Friday, September 10, 2021

The Photographs of Don Hunstein - "Keeping Time: The Unseen Archive of Columbia Records" [From the Archives]

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“… [In 1955, Hunstein] moved into the job of staff photographer, and there he stayed until Columbia dismantled its in-house photo studio in 1986. For the label, Hunstein photographed classical virtuosos and jazz masters, soul belters and country patriarchs, folkies and rockers, Broadway casts and spoken-word poets, legends in the making and flashes in the pan.

As the years and decades rolled by, Hunstein unselfconsciously built a visual chronicle of music and culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. His photographs trace changes in fashion and performance styles through the decades. Hunstein's archives move from the buttoned-down 1950s to the casual 1960s to the over-the-top 1970s to the stylized 1980s, and from the restrained professional entertainer to the aggressively self-marketed star. For better and worse, Hunstein's filter was the roster of Columbia Records and its associated labels; it is, inevitably, an incomplete musical panorama. Nevertheless, the list is simply astonishing …”

Don Hunstein’s images of music’s most influential artists are unforgettable.

As Columbia Records’ staff photographer for more than four decades, Hunstein earned the trust and confidence of the most celebrated singers, songwriters, composers and musicians of our time, including Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett and Thelonious Monk, to name a few.

Hunstein photographed these greats with noticeable informality, demonstrating a perpetual ease with his subjects. With his relaxed approach, he was able to glean private moments from public lives filled with fascinating, telling and intimate details. Logging his daily assignments, Hunstein created an archive of profound images that parallel the soundtracks to our lives.

To this day, his work exists as a unique record chronicling the creative efforts and energies of the world’s greatest musicians.

Edited by journalist and Grammy-nominated music producer Leo Sachs and with text by New York Times chief popular music critic Jon Pareles, Keeping Time: The Unseen Archive of Columbia Records [San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2013] places Hunstein’s photos in the context of musical and social change, adding an untold chapter to the cultural history of the second half of the twentieth century.

As the staff photographer for Columbia Records starting in 1955, Don Hunstein literally held history in his hands.


"Discretion was the better part of valor. Shoot, then disappear."
- Don Hunstein

“Of the countless images that the photographer Don Hunstein shot in a five-decade career, a select few hang on the walls of his Upper West Side apartment in New York. Two make a diptych: a pair of photographs taken, moments apart, at the 1959 sessions for Miles Davis's landmark album, Kind of Blue.

One photo focuses on Davis himself, cradling his trumpet, thoughtful and far-seeing. The other blurs Davis to show his discovery and a musical catalyst in his quintet: the determined young saxophonist John Coltrane (pages 150-151).

Each photo is nothing less than an iconic moment from jazz history, a rare inside glimpse of a masterpiece being made. And together they are more than that. They give visual form to jazz itself, to music shaped by individual musicians and instantaneous change, in which the focus can shift from player to player at any moment. It's just one of the intimate, quietly astute musical and psychological insights to be gleaned from Hunstein's extraordinary body of work.

Hunsiein himself shrugs off any such grand concept for his images. "There was nothing metaphysical about what I did," he said in conversation with the music producer Leo Sacks. "I'd just like to think I had a good eye for detail, that I captured the moment at hand. But mostly, I just did my job." That job was as still photographer for Columbia Records, through three decades of its heyday.

Hunstein was born in 1928 in Saint Louis and lived there until he graduated from Washington University in 1950. He gol serious about photography, working with a Leica IIIg, while serving with the Air Force in Korea. Back in civilian life, a college roommate invited Hunstein to New York in 1954. He shopped his photographs to Madison Avenue ad agencies and worked as a studio assistant at a large commercial photo house, then as the assistant to the former entertainment editor of Life magazine. The contacts led him to a job at a rapidly expanding Columbia Records.

"The label was growing, and so was the record business, and Columbia's publicists needed someone to handle the flow of stills to the media," he remembered. "Someone trusted my judgment!"

He quickly moved into the job of staff photographer, and there he stayed until Columbia dismantled its in-house photo studio in 1986. For the label, Hunstein photographed classical virtuosos and jazz masters, soul belters and country patriarchs, folkies and rockers, Broadway casts and spoken-word poets, legends in the making and flashes in the pan.

