Monday, January 11, 2010
For decades, James Kriegsmann was a photographer of stars like Bill Robinson, known as Bojangles, left, and Cab Calloway.
January 11, 2010
Behind the Lens, Continuing a Legacy
By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI
Spike Lee needed to have his photo taken for a publicity tour a few months before the release of his new movie, “Malcolm X,” in 1992.
“I wanted something retro, something that looked as if it was taken in the 1940s,” Mr. Lee said in a recent phone interview. “I started doing extensive research for the perfect photographer, and everywhere I looked the name Kriegsmann kept popping up.”
That name may not mean much to many people, but it played a pivotal role in the lives of legendary entertainers like Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr.
For nearly four decades, starting in the late 1920s, James J. Kriegsmann, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, had a photography studio in Times Square. There he became the photographer to stars like Charles, Davis, Bill Robinson, Eartha Kitt and Pearl Bailey who had one thing in common: They were black and performing at a time when most white-owned studios refused to work with them.
“Imagine how bad it was, even for show-business types, in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” said Mr. Kriegsmann’s son, James Kriegsmann Jr., who followed his late father into the family business. “No matter how famous these people were, many photographers wanted nothing to do with them, but they knew that the door to my father’s studio was always open.”
His father experienced “a great deal of prejudice as a Jew before coming to America,” Mr. Kriegsmann said, and “could probably feel the same kind of pain suffered by his black clients, many of whom were ordinary people who just wanted to get their portraits taken.”
Mr. Lee did not know that the elder Mr. Kriegsmann had long retired when he called the studio. But, said Mr. Kriegsmann’s son, “he was really impressed with his work, and mine, and thought it was only fitting that he came here.”
Mr. Kriegsmann, described by his son as an “egomaniacal genius,” studied photography in Vienna before coming to New York in 1929 and setting up a studio on West 46th Street. He specialized in pictures of recording artists, big bands and early television personalities, a portfolio that also included Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Benny Goodman.
He eventually became the official in-house photographer for the Cotton Club in Harlem, and his talents put him in a class with three of the most prominent celebrity shutterbugs in America at that time, including Tony Bruno, a Hollywood photographer who moved to New York and set up shop in Carnegie Hall; Maurice Seymour, who was based in Chicago; and the legendary George Hurrell, who took classic portraits of stars like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich during Hollywood’s golden era.
Mr. Kriegsmann, who is 67 and has relocated the business to West 56th Street, said black actors and entertainers have made up most of the 35,000 sessions that he has conducted in the past 42 years. Headliners include the Shirelles, the Platters, Billy Eckstine, Ben E. King, Ben Vereen, Halle Berry and S. Epatha Merkerson.
“If you look at the clientele over the years, it’s obvious that the black community thought very highly of James’s father as a person, and as a professional, way back then,” Mr. Lee said. “The thinking among them was probably, ‘Hey, this cat is cool, let him take your picture, spread the word.’ ”
Lisa Hardaway, an aspiring actress from Brooklyn who had her head shots taken by Mr. Kriegsmann, was as impressed with his work as she was with his father’s legacy.
“Not only is he a great photographer,” Ms. Hardaway said, “but he is carrying on a great tradition. It’s very gratifying to know someone was out there all those years ago looking out for black entertainers, because this business is all about image, and in those days, if there was no one willing to take your photograph, there was really no other way for you to be seen.”
Mr. Kriegsmann said he charged $300 for a one-hour digital-photo session. His father, who died in 1994, charged $35 an hour, taking a dozen shots per session — “Film was very expensive, so my father limited the number of shots,” he said.
“Much of my success and reputation,” Mr. Kriegsmann added, “can be attributed to my father, to 40 years of hard work and loyalty.”
Slide Hampton, 78, a two-time Grammy-winning trombonist who once had his picture taken in the old Times Square studio, said of the elder Mr. Kriegsmann: “What he did for black entertainers was very noble. After all these years, the fact that some black stars are still working with his son as a way of paying homage to his father is just as noble.”
Posted by Independent Intellect at 12:25