William P Gottlieb


Conchita Fernandes traces the life of William Paul Gottlieb, who is perhaps one of the very few photographers whose revelatory visuals documented the meteoric rise of jazz music in the United States.

Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947.


When asked to describe jazz music, Louis Armstrong had famously said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” With its roots in the ragtime and blues tradition, jazz developed as a way for African Americans to own a part of musical history by creating music that was reflective of their own tumultuous past. Jazz’s novelty lies in its complex harmony, syncopated rhythms, and a heavy emphasis on improvisation which was unlike any music of its time. Taking shape in the mid 19th century and then exploding in the first quarter of the 20th century, jazz dominated the 1930s and 40s. William Paul Gottlieb, an astute writer, who later became more known for his photographs of jazz musicians, spent a decade documenting the rush of this rich era in musical history.

Finding His Groove
Gottlieb’s introduction to jazz was by chance or rather through illness. He was nineteen at the time when he was struck by trichinosis and was on bed rest for a month. It was during this time that his friend loaned him recordings of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It didn’t take too long for him to get hooked onto jazz. He felt so passionately for it that he started contributing reviews to the monthly magazine that he edited at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where he studied Economics. Two years later, and upon graduation, Gottlieb was hired as an ad salesman at The Washington Post. Several months into the job, he suggested incorporating a weekly jazz column in the Sunday edition of the paper, which was granted, and became the first of its kind to be published in a daily. Gottlieb was paid an additional ten dollars a week for the column and even had a photographer accompany him on his assignments. However, two weeks later, the newspaper announced that it could not afford to pay a photographer. Resolute in his will to illustrate his column with photographs, Gottlieb traded in several of his records from his collection for a 31/4 x 41/4-inch Speed Graphic camera, film and flash bulbs.

Portrait of Vincente Gomez, Café Society Uptown, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946.

The Speed Graphic was a standard camera used by press photographers at the time, but it was not an easy device to operate. “If you can shoot (with) a Speed Graphic, you can shoot anything,” Gottlieb had said. It used bulky, non-reusable flash bulbs as its principle light source. “Although the flashgun could be attached directly to the camera—the configuration he often used for his shots of performers on a theater stage—Gottlieb preferred to position his light or lights away from the camera for better cross or back-lighting. In this mode, one or more flashguns were connected to the camera by extension cables. Multiple lights could be placed anywhere in the room within reach of the cables. Alternatively, if a photocell was attached to a second (or “slave”) unit, it could be situated at a greater distance and triggered by the flash of the “master” unit. In some circumstances, the flashguns were fastened to a stand, furniture, or the wall, but Gottlieb often recruited audience members to help him hold flashguns. It was difficult to show the volunteers how to hold and aim the lights correctly, and new bulbs had to be inserted after each exposure,” mentions the excerpt taken from Gottlieb’s biography by the Library of Congress.

He made sure to limit his exposures to three or four shots as film and flash bulbs were expensive, and the money that he used came out of his own pocket. This proved to be a great learning experience for Gottlieb because each photograph he made had to count. “From the beginning, I took pictures as a writer would. I was not after a “good” photograph but instead, one that would say something, something that would augment the text,” he said.

Images that Painted a Picture of Music
Gottlieb’s photographs can be classified into three categories—portraits that revealed the personality of the artist, portraits that augmented an article’s text, and experimental portraits that imbibed special effects. Amongst the many photographs that he shot of jazz artists, the tightly cropped portrait of Billie Holiday, seized at a pivotal moment of complete surrender to song, became a famous and widely used photograph of the artist. “I especially tried to capture personality, but that’s an elusive quality and I was successful only a portion of the time. But I certainly hit it on the button here with a picture of Billie Holiday, whose voice was filled with anguish. I also tried to capture the beauty of her face. She was at her most beautiful at that particular time which was not too long after she had come out of prison on a drug charge. She couldn’t get any drugs or alcohol while she was incarcerated. She lost weight and came out looking gorgeous, and her voice was, I think, at its peak. I was fortunate enough to have spent time with her during that period, and I caught this close-up of her in a way that you could really see the anguish that must have been coming out of her throat,” he said.

Portrait of Buddy Morrow and Ritz Brothers, New York, N.Y., ca. May 1947.

At times, his photographs were specifically catered to the text in his column. The portrait of Stan Kenton and Buddy Childers’ reflection in a shattered mirror conveyed Kenton’s “shattering music that was described as discordant, unconventional and loud.” When he felt like experimenting, he employed in-camera double exposures or elements that resonated with the artist. His portrait of Mel Tormé enveloped in what looks like fog was created using dry ice, a testament to the moniker he had earned—“The Velvet Fog”—owing to his soft yet husky voice.

