52nd Street and All That Jazz

Billie Holiday’s unmistakably seductive voice singing “Fine and Mellow” lures the listener into Bowdoin College of Art’s second floor Shaw Ruddock Gallery. Stepping into the installation “On 52nd Street: The Jazz Photography of William P. Gottlieb” is like entering a time capsule into the 1940’s, when 52nd Street’s “Swing Alley” in New York City was the epicenter of jazz, and William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006) was its passionate chronicler.

The exhibit is a compact, deeply satisfying gem. The 40 vintage gelatin silver prints of jazz musicians in performance are accompanied by a continuous loop of nine classic songs from such masters as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton. Gottlieb’s photographs capture the artists’ personalities with all the intimacy that close-up pictures provide. The narratives beside each photograph include Gottlieb’s descriptions of what he felt, shooting in the dark, densely packed confines of those smoky, heady jazz clubs. They also describe some of the innovative techniques he had to invent so he could shoot without a flash. His ability to remain unobtrusive is evident in the unguarded portraits he produced.

Known as “Mr. Jazz,” Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn and began writing a jazz column for The Washington Post during his senior year at Lehigh University. When the Post decided it could not afford to pay a photographer to shoot photos for his column, Gottlieb bought his own press camera and began taking his own photographs. Over the course of his career, he took hundreds of pictures of jazz musicians, four of which were the basis for U.S. postage stamps and 250 of which found their way onto record album covers.

A skilled craftsman, Gottlieb’s photos embody a natural empathy for and attraction to his subjects. He captures the personalities of the jazz musicians in a subtle, anecdotal way. “In my photographs, I try to say something visually that augments the written review,” Gottlieb said. In his iconic 1947 photograph of Billie Holiday, he wanted to capture “the beauty of her face and the pain in her voice.” It remained one of his favorite pictures.

“The Street,” according to Gottlieb, “was heaven on earth for jazz fans and musicians.” Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s exhibit is a little piece of that heaven on earth, at least until September 14, 2014.

Pictured at top: Billie Holiday, 1946 Photos by William P. Gottlieb and courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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