d take photographs for my portfolio and then go to record stores and look through the bins. I thought record covers were pretty interesting. Each time I’d run through the albums I’d see head shot after head shot on the covers. But every so often, an album cover would stand out. When I’d turn the album over to see what was going on, the album had Creed Taylor’s name on the back [pictured above]. I said to myself, “Gee I’d love to meet this guy. But he’d probably never want to meet me.” So on a lark, I called him up at ABC Paramount in late 1958 or early 1959. In those days, you could still get powerful people on the phone. We spoke, and I made an appointment to see him. When Creed and I met, I showed him my portfolio, and he liked what he saw. I had been working on weekends on a theme, “The Mood of New York at Dawn.” They were photos of quiet New York, in the snow and things like that. The photo series was for my portfolio.
JW: What did Creed say?
PT: Creed said he was doing an album called The Sound of New York and that one of the photos in my portfolio would be great for the cover. It’s the image of a traffic light against the Empire Sate Building. The image is so quiet. Creed loved the contrast. He loved using images that clashed with the theme of albums or provoked thought.
JW: Did you move with Creed to Impulse Records?
PT: Yes. I shot Count Basie, two John Coltrane albums, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth and many others for Creed there. Coltrane was very quiet and a nice guy. I photographed him at his house. His wife was there, too.
JW: Which jazz artist stands out most in your mind?
PT: Probably Wes Montgomery. In 1968 he sat for me at my smaller studio on 33d St. for about an hour and never complained. The photo shoot was for the back of Road Song. He left my studio, and then a short time later he died. I couldn’t believe it. The album was recorded in May 1968, we did the shoot in late May or June, and he died in June. I couldn’t believe it [pause]. I was young, and death wasn’t around me. He was really too young to go.
JW: How did you ever get that studio?
PT: I had to pay a lot of key money. But it was worth it. The musicians loved coming to Carnegie Hall to be photographed. But that had nothing to do with why I had that space. The studio had great northern light, and photo studios that size were hard to come by.
JW: What was the first big turning point in your cover art career?
PT: The first jazz album that pushed the “head shot” trend in another direction was the cover I photographed for Stan Getz’s Focus album in 1961. It was a transitional cover. I photographed Stan at one of his rehearsal sessions. I put a bright light behind his profile while he had his sax in his mouth. The light blurred him in silhouette and produced a great mood.
JW: But it was still a head shot. When did your cover themes become more iconic?
PT: When Creed became the jazz arm of A&M records in 1967, he thought we should get away from doing any sort of head shot on the covers. He thought too many covers looked alike. In 1967, he told me he wanted to produce a gatefold album you could open up and put it on your tabletop to see a bigger picture.
JW: Which album was it?
PT: During a meeting Creed said he was finishing an album with Antonio Carlos Jobim called Wave. I had no idea what the music sounded like, which was the case almost all the time. They’d always be recording or mixing the album when the cover was being created. For Wave, Creed asked me to bring in images that I thought would work. But he added, “I don’t want a Japanese wave. I want something different.” So when I got home, I went into my files and pulled a shot from my library of the red giraffe.
JW: When did you take that photo?
PT: In 1964, during a photo shoot in Africa for Esso. The oil company wanted to become associated with Africa and didn’t know how to pull it off. In a meeting at Rockefeller Center, I came up with an idea to photograph an Esso fuel tanker and animal herds running along side of it.
JW: How did the executives react to that idea?
PT: They were excited. The head guy had an office so big I could hardly see him at the other end. All I remember is him saying, “Well, we hear you’re really good.” The next thing I know I had first class tickets to Africa. I got this great big tanker and snuck it into this area and started driving around with the animals. After I got the shots for Esso, I stayed on to isolate and photograph some giraffes for my portfolio. That’s where I made the shot that’s on the Wave cover.
JW: How’d you capture the red and purple colors?
PT: That’s a whole optical thing using special filters and machinery. Actually, the album with the green cover was a mistake. They switched the plates by mistake. But I kind of like that one, too.
JW: Did Creed go for the red giraffe right away?
PT: Yes. I brought the giraffe and other images in a slide tray. As soon as the giraffe came up, Creed said, “That’s it.” So I photographed Jobim in silhouette and we put him small on the back cover with the giraffe wraparound. The rest is history. That broke the cover routine of always having the artist on the front cover. Wave established a model that we used in many of the albums that followed.
JW: So they’d tell you the album title and you’d find a photo in your library?
PT: There was no “they.” There was Creed. And an art director that I suggested to Creed.
JW: You must have had some photo library.
PT: I think I did. I’m an artist, I mean I guess I am, you know. All through my career I’ve photographed pictures for myself. If I had an assignment to shoot an oil truck in Africa—which was my idea anyway—I also was going to photograph other things for fun. You do the same thing with your blog. You don’t’ get compensation for it. You do it for fun. So we’re on the same path.
JW: So the lesson is whatever you doing for fun, archive it and someday someone will want it and you’ll have it?
PT: I hear that. [laughing]
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Pete talks about his famous ashtray photo for A Day in the Life of Wes Montgomery, Creed Taylor and CTI Records, Deodato's Prelude, Stanley Turrentine's Sugar, and the dramatic album cover that was a complete accident.
JazzWax pages and prints: Pete Turner's book, The Color of Jazz, features crisp color reproductions of his jazz album covers as well as the story behind each photograph and how, where and when each was taken. The book is available online at Amazon here for $29.
Pete also sells limited edition prints of his album covers and other images for between $3,600 and $5,000. You can learn more about these images at Pete's website here or through the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles here.