Although Gottlieb created a fair share of images depicting orchestras, he preferred to photograph individual portraits, often focusing on one or two musicians. Since he worked on multiple assignments for newspapers and magazines, he usually did not know whether his photographs would be published in a single column or double columns or a half page. Hence, his images were clean and clear, often vertical, so as to do away with any clutter in the background and focused on the subject at hand.

Portrait of Erroll Garner, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948.

His Transformation into Mr. Jazz
By the time Gottlieb was twenty-two years of age, he was known as “Mr. Jazz” in the Washington D.C. area. While continuing his job at The Washington Post, he did radio shows and also dabbled in disc jockeying. However, in 1941, he quit his job in advertising at The Post and enrolled in a graduate program for economics at the University of Maryland at College Park while continuing to remain active in the jazz scene as well as write his column for The Washington Post. It was at the university that he was approached by a few students who were keen on a jazz appreciation course conducted by him. However, the school administration proved to be a hurdle. “A lot of the students approached me with the idea of teaching a not-for-credit course or a for-credit course in jazz. I was something of a character at school. Here I was teaching economics and having an NBC show, a three-a-week on a local station, and a weekly jazz column because I kept that. But the faculty turned it down because the university didn’t want it since that would have given too much praise, so to speak, to blacks. On my radio shows and on my columns, I featured blacks a great deal. Not because I was out crusading, but because they were the key people in jazz,” he said. Annoyed by this, he quit the university and became an economist with the wartime Office of Price Administration. Then in 1943, he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and was fortunately stationed in the United States itself. This allowed him to carry on with his writing on jazz though not at the same pace as before.

Portrait of Stan Kenton and Buddy Childers, Richmond, Va., 1947 or 1948.

After World War II concluded, Gottlieb made his way to New York City where he became the Assistant Editor at DownBeat magazine, the leading jazz-centric publication in the country. Here, he wrote reviews, compiled news pertaining to jazz from around the world, and sometimes even photographed to support text not written by him. Gottlieb used his position to bring about transformative changes to the magazine. “Through the Looking Glass” was a special feature conceptualised by him wherein the artist was depicted seated in front of a dressing room mirror, with the photograph portraying his reflection as well as his immediate surrounding. For instance, in one such image that Gottlieb made of Louis Armstrong, you can see Armstrong’s throat spray and various medication at the dressing table, as the musician enjoyed vocalising as much as playing the trumpet. You can also see a stack of handkerchiefs that he used by the dozen. Details like these created a revealing and intimate portrayal of the subject.

His Retirement and Re-emergence
By the late 1940s, the jazz scene in New York was on a decline. There was a recession in the music business and a newly issued entertainment tax. Bebop, a modern rendition of jazz, began gaining popularity, and drove out all the old-school jazz club patrons. The urban landscape also began changing with skyscrapers on the rise and the demolishment of old jazz establishments. Even the circulation of DownBeat magazine took a beating. By this time, Gottlieb could feel himself burnout. His chaotic lifestyle from the last decade began catching up to him. “I had a wife and children, and the joys of staying out until 4am with musicians, even those who were my idols, had evaporated, especially since I was the only sober one there.”

Portrait of June Christy and Red Rodney, Club Troubadour, New York

Thirty years later, after he had retired from the jazz scene, Gottlieb’s photographs made a revival in the form of a book titled The Golden Age of Jazz that featured more than two hundred photographs of jazz musicians and singers. It was the 1970s and a renewed interest in jazz had sprung up. The book received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Award, and in 1997, DownBeat awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award (the first time it did so to a photographer). Then in 1994, his portraits of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Milred Bailey and Jimmy Rushing were used by the U.S. Postal Service for a series of postage stamps commemorating jazz performers. His photographs were also used in more than 250 record albums, innumerable newspaper and magazine articles, as well as T.V. documentaries and films.

Before Gottlieb entered the jazz arena, the photographs of musicians and singers were largely dominated by rigidly posed pictures. But when Gottlieb photographed, he did not just create a portrait of the artist but captured the music as it transpired in front of his camera. He knew exactly when to press the camera’s shutter—“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” became the foundation for his images. One can almost hear the music in his photographs. More crucially though, Gottlieb created humanistic portrayals of the larger than life figures that he photographed, often of the artists warming up for a performance or when they were away from the stage or their instruments. “His photographs were never intrusive. They’re revelatory, capturing the immediacy of performance and those intangible forces behind it,” Robert Bamberger, Head of the Fuels and Minerals Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division in the Congressional Research Service, and a jazz aficionado, said.

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Better Photography.

January 2021 issue of Better Photography.