William Gottlieb, 89, Jazz Photographer

Published April 25, 2005 in the New York Times and reprinted here with permission from the publisher.


William P. Gottlieb, who with a boxy, old-fashioned press camera indelibly defined what jazz looked like in a brief, magical time when both early legends like Armstrong and Ellington and the emerging beboppers ruled the bandstands and radio waves, died on Sunday at his home in Great Neck, N.Y. He was 89.

The cause was a stroke, his wife, Delia, said.

Mr. Gottlieb was not paid for his now-celebrated photographs of the great names of jazz; took only a few pictures at a time because he could not afford flashbulbs; and happily walked away from the field after less than a decade. Three decades later, after a successful career writing children's books and filmstrips, his past returned when a bookstore owner persuaded him to publish a book of jazz photos. The result was ''The Golden Age of Jazz'' (1979).

It is now in its 12th printing.

In one image, among the most reproduced photograph in jazz history, one can almost hear the anguish in Billie Holiday's voice. In another, a very young Miles Davis reverently gazes at Howard McGhee playing his trumpet.

''Gottlieb was not taking pictures; he was photographing a music,'' Whitney Balliett wrote in his review of the book in The New Yorker. ''Again and again, he catches the precise moment when the musician's face is suffused with effort and emotion and beauty: the music is there.''

In 1994, the United States Postal Service selected Mr. Gottlieb's portraits as the basis for stamps of Charlie Parker and other jazz greats. The next year, he sold about 2,000 black-and-white images to the Library of Congress.

''He was more successful in his approach than any photographer has been, bringing to bear the personal connections -- his relationship with the subject's personality,'' Jon Newsom, director of the library's music division, said.

Jazz has long infatuated photographers, including Herman Leonard, Francis Wolff and the bassist Milt Hinton. Flights of jazz improvisation, framed by shadows, incandescent light and swirling smoke, can seem almost unbearably compelling.

Capturing it is easier said than done.

''I learned to shoot very carefully,'' Mr. Gottlieb said. ''I knew the music. I knew the musicians. I knew in advance when the right moment would arrive. It was purposeful shooting.''

William Paul Gottlieb was born on Jan. 28, 1917, in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. His family soon moved to Bound Brook, N.J., where his father ran a lumber and coal business. His parents died when he was a teenager.

At Lehigh University, he majored in economics and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1936, he contracted trichinosis from undercooked pork. While he lay in bed for months, a friend played jazz records, slowly transforming a Guy Lombardo fan into a jazz buff.

Mr. Gottlieb returned to Lehigh and began writing a jazz column for a campus magazine. After graduation, he got a job with the advertising department of The Washington Post and soon persuaded an editor to let him write a Sunday jazz column.

A photographer accompanied him, but The Post decided this was too expensive, since evening work meant overtime payments. Mr. Gottlieb used his own money to buy a 31/4-inch by 41/4-inch Speed Graphic press camera, film and flashbulbs. Post photographers taught him the rudiments of picture-taking.

Mr. Gottlieb preferred words to pictures, and his interviews with musicians determined his photographic approach. For example, he rejected Louis Armstrong's habit of posing as a clown.

''I photographed him looking like the proud, great musician that he was,'' Mr. Gottlieb said.

In 1941, he quit his advertising job to do graduate study in economics and teach low-level classes at the University of Maryland, but continued his column. He said he left the university after it refused to let him teach a course on jazz, for fear it would overly praise black people. He got a job at the Office of Price Administration.

He was drafted into the Army Air Corps and served as a photo officer. He then worked as an editor and writer at Down Beat magazine, where he also continued taking pictures. He also published articles and photos in The Record Changer, The Saturday Review and Collier's.

His photographs drew increasing attention. But he rejected his wife's suggestion that he focus completely on photography.

In addition to her, Mr. Gottlieb is survived by his daughter, Barbara Gottlieb of Richmond, Va.; his sons Steven, of Chesapeake City, Md., Richard, of New Paltz, N.Y., and Edward, of Ithaca, N.Y.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

The idea of a jazz photo book came from Fred Bass, a friend who owned the Strand bookstore in Manhattan. Mr. Gottlieb decided to use ''golden age'' in the title partly because of jazz's immense popularity in the 1940's, and partly because it was a time when almost all types of jazz, from the early New Orleans and Chicago styles to bebop, were being played simultaneously.

The faces of that evanescent era were etched permanently by Mr. Gottlieb and a handful of other photographers.

''Who is Billie Holiday? Look at Bill's shots,'' Jason Koransky, editor of Down Beat, said in an interview for an upcoming documentary. ''Who is Charlie Parker? Look at Bill's shots.''

Photo: William P. Gottlieb in 1992, between of two of his best-known photographs: portraits of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. (Photo by Steve Gottlieb)