Rare 1950s Jazz Photographs on View at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music
Feb. 20, 2009
Marci Janas ’91
Photo of Billie Holiday by Frank Kuchirchuk © 2009 Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio
Editor’s Note - Effective April 22, 2010: Since this article originally appeared, the Litoff Building has been renamed. Oberlin's new home for jazz studies, music history, and music theory is now the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building.
Stars decorated Lindsay’s Sky Bar, a popular 1950s Cleveland nightclub on Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street. They twinkled on the ceiling and formed a magic-carpet ride pattern on the floor, but mostly they shone from the stage, where many of the great legends of jazz performed during the height of their careers.
Frank Kuchirchuk, a retired photographer who took live performance photographs at the Sky Bar of such artists as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Anita O'Day, and more, has donated his entire collection of jazz images to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The Frank Kuchirchuk Collection of Jazz Photography contains some 200 images, most of which are negatives that have never been seen by the public. The collection will be cataloged and archived within Oberlin’s Phyllis Litoff Building, which is currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2010; a selection of the photographs will be displayed within the building, which will house Oberlin's Jazz Studies Department and its academic programs in music history and music theory.
Jazz and photography aficionados don't have to wait until next year; a special exhibition of selected images from the collection will be on view in the Conservatory Lounge. The exhibition opens on Saturday, May 9, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. Afterwards, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Wendell Logan, will perform in Finney Chapel at 8 p.m. in a concert dedicated to Kuchirchuk, who will be the special guest of honor for the evening.
Photo of Dizzy Gillespie by Frank Kuchirchuk © 2009 Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio.
Kuchirchuk’s process was inventive, if not cumbersome and painstaking. Because he wanted to achieve “a theatricality, something extremely dramatic” in his performance shots, he says that he “began playing around” with different lighting techniques and effects. “I would sit at home with the lights down and listen to jazz records. The warmth that I felt in those performances when I was sitting in my darkened room was what I wanted to accomplish with my photographs,” he says.
To do this he used flash lighting in multiple locations in addition to the flash on the camera itself—he set one light up behind the stage for backlighting, and one or two off to either side of the stage. “I could unplug the light on the camera to achieve different effects,” he says. The flash bulbs that he used had to be replaced after each exposure. To avoid disrupting the performance, he had to wait until a set concluded so that he could change out the flash bulbs and take another photo.
“His lighting is just exquisite,” says Pipo Nguyen-duy, Oberlin College Associate Professor of Art, upon seeing the photographs for the first time.
“He intuitively set the lighting up so that he could interpret each performer’s unique personality. His work really speaks to the decisive moment: in the Billie Holiday photograph, you see how she places her hand on the microphone, how the room and the lines in it come together at a precise moment. If you pick the wrong split-second, it’s no longer a ‘photograph.’ He seemed able to anticipate a certain moment three or four seconds before it happened. You can see how her face is lit, and against the lit part of her face, she’s immersed in the background, which is really dark and gives the photograph a sense of contrast and atmosphere.”
There is a truthfulness to Kuchirchuk’s photographs that calls to mind the iconic portraiture of Yousef Karsh. But because Kuchirchuk was working outside of the controlled environment of a studio, he faced challenges that Karsh likely would not have had to deal with. Even Karsh’s location shots, with their pre-arranged tableaus, suggest a kind of control that Kuchirchuk clearly did not have the luxury to enjoy. And unlike the work of Karsh, whose portraits were largely derived from an agreement between subject, photographer, and camera, Kuchirchuk’s subjects were unaware of the lens; they were too busily engaged in making their own art to become complicit in making his. Kuchirchuk achieved the same richness and depth, the same evocative contrast of light and shadow, the same timelessness as Karsh, but he did so while his subjects were performing on stage, and not because his subjects were staged.
“He’s literally at arms’ length away from these musicians,” says Nguyen-duy. “At night, in a club, different people come and go. It’s a busy place. But certainly for these photos, for the viewer, the level of consistent intimacy that he was able to establish with these performers is amazing. You can smell the smoke. You can reach out and touch the fabric on Billie Holiday’s dress. This seems to be the unique thing about his work.”
