After the two books with my photographs came out, people got more
interested in them than ever before. I had shows at places like the
Rhode Island School of Design and the Denver Art Museum, which
I’ve been told are very prestigious.
Truthfully, that kind of thing has never really mattered to me. My
main concern has always been that people from all walks of life have
a chance to see my pictures. It’s important to me that they get shown
at places where jazz fans go, like Monterey. And I also like the idea
that they were shown at community centers and libraries in
smaller towns around the country.
In fact, for seven or eight years, there was a show which traveled to
different FNAC stores in France and Belgium. These are places that
sell albums and electronics and each store has a gallery area so
customers can see different exhibits. I’ve been told thousands of
people got to see my photos in these stores, and that’s exactly what
I always wanted.
Of course, there’ve been a few exhibitions which were special.
One was a show I had with the great artist Jacob Lawrence in
Hartford, Connecticut. Then there were the shows at the Corcoran
and the Smithsonian Institution—both at the same time. When I went to
Washington and saw my photos on the wall, I kept pinching myself,
just to make sure it was really happening.
As people in the jazz world came to know about my photographs,
musicians started asking me to take their pictures. And I also got
plenty of comments and criticisms about why this or that person was
included or left out of one of the books. I’d usually say that the people
in charge of the books made the final selections. Of course, even if
I’d taken good pictures of everyone I ever knew or worked with,
it would have been impossible to include them all.
When my photos attracted so much attention, I began to question my
abilities as a photographer. I went back and looked at my work and I
asked myself why I started taking pictures, what my goals were, and
whether I really deserved the kind of praise and recognition I was
getting. I talked to a few knowledgeable friends, but the thing that
helped me most was reading over what I’d said on this subject in the
past. So I’ve reworded a few things, but I’m repeating the main points
because it still describes how I feel about myself and photography.
I got my first camera in 1935. It was a 35mm Argus C3, and it was a
present for my twenty-fifth birthday. I had the Argus with me when I
started on the road with Cab in 1936. Although I took a few posed
shots, I was never much for taking formal pictures. Everybody was
shooting the band onstage in uniform, and if you went to a
professional photographer for your own publicity shot, he’d ask you to
smile and act like you were playing your instrument. I’ve never wanted
to get those kinds of photos because I don’t see musicians that way.
I always tried to capture something different. Whenever possible,
I liked to shoot people when they were off guard or unaware.
Of course, I was limited in some ways. I didn’t have a flash in the early
days, and the film speed was so slow you couldn’t take photographs
indoors without using a long exposure. Even so, I did get some
unusual shots inside, like pictures of the guys sleeping on the train.
There were also times when the stage lights were on and I could use
them to get a better indoor exposure.
Whenever I wanted a picture of a specific place, I’d always try to
include one of the guys in the shot. For example, years ago when I
was in Springfield, Illinois, with Cab, I wanted a shot of the Lincoln
statue. But instead of taking a picture of the statue alone, I got Danny
Barker to stand out in front of it. The same thing happened in the
railroad yards where we’d always spend a lot of time waiting for trains.
I was amazed at the size of the locomotives and the machinery they
used to switch tracks. So once again, whenever possible, I’d have
one or two guys stand next to a locomotive so I could get them in my
shots. I also realized that if I put a person in the picture, it would show
just how big those locomotives really were.
I admit I’ve always been biased toward black-and white photos.
It’s probably because when color film first came out, what you saw
in a print didn’t seem to match the colors you’d see in nature.
And after a while, color prints would fade. Besides, a lot of color
processing was done through the mail, and since I was on the road
and didn’t have a permanent address, it made it difficult to get prints back.
During my days in the studios, whenever I had time, I’d make a few
black-and-white prints from what I’d shot a day or two earlier. Then I’d
give them out to the guys the next time I saw them on a record date.
Although it was unintentional, the prints I made of my white friends
always came out looking very dark. And whenever someone teased
me about it, I’d say the same thing: “I can’t help it, that’s just the way
I see everybody.”
I still get asked why I took some of the pictures I did, and it’s hard to
answer that question. When I took those early pictures of Dizzy,
we were both in Cab’s band. Even back in those days, I knew he was
very innovative, but I never suspected he would turnout to be such
a giant. The same thing was true for Chu and Cozy and the other guys.
These were my friends, and I wanted pictures of them so that one
day we could look back and remember the great times we’d shared.
When I shot those Jim Crow signs in the South like the ones at the
entrance to the train station in Atlanta, I wasn’t trying to make a
statement. We all lived in the North, and one of the only ways we could
deal with the stupidity of the segregation laws was to make fun of them.
At some point, probably in the late ’40s, I saw that jazz was changing
quickly and there were new faces coming on the scene all the time.
Some of the pioneers like Chu and Jimmy Blanton were already gone,
and some of the other greats were well on their way to early deaths.
For some reason, I felt strongly about using my camera to capture the
people and events from the jazz world that I was lucky enough to see.
I guess I realized I was actually living through jazz history.
Keg Johnson had more influence on my photography than anyone else.
He was diligent and precise with just about everything in his life. He
didn’t have many personal possessions, but whenever he bought
something, it had to be the best. Consequently, a couple of years
before the war when he decided to get a camera, he got the best Leica
he could find. After that, he spent weeks reading up on photography in
books and magazines. When I saw the kind of pictures he was getting,
I couldn’t believe it. Everything was absolutely needle sharp. It wasn’t
long before I bought a Leica too.
