I love this photo of Louis Armstrong. Herb Snitzer took it in 1960. I've long admired Herb's work. His perspective has always been radically different from his peers'. Rather than mimic the glossy style that was common during the late 1950s and beyond, Herb sought a different expression in his subjects, a new more authentic feel. It's almost as if Herb knew exactly how important these jazz artists were going to be and how many photos would look exactly alike years later. So he held out for capturing the artist in a highly unusual situation or with a non-signature expression.
Herb's [pictured] image of Louis above is precious for several reasons. In addition to it being one of the rare images of the trumpeter wearing a near scowl, Louis is also smoking one of his many daily joints in a casually brazen, quasi-medicinal way. What's more, Louis' "off duty" expression allows you to see the subtle difference between the trumpet legend's two eyes. His left eye looks rather relaxed and resigned while his right eye is vigilantly sizing up every detail and nuance of what's before him.
I contacted Herb and asked him what was going on when he made this photo:
"Louis isn't angry here. He's hot. We all were. The image was taken in July 1960, aboard Louis' band bus heading to a concert in Tanglewood, Mass. The bus—like all buses back then—wasn't air-conditioned. The seats were bolt upright. And there was no bathroom on board. Louis was wearing shorts, rolled down socks, sandals and an open shirt. We were all dressed light.
"I was along to take photos for Metronome magazine. We were traveling through Connecticut at this point. I was walking up and down the bus's aisle taking photos of different band members when I noticed the Star of David around Louis' neck. Later I learned it was a gift given to him as a birthday present from the Karnovsky family of New Orleans. They had helped Louis as a child by feeding him, giving him shelter and seeing that he did not get into trouble. He was buried with the necklace after he died in 1971.
"I casually sat on the armrest of the seat in front of Louis. I was in my mid-20s then and felt relaxed enough to engage him. I looked at him and smiled. He looked at me. We didn't speak. I was so taken by who he was, I had nothing to say. I just raised my camera and took images. Because that’s what I did. I think by this point in the trip Louis was feeling mellow from the joint he was smoking. He smoked pot on a consistent basis. After I made my images I moved on.
When I think back on this photo, like many of the photos I took then, it was the result of my naivete. If I had thought about what I was doing and who Louis was, I would have been too intimidated to get that close to him.
"I used a Nikon SP Rangefinder, a non-motor drive 35mm camera. There were a few outtakes [pictured]. In fact, the Metronome editors chose another image for the cover that was quite different from the one I preferred. The editors were concerned that Louis was smoking.
"Louis didn't mind me photographing him. Many jazz artists, like stars in any field, are as involved with the camera as I am behind it. Louis certainly understood the power of photography and what it could do and not do for him.
"When we arrived in Tanglewood, Louis gave a wonderful concert, with Trummy Young on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Billie Kyle on piano, Mort Herbert on bass, and Danny Barcelona on drums. What a great group of talented musicians!"
All photos by Herb Snitzer. ©Herb Snitzer/All rights reserved. Photos used here with the artist's permission.