Last Thursday, my phone rang. On the other end was a young woman who hurriedly began telling me a story, adding that a friend had suggested she contact me. The only words that stuck at the time were "photographs," "Campbell" and "homeless." Since I hear from media relations people all day long promoting one thing or another, I asked her to send me an email and that I'd take a look. She sent along a link to a Kickstarter drive she has launched to raise money for a book project. So I watched her video. Moments after it ended, I called back Jessica Ferber [pictured above].
What a fascinating story, I told her. I also told Jessica that JazzWax readers would probably love to hear more about the story and would certainly want to help contribute to her Kickstarter drive to raise sufficient funds to publish a book of Robert James Campbell's photographs [pictured above].
Rather than spoil a good story, here's our conversation:
JazzWax: So who was Robert James Campbell?
Jessica Ferber: He was a freelance journalist for The Village Voice and Downbeat in the 1950's and 60's. His photos include iconic images taken at the height of New York City’s post-war cultural renaissance. Amazingly, his photo archive has never been printed or viewed by the public.
JW: What did he photograph?
JF: His works cover an array of subject matter—including jazz, entertainment and the Civil Rights movement. His life was rather tragic. After succumbing to numerous challenges that plagued him throughout his life, including mental illness, financial hardships and internal struggles as an artist, Campbell lost everything and returned to his home state of Vermont. In 2001 he passed away in a Burlington, Vt., homeless shelter. [Photo above of Cecil McBee by Robert James Campbell]
JW: Wow, that's terrible. How did you hear about him?
JF: In 2002, I had recently graduated from The University of Vermont as a sociology and photography major and was spending the summer in Burlington. I came home from work one day and my roommate mentioned a project that she was too busy to take on. She told me Campbell’s story as she ran toward the door. [Photo above of Bud Powell by Robert James Campbell]
JW: How did she hear about Campbell?
JF: Our college photography professor Daniel Higgins had been contacted by the homeless shelter where Campbell was residing regarding a “pile of photographs,” including images of jazz musicians. Professor Higgins told her they were looking for a student volunteer to research the images. Even though I had already graduated, I had taken several photo classes with Professor Higgins and grew fascinated by the project when we spoke. [Photo above of Connie Kay by Robert James Campbell]
JW: What did you do?
JF: I drove to the shelter that day. The misnamed pile in their possession turned out to be a vast, unimaginable collection of boxes ﬁlled with dusty, warped negatives, journals, odd family relics, film, love letters, bail receipts and all sorts of bizarre ephemera. You name it, it was in there. I had no idea what I had just taken on or that that this deceased stranger, Bob Campbell, would become a permanent fixture in my life. [Photo above of Count Basie by Robert James Campbell]
JW: How did you wind up with the images?
JF: Campbell passed away without a will. After reviewing his collection for the first time in 2002 and realizing that it may have potential value, I was advised by an attorney to run an ad in the local paper to search for rightful heirs. After an unsuccessful search, I was temporarily appointed the Administratrix of the estate. Currently I do not own the archive, but have been representing the collection on behalf of The City of Burlington, which has become the owner. [Photo above of Milt Jackson by Robert James Campbell]
JW: Nine years later, here you are.
JF: Yes, to date, I am the only person who has had the opportunity to research Bob's life and view his photography. It took years for me to piece things together to the point where I had a comprehensive understanding of his collection and his rough life. [Photo above of Wayne Shorter by Robert James Campbell]
JW: Why do you think Campbell’s photos are important—beyond the fact that they're old?
JF: He had this ability to get close to his subjects. You sense immediately that he was genuine and kind and waited for people to be themselves before snapping the shutter. Aside from being a master of his craft, you can tell he also became friends with his subjects. Based on my research, he played music with them, he was in their homes and studios, and they shared drinks and stories. He operated on both sides of the lens. [Photo above of Philly Joe Jones by Robert James Campbell]
JW: Why do you think he did that?
JF: Photo shoots were just jobs for Campbell. But he had this ability to blend into whatever setting he was in and make people feel comfortable very quickly. None of his images appear contrived or staged. I don't know how he did it. This may sound trite, but I think it's because everyone who met him loved him immediately. Take me for example. I never met him, of course, but I instantly had a deep admiration and respect for him. [Photo above of Percy Heath by Robert James Campbell]
JW: Did you have any experience in what you took on?
JF: None. Everything about this project has been a "learn as you go" kind of thing. From the research, to the curating, to the archiving, to the legal parts, publishing pursuits and becoming administrator of an estate at age of 22. It has been a wild ride. Interestingly, Bob Campbell provided me with an education that I didn't expect. Now I am learning about bookbinding and the weights of different types of paper for the book project. I'm actually writing my monthly college-loan check as we speak, and I can't even remember what I learned in those four years. [Photo above of comedian Flip Wilson by Robert James Campbell]
JW: Are you a jazz fan?
JF: Yes! Isn't everyone? I actually appreciate the history and evolution of jazz even more than the music itself in some ways. I don't think people are aware of the triumphs and tragedies that make up the story of jazz. I think that's why Campbell fascinates me. His life is that story. [Photo above: Drummer Night at Birdland by Robert James Campbell]
And isn't this how we all came to jazz? It seems Jessica has discovered the film noir qualities of jazz's story through the accidental encounter with Bob Campbell's photographic legacy.
JazzWax clip: Below is Jessica Ferber's Kickstarter appeal for donations to fund a book of Campbell's images. Go here to Kickstarter to donate. If you're unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it allows you to donate to worthy projects with a credit card. But your money only passes through to the fundraiser if his or her stated financial goal is met. Otherwise, donated sums are refunded to you. Let's give Jessica a financial hand...