As the years and decades rolled by, Hunstein unselfconsciously built a visual chronicle of music and culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. His photographs trace changes in fashion and performance styles through the decades. Hunstein's archives move from the buttoned-down 1950s to the casual 1960s to the over-the-top 1970s to the stylized 1980s, and from the restrained professional entertainer to the aggressively self-marketed star. For better and worse, Hunstein's filter was the roster of Columbia Records and its associated labels; it is, inevitably, an incomplete musical panorama. Nevertheless, the list is simply astonishing.

Hunstein photographed Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. He photographed Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, Placido Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma. He photographed Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Robert Goulet. He photographed Aretha Franklin. Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Minnie Riperton, Luther Vandross, He photographed Allen Ginsberg and Langston Hughes, He photographed Johnny Cash, George Jones, Charlie Daniels, the Flying Burrito Brothers. He photographed Pete Seeger, Simon and Garfunkel, the Byrds,Joan Baez, Phoebe Snow, and, extensively. Bob Dylan, including Dylan's First two album covers.

Though he worked mostly in New York City, Hunstein also traveled where the company's assignments led. His work carried him to Moscow with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and to Warsaw where a reverent Bernstein played Chopin's own piano. He ventured to Nashville to photograph country stars, to London for British rockers, and to Havana Jam in 1979, when American and Cuban musicians long separated by politics got a precious chance to learn from one another.

In an era before home video and reality TV, before the making-of documentaries and cell phone cameras, before MTV and Facebook, Hunstein's career gave him close-up access to moments the public would never see otherwise. He photographed musicians at work and musicians unwinding, musicians very conscious of creating an image and musicians with their guards down. For many listeners, Hunstein's images of Davis, Dylan, Gould, Monk, and Bernstein have grown inseparable from the artists' music. Hunstein's photos were, in those less exhibitionistic times, the lasting, iconic images of the musicians, to be pondered and scrutinized on album covers or in magazines.

While Hunstein did capture some extraordinary shots of performers onstage, he preferred making photographs that were set outside the spotlight: backstage, at recording sessions, in musicians' homes, on the street, in the Columbia photo studio he ran until 1986. They were rarer, more private moments, but Hunstein claims his reasons were pragmatic. "Less distracting," he said.

For Hunstein, a typical day's work left little time for grand artistic aspirations. "There was the album cover shoot in the morning and then, after lunch, a session with a newly promoted Columbia executive to send to the trades," Hunstein recalled. "Later that evening, I could be at a recording session that could last until the wee hours." He was dedicated to his work. Hunstein's 1966 honeymoon trip to Europe, the beginning of his marriage to his wife, DeeAnne, included a stopover in London to photograph Simon and Garfunkel while they were on tour.

Hunstein's job, clearly, was to present attractive images of Columbia Records stars. But his bedrock instincts were journalistic: He photographed realities, not fantasies. "I was merely a living witness," Hunstein said. "What does any good journalist do? Record what's going on. Observe the artist and their expressions, then leap in. You've got to react to something that's happening, or anticipate that it's about to happen."

He generally approached his subjects as a documentarian saving the moment— keeping the time—rather than as a fashion photographer contriving and glamorizing a pose. Hunstein cites as his model the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who championed the "decisive moment," the image that captures the unique, fleeting alignment of an event and a composition in light and shade. "To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that gives it meaning," Cartier-Bresson wrote in a 1976 essay, "The Mind's Eye."

Keeping Time unmistakably demonstrates Hunstein's sense of visual form as he worked within and beyond the necessities of the job at hand. Whether his subjects were looking directly into his camera or going about their business while he observed them, his photos appear strictly matter-of-fact. But their straightforward reportage can't conceal their visual elegance. The shots were often taken for workaday purposes, like publicity handouts or trade magazine stories. But grouped as they are in this book, their aesthetic choices add up.

Consider Hunstein's many recording studio photographs. The studios hold microphones, sheet music, equipment, and tendrils of smoke, along with the musicians and their instruments. They are unromantic workaday spaces, places of professional camaraderie; musicians concentrate, joke around, confer, play. Hunstein appreciated the Kind of Blue sessions — which, like many he photographed, took place at Columbia's own 30th Street Studios — not only for their music, but for their no-frills setting.

"There were no special effects, just ordinary ceiling lights," he told the jazz critic Ashley Kahn for the book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Da Capo Press, 2001] "It was great for what I did because there was an overall lighting, nice and even. It was the plainest kind of situation."

