To wind up with exciting candid photos of jazz musicians, photographer Herb Snitzer [pictured] had to be part big-game hunter and part button-pushing bully. On assignment, Herb developed tricks for making himself invisible and stealthily moving in on subjects. But he also had to know when to prod a little to stir up a musician's human side. To produce the desired results, Herb had to be fearless, patient, invasive and congenial.
In Part 2 of my two-part conversation with Herb, the photographer talks about the start of his jazz career and the trickiest moments behind his camera's view-finder:
JazzWax: How did your jazz photography career start?
Herb Snitzer: After my one-man show at the Museum of the City of New York, I approached Metronome, the jazz magazine. I could see from its pages that the editors enjoyed photography as an art form. [Photo: Central Park Series (Snowy Benches and Tables), by Herb Snitzer, 1959]
JW: Magazine photography was very different in the late 1950s, wasn't it?
HS: It was, but so was photography in general. Nobody talked about photography as art in those days. In 1957, I can’t recall a single New York gallery that was showing photography. The arts were pretty much about painting, sculpture and music. I knew a little about jazz, but I did my homework before I met with the editor, Bill Coss.
JW: What did you do?
HS: I looked at previous issues of Metronome. Though the publication loved to feature photographs, and the editors clearly enjoyed photography, most of the images didn’t hit me. They were a bit flat. One day Bill called and paired me with Bob Perlongo, the magazine’s associate editor. Bob was writing a profile of Lester Young, and Bill wanted me to go with him to the Five Spot to take photos.
JW: How was your first night on the job?
HS: It was a turning point. I loved Lester’s music. I also was knocked out by my proximity to Lester’s sound. He didn’t mind that I moved so close to take photos of him. I don’t think he cared. It all became one: instrument, music and photographer. Poor Lester died six months later.
JW: What did you feel being so close to Young?
HS: There was a vibration. When you’re at arm’s length, the space in between has its own energy. The closer you get the more intense that energy becomes. [The story behind the image above can be found here.]
JW: Weren’t you intimidated and afraid to get so close?
HS: I was naive, I just barged ahead. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with doing this. I was so intent on doing it, and Lester didn’t mind. Most musicians weren’t bothered by it. I had to get pretty close, too. Remember, I wasn’t shooting with a long lens. It was a normal 50mm lens. To get a close-up, I had to get physically close.
JW: Actually, many of your images are surprisingly close.
HS: Nothing held me back. I had a job to do, and projects just took me over. As I became better known among performing musicians, there was less and less initial resistance or suspicion. When I’d walk into a club, I’d just wave to them, and they’d acknowledge me.
JW: What was your greatest strength?
HS: My height. I've always related jazz photography to combat photography. I’m a little guy—5-foot, 6-inches. All small people make small targets. I never felt musicians were intimidated by me because I was usually smaller.
JW: How did you get them not to flip out?
HS: It takes time. They needed to know who I was. Familiarity helped.
JW: Did you ever have friction with a musician?
HS: I was photographing Sarah Vaughan in 1987. She was performing at a festival in Switzerland, and I was covering it for the concert’s producer. I had known Sarah since the early ‘60s, so we were friendly. In Switzerland, she was at the piano during a morning rehearsal. She’s was a terrific pianist. She was playing up and down the scales. Suddenly, she took her tongue and placed on her upper lip. It wasn’t an ideal image, but it was different so I snapped the picture.
JW: What happened?
HS: When Sarah heard the shutter, she glared at me. We both knew there was going to be a problem. Her look was “OK, no more—that’s it. I let you in, and now you’re out.” I immediately apologized and said, “I’m really sorry, Sarah. I’ll never publish that photo.” It wasn’t flattering, and we both knew it instantly. She appreciated my apology and promise, and said, “Thank you.” And true to my word, I never published the image.
JW: And yet many of your photos have an edge.
HS: My goal isn’t to compromise the artists or make them look foolish by shooting weird photos. My mission is to find a perspective, an expression that captures who they are and allows them to stand out.
JW: But curiosity is driving you, too, yes?
HS: Absolutely. I always want a finer understanding of the people I’m photographing. I want to go beyond mere composition. I’m always looking and waiting to expose their humanity. I want my photos to show what these people mean to me. My images are about the underlying thesis behind all this music and how special these people are as artists. That’s important to me.
JW: Did your own upbringing make you more sensitive to the humanity factor?
HS: I think so. As a photographer, I set out to celebrate the exceptional talents of musicians and I do so by waiting patiently for that singular moment when an expression shows their humanity. Growing up in a poor neighborhood made me more aware of this. Each photo is a personal statement. When I take one of my images of Louis Armstrong and put a mat around it along with a frame and hang that image on a wall, I’m not only making a statement about the music but I’m also saying that this is someone who means something to me.
JW: Which jazz artist was most interested in you?
HS: Nina Simone. She really appreciated my work and would talk to me about it. She would make comments about my pictures, like, “You really captured that person” or “You really understood what that person is about.” That she took the time and had the interest is still amazing to me. [Photo of Herb Snitzer with Nina Simone]
JW: Which brings us to your famous photo of an optimistic Miles Davis backstage in 1958.
HS: I took many photos of Miles over the years. Miles was very difficult. He liked to bust chops. I have a photo of Miles that he didn’t intend to have taken. [The story behind the image above can be found here.]
JW: What happened?
HS: In 1988 he was in Boston performing as part of the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. Fred Taylor, the concert’s producer, said to me that Miles didn’t want anyone backstage. But Freddy and I were friends, and he said he’d sneak me back. He warned me to be discreet.
JW: Were you?
HS: Yes. Miles was out on stage performing. Suddenly he turns and sees me in the wing. He was wearing sunglasses and lowered them, dropping his head to peer over the top. His eyes were glaring.
JW: Didn't he remember you?
HS: Oh sure. But his eyes were still filled with anger. I said to myself, “What are you going to do Miles, beat me up?” I had a 180mm zoom lens, so I just kept clicking. I didn’t care that Miles was angry. I wanted that photograph. I wanted that look. I wanted something to remember him being a jerk. I sort of have the same feeling at Miles that Toscanini did when he said that great quote about Richard Strauss [whose activities during World War II were repugnant to Toscanini]: "To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again."
JW: How did you view Davis' soul?
HS: I saw Miles not as the hip and cool person he was made out to be. For him to constantly play the badass told me how insecure he must have been inside. That’s the kind of stuff I tried to work out as a photographer. [Photo of Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1990 by Herb Snitzer]
JW: What were you thinking when you were looking through your camera's viewfinder at jazz legends?
HS: I was asking myself, “Who is this person really?” And then I'd wait for the expression that reveals the inner person. Before I'd arrive, I'd get as much information as possible about the artist and then try to make a visual statement about how I feel about the subject. I still do that.
JW: Are you patient?
HS: Yes, very. You have to wait and wait and wait sometimes to get the right expression. I took one of the last photos of Miles performing at the 1990 Newport Jazz Festival. It was so iconic.
JW: How did you get it?
HS: I was talking to photographer Herman Leonard. I was off to the right with a 180mm lens with other cameras around my neck. Miles looked up and had this pensive look. I said to myself, “Oh my god, how vulnerable.” I just felt it. It was intuitive. Once that camera went up to my eyes, my head went someplace else.
JW: Where’s the art in photography?
HS: When I go into a museum and look at work from, say, 1912, I think that someone is going to do this in the future, look back on photos from today and maybe look at some of my work. Art doesn’t survive if it’s just a pretty picture. You have to create something that touches people, that moves them and reminds them that they’re human—and that jazz musicians are human as well. [The story behind the image above can be found here.]
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.