Kuchirchuk photographed the musicians during their performances using a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic press camera—equipment that he says was not normally used in this context. The camera’s large format allowed him to capture a considerable amount of information in each frame. The 4 x 5 Speed Graphic (the camera of choice for hard-bitten, fedora-wearing crime photographers of 1940s film noir) contained only one film holder, meaning it could capture only two images before the camera had to be reloaded. This sort of winner-take-all limitation imposed by the camera meant that Kuchirchuk had to compose his shots with tremendous care.
“The camera he used was originally developed for press photographers, and they’re relatively cumbersome,” says Nguyen-duy. “It’s really admirable that he could be so fluid and so precisely in the moment with such cumbersome equipment.”
Kuchirchuk’s only national recognition was fleeting: the 1953 Metronome Yearbook featured his work in a 16-page spread, naming him “Photographer of the Year.” The Sky Bar closed in 1954, and Kuchirchuk never took another jazz photograph. The large-as-life images he had captured on film were put aside while he concentrated on photo assignments for INS and, later, United Press International. (One of those assignments included coverage of the notorious Sam Sheppard murder case and trial in 1954.)
“We have to place his work in context,” says Nguyen-duy. “The images capture that particular spirit of that exciting moment in jazz and in the city of Cleveland, really, when Cleveland was one of the major centers for jazz. In the context of now, with what Cleveland is going through with the whole cultural and economic situation, these images shed a certain kind of hope and a given light to a golden age that hopefully will return. And the fact that he was able to photograph Billie Holiday using a large-format camera, and altering the lighting in the background, shows that the audience and the artist were really comfortable with who he was. He was like a fly on the wall in that particular moment in time.”
Kuchirchuk's own particular moments in time are now spent in a small, second-floor room at the Veteran’s Home, where he has lived for the last two-and-a-half years. He typically shares his room with another resident, but his half of the space is like no other in the vast facility: on two walls hang photographs that he took of Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Erroll Garner, Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, and the actress Dorothy Dandridge. The actress’ photo, which was taken at the Cleveland Music Hall, is his favorite; Dandridge told him that it was hers, too—she considered it the best picture ever taken of her. A 1953 Birdland poster promoting the Charlie Parker Quintet is propped against a wardrobe. “I swapped a few photos to get that,” says Kuchirchuk.
What inspired Kuchirchuk to donate his collection to Oberlin? “I realized that I had a valuable asset in these photos but didn’t know what to do with them until I read about Oberlin,” he says. A November 2007 Plain Dealer article about several million dollars in gifts donated to Oberlin for the Phyllis Litoff Building inspired him to entrust his collection to Oberlin: “I thought, ‘Hey—everybody knows about Oberlin!’” Kuchirchuk sensed that Oberlin’s reputation as one of the country’s top conservatories, as well as its national profile, would secure for the collection the protection and the attention that it deserves.
"As a sometime photographer myself, I was very excited when Frank first contacted me about his collection," says Associate Dean of the Conservatory Michael Lynn, who is also professor of recorder and baroque flute and curator of musical instruments. "I have now gotten to know each image thoroughly during the process of scanning the negatives and doing some minor restoration. Every photograph Frank took speaks with its own voice, bringing life to the musicians. You can almost hear the music just by looking at them."
“I think this is a tremendous gift,” says Professor of African American Music Wendell Logan, Chair of Oberlin’s Jazz Studies Department. “Typically there are a few popular photos that reappear in different contexts that we’re all familiar with. His catalog consists of photos that have never been seen before. For students to see images of the people who actually created the music that they’re learning to play—in various performance contexts—is a very beneficial thing. These names jump from the page when you can associate a picture with them. We are certainly indebted to him for thinking of us.”
Logan also spoke to the photographs’ historical value in preserving a bygone era. “There’s a historical point of view in that these musicians appeared in places that no longer exist,” says Logan. “Those who got photos of musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, who came to play locally, have something really original. They connect face to place.”