We decided to process our own film while we were traveling with Cab,
and we bought some basic equipment. Whenever we were in a big
city playing a theater and staying in a hotel for more than a couple of
days, we set up our darkroom. We usually started late at night, after
the last show. That way we didn’t have to figure out a way to block off
the light in our room. We bought a special box which allowed us to
make a 4x5 print from a 35 mm negative. We’d work until daybreak
when the room started getting light, and by the time we cleaned up it
would be about seven in the morning. We’d get some breakfast and
then sleep for a few hours before heading over to the theater to play
the first show.
In the early ’50s, a short time after Mona and I bought our first
house, I set up a small darkroom in the basement. By this time,
I wasn’t out on the road anymore and I thought I’d be able to spend
more time working on my photography. I got my first enlarger through
a friend from Cab’s band, Gene Mikell, who left music and was
working at the United Nations. He told me they were replacing
darkroom equipment and he could get me an Omega for a hundred
dollars. I grabbed it.
When I went to Japan with Louis Armstrong about the same time,
I bought a Canon 35 mm range-finder camera. It had advantages
over the Leica. It was easier to load film and it had a mechanical
trigger for advancing frames. Also, when you changed lenses,
you could reset the eyepiece to see what was included in your shot.
Even though the Canon was easier to use, the pictures I got with
the Leica were sharper, so I used them both. This went on for about
ten years, until the early ’60s when I bought a single-lens reflex camera
—a Nikon F. At that point, I put away both the Leica and the Canon.
I get asked most often about the shots I took of Billie Holiday at
what turned out to be her last recording session. I had the feeling
she was close to the end. I think the record company people knew
exactly what was going on and were trying to finish the album while
she was still on her feet.
I took most of the pictures while Billie was listening to playbacks.
Looking at her, I could see how disappointed she was about how she
sounded. The quality of her voice had changed, and she knew that
better than anyone. As she listened, her eyes would fill with tears, and
I had the feeling she was imagining how much better she’d sounded
twenty years before when she’d sung the same song. She was so
wrapped up in listening that she was completely unaware of me and
I’m also pleased about some of the pictures I got at the Sound of
Jazz television show. As far as I’m concerned, this was one of the
best programs ever done on jazz. I got photos of Basie, Billie, Prez,
Bean and many others. I know you can get the program on videotape
and I’ve seen it a dozen times. But photos are different. You can
study them. You can analyze the expressions on people’s faces,
and to my way of thinking, you can see what they’re really all about.
That’s one thing which always attracted me to photography. Of course,
I got to shoot the rehearsals where performers are less formal and
more relaxed. How often do you get a chance to shoot Basie
watching Monk play?
In 1958, Esquire magazine invited practically every living jazz musician
to pose for a picture up in Harlem. It was scheduled for ten in the
morning. And even though there was no pay involved and the hour
was early—especially for jazz musicians—the turnout was enormous.
The minute I arrived, I knew it would be a big event. Some of these
people might work together once in a while or see each other in a bar,
but to have about seventy-five of them in one place at one time was
I don’t think the Esquire people had any idea about the importance
of the gathering. All they seemed to want was a perfect shot of the
whole group posed on the stoop of a brownstone. It was funny to
watch the musicians fraternizing while the magazine people shouted
directions at them.
Jean Bach, who made A Great Day in Harlem, the film about that day,
found out that a couple of people had brought cameras. But except for
Esquire’s photographer, Art Kane, I don’t remember seeing any of
them. Fortunately, I had enough sense to bring three—my Leica and
Canon and a little Keystone 8mm movie camera. I handed Scoville
Browne the Canon, which had color slide film in it, I used the Leica
with black-and-white, and Mona took color movies which became
a big part of Jean’s film.
The shot I got that day of some of the greatest drummers in jazz is
one of my favorites. Just being able to capture Jo Jones, Gene Krupa,
George Wettling, Zutty Singleton, Sonny Greer, and Art Blakey all
together was the chance of a lifetime. I also managed to take some
photos of Prez looking upbeat—laughing and talking to J.C. Heard.
It was one of those times when I sensed there was going to be a major
event and I prepared ahead of time to record it. I wanted future
generations to be able to see some of the best representatives of the
different eras of jazz all together in one place. Looking back, I can truly
say that gathering marked the final days of what’s now called the
Golden Age of Jazz. A few years later, many of the guys who were
there were gone.
By the time I was playing in the studios regularly, I had one or two
cameras with me all the time. Record companies had great
professional photographers come in and shoot sessions, but they
kept a close watch on these guys. They’d usually let them in at the
beginning and end of a date, or during five-minute breaks. Sometimes
I’d see a makeup artist work on a performer for an hour and someone
else setting up a background to stage a candid shot. Of course, as a
musician hired to play, I could get pictures whenever I wanted.
During all those years, I don’t remember anyone ever trying to stop me.
From what I’ve said about my photography, a few things should be
clear. I don’t think of myself as a professional. I have no formal training
and I never had enough time to develop my technique. I really
don’t know the giants in the field except for the people who’ve taken
photos of jazz musicians.
When I first started out in the ’30s, I took pictures so I could show my
family and friends that I’d really been to all those places and knew all
those people. Several years later, the guys I was traveling with became
my friends and I shot things we all experienced so we could share
But as time went on, I realized the importance of the world I was
living in, and I decided to try and make a record of it for future
generations. Being a musician gave me access, and consequently
some of the best photos I ever took were simply a matter of being
in the right place at the right time. Of course, I had no idea that some of
my shots would be used to document jazz history, but I’m glad I’ve
lived to see it.
*With minor changes, this passage was taken from Playing the Changes:
Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs by Milt Hinton, David G.
Berger, and Holly Maxson, Vanderbilt University Press, 2008, pp. 311-315.