Gottlieb’s Jazz Photography at Bowdoin Art Museum


The Bowdoin Art Museum presents The Jazz Photography of William P. Gottlieb from July 10 through September 14, 2014 in the Shaw Ruddock Gallery. The Gottlieb exhibit highlights 40 vintage photographs of jazz musicians during performance from the Gottlieb family.

The William P. Gottlieb Collection in the Library of Congress retains over 1,600 photographs from 1938 through 1948, primarily taken in New York City and Washington D.C. During the course of his career, William P. Gottlieb took photographs of prominent jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong among others.

Music, especially jazz, has long captivated photographers. The list includes music executive-record producer, Francis Wolff, the bassist Milt Hinton and American photographers, William Claxton and Herman Leonard. “Flights of jazz improvisation,” luminous light and swirling smoke, can make the scenario unbearably compelling. However, capturing the precise moment is easier said than done.

In 1936, when Gottlieb was attending Lehigh University, he became ill with trichinosis from underdone pork. While he convalesced in the hospital for months, a friend introduced him to the jazz greats, and Gottlieb was enthralled. In fall 1937, when Gottlieb returned to school, he began composing a jazz column for the university magazine.

After graduation, he took a job with the advertising department at The Washington Post. Shortly after, he convinced an editor to allow him to write a jazz column for the Sunday edition. At that time, Gottlieb preferred words to taking pictures. For a short time, a staff photographer accompanied him on his interviews, but it became too expensive for the paper.

In 1938, with a Speed Graphic press camera, film, and flashbulbs that he had purchased, the American writer-photographer, William P. Gottlieb started photographing jazz musicians to illustrate his weekly column for the Washington Post. For the next ten years, Gottlieb produced almost 2,000 portraits of more than 250 musicians.


He was paid for his writing, but not for his now-celebrated photographs that accompanied his column. To save money, he typically only took three or four shots, so he had to expertly capture his personalities in a defining moment. According to Gottlieb, he knew the music and the musicians, so he could anticipate when the moment was right. He called it, “purposeful shooting.”

His interviews with the jazz musician dictated his photographic approach and by 22, Gottlieb was known as “Mr. Jazz” in the Washington D.C. area.

After serving in the Army as a photo officer in World War II, Gottlieb went to New York City and worked for the leading jazz magazine, Down Beat, and his work appeared in Record Changer, Collier’s and the Saturday Review. By then, his photographs garnered more notice, but he rebuffed the thought of concentrating solely on photography.

In the late 70s, his friend, Fred Bass, who owned a bookstore in Manhattan, suggested the concept of a jazz photography book to Gottlieb. The book’s focus and title was The Golden Age of Jazz, due to the music’s popularity in the 40s when Gottlieb took his photographs, and because it was an era when nearly all jazz was being played.

In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service chose Gottlieb’s jazz portraits such as Billie Holliday, Mildred Bailey and Charlie Parker as the stamp’s image. William P. Gottlieb’s photographs of jazz musicians in New York City and Washington D.C. captured the charisma, dynamism, individuality and rebellion that made them American icons. William P. Gottlieb attained the musicians’ personalities and told their stories with a box camera and a typewriter when jazz music thrived, a period recognized as “The Golden Age of Jazz.”

By: Dawn Levesque

Bowdoin Art Museum
Library of Congress
The New York Times

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