But in his photographs, Hunstein's recording studios are not plain. With their shadows and their calibrated depth of field, their mixture of sharpness and softness, they can be as mysterious as film noir stills. Each image hints at the intangible but crucial decisions, the pressures and inspirations, that will shape the music made by these particular musicians in this particular room. The photographs are by nature silent, but they are charged with musical possibility and human character.

Hunstein's images of a ravaged but noble Billie Holiday, of a studious Julie Andrews, of Bob Dylan intent at an upright piano in his rock-star shades, are glimpses of artists thinking and creating, not preening. Surely the shutter must have clicked, but the reverie seems unbroken. Hunstein was always careful to stay the inconspicuous observer. He eased himself into his subjects' confidence: listening, watching, telling a joke or two. Then, it seems, he all but vanished into the background as far as the musicians were concerned, even with his camera in hand. He was a company-sanctioned spy of sorts, but one who was as respectful as he was probing.

"I followed my guidelines, always," Hunstein said. "Discretion was the better part of valor. Shoot, then disappear. I never photographed during takes. I never wanted to be in the way, to be intrusive. I hope I never was."

Hunstein was also thoroughly adept at making photo-studio portraits. From the beginning, his jobs at Columbia included not only casual shots and documentation, but also art-directed concept photos intended to fit (and market) the twelve-by-twelve square of an LP cover. Through the decades, Hunstein also adapted to performers' growing sophistication and control — sometimes defensive, sometimes flamboyant — over their public presentation. Remnants of innocence were rapidly giving way to artifice.

Hunstein's seventies-era photos of Nashville's rhinestone cowboys and of R&B singers on the roster of Philadelphia International Records — musical opposites but sartorial kin in their fur, leather, sequins, and studs — demonstrate how a Hunstein photo could relish a costume in all its gaudy detail. But in the performers' faces, his journalistic side persists: he brings out the flesh-and-blood humanity behind the showmanship. Hunstein photographed artists, not mannequins.

It must be Hunstein's own amiability that's reflected hack at him in more informal portraits, like the ones he made of Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and — sitting perched on a windowsill at Columbia Records' offices for the cover of his debut album — Bob Dylan. The young performers look baby-faced and trusting, with their ambitions clear and their public masks not yet firmly in place. "I tried to create an atmosphere so the artist was relaxed and open," Hunstein recalled. "That was essential. That was key."

Some of Hunstein's subjects, like the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, deliberately posed themselves for him. To much of the outside world, Gould was a reclusive figure who gave up a concert career for the perfectibility of studio recording, but he welcomed Hunstein periodically through the years. Gould stationed himself in playful, canny poses, hinting at the geometric thinking that he brought to his repertoire of Bach and Mozart. One Hunstein photo became the model for a statue of Gould that now stands at the Glenn Gould Studio at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto.

"Gould often wouldn't let anybody else take his picture," DeeAnne Hunstein explained. "Pail of it was Don's manner of treating all the people that he photographed. He didn't treat them like celebrities or stars or anything like that. They were just people he was photographing, and he liked being on a one-to-one level with everyone."

The Bob Dylan of the early 1960s, with his career rocketing from Greenwich Village folk clubs to Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival appearances, repeatedly faced Hunstein's camera. The photos capture a young musician inventing himself on the fly, already a knowing media figure.

What may be Hunstein's best-known photo is the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, as he and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walk down the middle of a snowy Jones Street (pages 200-201). It's an image of youthful Greenwich Village bohemia that mixed candor and calculation.

"Dylan himself was by then already quite image conscious and self-assured," Hunstein said about that afternoon, "and he knew how to play to the camera." Hunstein had photographed Dylan and Rotolo in their West Fourth Street apartment; Hunstein thought it was "bleak." He wanted to try outdoors, in the neighborhood. Although it was a bitterly cold winter day, Rotolo later told the New York Times, Dylan "wore a very thin jacket, because image was all." And Hunstein had to work fast. "The light was fading so quickly," he said, "that I was able to shoot only one color roll and a few black and whites." They were enough.

The remarkable breadth of Hunstein's portfolio — which encompasses Count Basie and the Clash, Dmitri Shostakovich and Tony Bennett, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Blue Oyster Cult — is inseparable from the history of Columbia Records, which assembled an artist roster that now seems almost impossibly diverse. It's a memorial to an era when major labels look themselves seriously as libraries of culture.

