What makes a jazz photographer tick? For years I have admired Herb Snitzer's unorthodox images of jazz greats Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young and many others. Herb's photos always have this "how did he take that?" quality, leaving you both baffled by their execution and grateful for his daring, since they expose new sides of these musicians' personalities.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Herb, 79, he talks about life growing up in Philadelphia, years in the Army and how he wound up in New York with a one-man show at age 27.
JazzWax: You grew up in Philadelphia in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Tough life?
Herb Snitzer: Poor. Even though the Depression technically had ended as the country began to build up before World War II, many people were still poor. To this day I still remember the struggle for survival that went on in my neighborhood. People had been out of work for some time, and no one felt the economy or country was truly stable. [Photo of Count Basie at a Roulette Records rehearsal in 1960 by Herb Snitzer]
JW: And how was your family’s world?
HS: Our world was relatively stable. My father had a small corner grocery called Joe’s Place. We were never lacking for food, but there wasn’t much money and our neighborhood was Jewish and rather insulated and self-contained. My parents were refugees from the Ukraine and had come over here in 1905. Their world was their family. [Philadelphia City Hall]
JW: How did growing up poor affect you?
HS: I became politicized very early, at age 15 or 16. Looking around and seeing so much inequality made me have empathy for people. As a child, I saw very rich people and very poor people, and couldn’t understand why there was such a big contrast. Also, I was a second child.
JW: How does that factor in?
HS: My brother was 13 months older, and in an Orthodox Jewish family like ours, the first-born gets everything. Constantly feeling second-best contributed to my reality and made me more sensitive as an artist. Today, my brother is the founder and president of a mutual fund company. [Photo of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane at the Village Gate in 1961 by Herb Snitzer]
JW: Did you always listen to jazz?
HS: Not specifically. I listened to the radio a lot. It was a dancing time, and I was a pretty good dancer. I was aware of the various swing orchestras. But I had only a casual interest in music. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to go to clubs. I was more interested in football. I played on the high school team as a halfback, but I never lasted a game. Somewhere along the way I’d get knocked out.
JW: What did you do after high school?
HS: I enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. I was determined to be a painter or designer. I settled on becoming a furniture designer. My parents were appalled by my decision to draw and paint in college. I didn’t get much support from them.
JW: When did you graduate?
HS: Before I had a chance to do so, I was drafted in February 1953, during my sophomore year. I was 20 years old. I did basic training at Camp Pickett near Blackstone, Virginia. I had always been athletic, so I was pretty good at training. The Korean War was on, and the last thing I wanted to do was kill or be killed.
JW: Were you sent over there?
HS: Almost. The camp’s colonel knew me from my playing on the Army football team. I was pretty swift. He told me he would keep me from being sent over. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to be sent to Germany to study art. He said he couldn’t do that but could send me to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
JW: What did you do there?
HS: I began to get involved with photography. Before the Army, I had made photos of family members with a Kodak box camera as early as 1948. I’d take the film to a drugstore to be developed. In the Army, I learned to develop negatives and make prints. I was with the Signal Corps’ photography department. I photographed mostly parachute jumps with a primitive 35mm camera.
JW: What next?
HS: I was transferred to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where they put me in engineering school, which was removed from what I wanted to do. There was a lot of math and calculations for building roads and things like that. I had little interest, but it was better than going to Korea. At Fort Knox, I hung out with photographers and spent time painting watercolors. Everyone knew I wasn’t an engineer.
JW: What did you do there?
HS: Eventually, I became a company artist and wound up making maps and graphics of soldiers on maneuvers. I would plot the maps and photographs that were necessary for simulation attacks. I had to come up with drawings and was pretty good at it. For some reason I also was good at shooting a rifle, even though I had never handled a weapon before.
JW: When did you get out?
HS: In April 1955. I had been in the Army for 27 months. After my discharge I went home to Philadelphia to finish college on the G.I. Bill. I took a double major—furniture design and photography.
JW: When did you move to New York?
HS: In June 1957, to look for work. My senior thesis had been an extended photo essay of Eugene Ormandy [pictured] and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I went up to New York because that was where everything was going on. I was a furniture designer, and all the companies were there.
JW: First time in New York?
HS: No. During my last two years of college I had traveled to New York every other weekend. I’d stay at the YMCA in the West 60s for $4 a night and go to galleries, museums, and Broadway shows for 95 cents. I knew then that I’d move to New York as soon as I was out of college.
JW: When you moved up, where did you live?
HS: At 58 West 70th St., between Central Park West and Columbus Ave. It was a five-story walkup. I was sure I would take the city by storm. I started to look for work immediately. I met Bertha Schaefer, who was an interior designer and gallery owner. She worked for the Singer Furniture Co. and hired me to do designs. I was sketching furniture all day, but I really wanted to be a photographer. I had set up a darkroom at my apartment in the bathroom, processing film in the bathtub.
JW: Did you enjoy drawing chairs and sofas?
HS: Not really. I knew I needed to get a photography job. So I opened the phone book and found a photographer whose name I knew—Arnold Newman [pictured]. I called him up and told him I was looking for a job. I told him about my Ormandy project. He told me to bring it over. Newman turned out to be from Philadelphia, too.
JW: Where was his studio?
HS: Nearby, on 67th St., off Central Park West. He looked at my small portfolio and offered me a second assistant’s job for $40 a week. I would go with him on shoots and carry the strobe lights, which were heavy. I also made prints.
JW: What was Newman like?
HS: He was difficult. Everything had to be a particular way. You had to act just so. If something was the tiniest bit off in a print, you’d have to make it again. I stayed with him for three months and quit.
HS: I couldn’t take the endless harassment in front of other people. He was one of the top commercial photographers who took portraits of famous people and Presidents. But he could be brutal. [Photo of President Eisenhower by Arnold Newman]
JW: How did you find your next job?
HS: By looking through magazines. I found a fabulous photo of Marcel Marceau, the mime, on the cover of one. The photographer was Robert Ritta. So I called him up, and he invited me over. I showed him my portfolio, and he hired me for three days a week at $25 a day. That beat Newman’s job.
JW: How long were you with him?
HS: About a year. In that year, I started making photos. On days when I wasn’t working for Bob, I was photographing Central Park—the people strolling there and the landscape—and meeting people from the photo services. Someone at Magnum directed me to Grace Mayer, the curator at the Museum of the City of New York. I showed her my photos of Central Park, and she gave me a one-person show. [Photo of Grace Mayer by Berenice Abbott, 1936]
JW: Wow, talk about an opportunity.
HS: I know. That’s what made New York so special and magical back then. I was 27 years old with my own show called Four Seasons of Central Park. It was a wonderful opening, and every newspaper covered it. The show opened work opportunities for me. [Central Park, N.Y.C., 1960, by Herb Snitzer]
Tomorrow, Herb talks about what went through his mind when he went out on assignment to photograph jazz legends starting in the late 1950s.
JazzWax note: For more on Herb Snitzer, visit his site here.
JazzWax pages: Herb Snitzer's Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir features his touching recollections and rich black-and-white photos. It's available at online book retailers and at Amazon.