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Portraits from the Golden Age of Jazz: Photographs by William P. Gottlieb

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by Mark Subel on September 9, 2011

From ColumbusAlive: Columbus is blessed with a wealth of photographers skilled at capturing musicians at work. For them, as well as fans of jazz music and iconic portraiture, a pilgrimage to Capital University’s Schumacher Gallery is a must for this fall.

Friday brings to the Bexley venue the opening of “Portraits from the Golden Age of Jazz,” a touring show featuring more than 50 photographs by William P. Gottlieb, former writer for The Washington Post and DownBeat magazine.

He started taking pictures to illustrate his columns about the jazz scene in the late 1930s. Now in the collection of the Library of Congress, Gottlieb’s body of work is as artful a historic document as the WPA photography of the same era.

Certain practical considerations factored into Gottlieb’s style: a camera with limited exposures and expensive flashbulbs that kept shooting to a minimum, and a tight focus on one or two subjects so the images would work whether they took up half a page or just a few inches.

His approach, and his clear respect for the artists he covered, yielded intimate, unguarded scenes of musicians performing and hanging out backstage. Gottlieb got most of the greats in front of his camera between 1938 and 1948, when he grew tired of trailing musicians at all hours and settled into a career producing educational filmstrips.

Gottlieb’s sublime portrait of Billie Holiday in mid-song circa 1948, looking lost in emotion but healthy after her prison stint for drug possession, is arguably the most famous image of the artist. A young, impatient-looking Frank Sinatra stands at a microphone in a shot that, like the Holiday photo, has been appropriated for numerous album covers.

Also included in the portrait line-up are Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and his trumpet, Thelonious Monk at the piano, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan on stage, and a spirit-lifting shot of Cab Calloway.

Friday’s opening will feature a live performance by members of Capital’s Conservatory of Music Jazz Studies Division. According to Schumacher Gallery assistant David Gentilini, additional jazz-related programs will be added during the show’s run and posted on the gallery’s Facebook page.

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