Founded in 1888, Columbia is the oldest surviving brand name in recorded music. Technologically, Columbia had successfully placed its bet in 1948 on the ascendance of the 33 l/3 rpm LP. The longer recording time and lower noise of LPs made them a welcome format for classical music, jazz, and Broadway cast albums, while it gave pop singers a chance to simulate the concert experience of varied moods and tempos. Like other major labels — particularly its main rival at the time, RCA — Columbia strove to serve diverse consumer tastes.

"This business is like running a gambling house," Columbia's president, Goddard Lieberson, told Time magazine in 1959. "You've got to cover yourself in all directions."

He was being playful, but Columbia did set out to release a broad spectrum of music. It also conscientiously documented the making of that music, sending Hunstein to sessions, like those for Kind of Blue, that proved to be historic. In the 1950s, Columbia was the genteel major label, with an extensive catalog of symphonies, musicals, and forward-looking jazz. Under the A&R guidance of ("Sing Along with") Mitch Miller, the label famously steered clear of rock-and-roll ruffians, preferring pop crooners like Johnny Mathis and Frankie Laine. (We can only speculate about what Hunstein's camera would have made of the wild men of 1950s rock and R&B.) Bob Dylan was an unplugged folksinger, in the mold of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, when Columbia signed him; Aieiha Franklin was aiming for jazz clubs.

But by the late 1960s, Columbia was catching up with current rock. It scrambled to get into psychedelia, landing Janis Joplin, the Byrds, and the Electric Flag (and a chance for Hunstein to photograph them). Yet into the 1970s and 1980s, even as it aimed for rock, R&B, and country hits, Columbia held on to its jazz and classical divisions. The overwhelming range of Columbia's roster kept Hunstein's workdays stimulating, and made his catalog of photographs into what is now an invaluable trove.

Those days are gone. In the digital cd twenty-first century, major labels have been embattled on many fronts, forcing cutbacks in every department. Their artist rosters have dwindled to concentrate on narrowly targeted radio hits. Columbia no longer runs its own recording studio. And its in-house photo studio, once Hunstein's domain, was dismantled in the 1980s. (Fortunately, the photo archives were maintained.)

So Keeping Time is a triple memento. It's a quietly revealing close-up of artists who graced and transfigured the twentieth century. It's a keepsake from an era when media companies deeply embraced their role as curators of culture. Most of all, it's the legacy of a photographer who worked for both musicians and their label, for art and commerce enmeshed, gradually and modestly revealing an enduring vision of his own.”


“With the simple flip of a digit from the 1960s to the 1970s, it suddenly seemed everything had changed. The communal Aquarian Age had not dawned, and Woodstock nation had disappeared with the summer of 1969. Vietnam was still at war, and the civil-rights dream of integration had given way to separatism and factionalism.

In the music business, a new sense of calculation was setting in. With baby boomers coming of age as consumers and as a new mass audience, the fertile creative disarray of the late 1960s was fast being systematized and exploited. Free-form radio was being replaced by stations with limited playlists — "underground" variations on the Top 40 — and by researched formats that targeted separate segments of the audience: by age, by race, by gender.

Filling those new niches, musical genres started splintering, too. There would be not just rock but pop-rock, hard rock, blues-rock, heavy metal, and eventually punk rock and new wave; not just soul but funk and smooth soul and vocal-group soul; not just jazz but smooth jazz and jazz-rock fusion. The roster of Columbia Records and its growing number of associated labels mirrored that diversity, becoming especially strong with singer-songwriters — Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, Bill Withers, James Taylor—and in soul music with groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, Labelle, and, in the mid-1970s, the Jacksons (including Michael).

Musicians, meanwhile, were growing more self-conscious about fame, and about the public images that Hunstein's work would provide for them. 
Sunglasses grew larger; backstage access dwindled. The casual, approachable, behind-the-scenes images of musicians at work that Hunstein offered in the 1950s and 1960s were rarer. They were giving way to the costumed and posed. Though Hunstein still found opportunities for imposed shots, he also played up his formal portraiture, which offered different photographic messages. The costumes, in the madcap efflorescence of 1970s fashion, became flashier, more theatrical. Musicians were becoming glittering emissaries of celebrity, sci-fi apparitions, rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls. Fewer pop stars pretended to be everyday people; they aspired to be icons.

Hunstein brought his lighting and compositional skills to these images, his sense of geometry and depth. Yet he also, clearly, brought the same sense of observant rapport he'd brought to Glenn Gould or Duke Ellington: the sense that photographer and musician were doing a job together. These performers aren't distant, unapproachable stars. They're fellow humans, caught in a shared moment.”

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