By ERIN ALLEN
Photographer and jazz enthusiast William Gottlieb's legacy lives on at the Library of Congress, which houses his entire collection of photographs documenting the jazz scene from 1938 to 1948. Gottlieb, who died on April 23, 2006, at the age of 89, is best known for his photographs of jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Carter.
In 1995 the Library purchased Gottlieb's collection with financial support from the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund. Included are approximately 1,600 negatives and color transparencies, 54 framed exhibition prints, 950 reference prints and accompanying contact prints. The Library's Prints and Photographs Division houses the negatives and color transparencies. The Music Division, which facilitated the purchase of the collection and handles reference requests, holds a full set of service copies of Gottlieb's prints.
"Bill thought the Library was the best place for his collection," explained Jon Newsom, former chief of the Music Division and close friend of Gottlieb. "No other institution was able to do for Bill's pictures what the Library did. The Library's Web site provides better publicity for Bill than he could have gotten from another public institution."
In 1999 "William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz" became accessible on the Library's American Memory Web site at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wghtml/wghome.html as well as in the Library's Prints and Photographs Online Catalog at http://memory.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html.
The site provides access to digital images of all 1,600 negatives and transparencies, approximately 100 annotated contact prints and more than 200 photographic prints of selected jazz artists.
The Web site also includes an essay describing Gottlieb's life and work, digital images of Down Beat magazine articles in which Gottlieb's photographs were first published, audio clips of Gottlieb discussing specific photographs, articles about the collection that appeared in Library of Congress publications and a "Gottlieb on Assignment" section that showcases his photographs and articles about Monk, Dardanelle (Marcia Marie) Hadley, Willie "the Lion" Smith and Buddy Rich, which appeared in Down Beat magazine.
"Bill requested that whenever they [his photographs] appear in print, the Library and the Gershwin Fund get credit," said Newsom. "Because the audio clips document his technique, our Web site is a gold mine for photographers, as well as jazz aficionados."
To coincide with the Library's acquisition of his collection in 1995, Gottlieb's book, "The Golden Age of Jazz," originally published in 1979, was reprinted as a first edition in high-quality duotone. In the book's foreword, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called it "the first extensive publication of Gottlieb's pictures that does justice to the quality of the originals." In his book, Gottlieb chronicled the notable jazz figures he had the privilege of photographing, peppering his narrative with backstories of the images, and the life and times of his subjects.
"I sometimes wonder what I'd be doing now if it weren't for a serendipitous piece of badly cooked pork," Gottlieb said in the book's preface.
This observation referred to a bout of food poisoning he had as a student at Lehigh University. While bedridden over the summer, a friend introduced him to jazz, which in turn kick-started his career.
With experience writing and editing for the campus newspaper, Gottlieb went to work for The Washington Post following graduation. Although officially working in the advertising department, he persuaded the Post's managing editor to let him write a weekly jazz column.
"The Post's fiscal restraint in denying me the use of a photographer was a blessing," Gottlieb explained in his book. "Becoming my own cameraman not only enhanced my column but eventually led to my becoming a photo officer in the Air Corps during World War II and, still later, helped me become a staff writer for Down Beat magazine, a job I clinched because I could illustrate my own articles."
Because flashbulbs and camera equipment were so expensive, Gottlieb would take only two or three photographs per session.
"I wasn't being paid for my photography," he explained on his audio interviews. "My primary objective was for the story, so my notebook, in a sense, was more important."
Ironically, his secondary goal of photographing his subject was what earned him fame.
"When I took my photos, I tried very consciously to take them carefully so that they would augment and illuminate the text they were illustrating," Gottlieb said. "I especially tried to capture personality, an elusive goal. When I couldn't capture personality, I would try to do other things … what could I say with a picture that would go beyond what I could say in so many words."
Gottlieb's images of guitarist Django Reinhardt with his crippled hand, Mel Tormé, "the Velvet Fog," enveloped in a cloud of smoke or drummer Dave Tough practicing with a full glass of wine in front of him (which later was his downfall) illustrate the point.
As bop music gained popularity and the New York City jazz scene wound down, Gottlieb quit the business "cold turkey" and enjoyed a successful career as an educational filmstrip producer, father and husband.
"Bill was there when the age of swing ended and bebop started – what an exciting time when everything was becoming modern," said Ashley Kahn, author of "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece." "He knew he had caught some incredibly important moments. It says a lot that he chose to put his images in the Library of Congress for anyone to study and enjoy. It really shows the respect the Library has earned from the giants in the cultural community."
Kahn's book and other recent publications such as "Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce" by Alfred Appel cite the Gottlieb collection in the Library of Congress as a source of images.
"Any definitive book on jazz cites Gottlieb's photos," said Loras Schissel, curator in the Library's Music Division. "The availability of the collection on the Library's American Memory Web site makes the collection accessible to everyone."
As part of the 1995 acquisition agreement, images housed in the Library's Gottlieb collection enter the public domain on Feb. 16, 2010, marking 15 years since the date of purchase. At that time, the photographs can be used without copyright attribution.
"Through his artistry and generosity, William P. Gottlieb left us a great gift," concludes Larry Appelbaum, senior studio engineer and supervisor in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, as well as a jazz specialist.
"Gottlieb was not only a great photographer, he captured a slice of American cultural life from 1938 to 1948 that turned out to be a very important time of transition in jazz. His images are now iconic. … They will continue to inspire photographers, musicians and anyone interested in this art form."
Erin Allen is a freelance writer in the Washington area.