Browsing Don Hunstein’s timeless pop star photography
You got older but they didn’t.
See them as they were—Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, and dozens more–in their best preserved envelope of time. Photographs by Don Hunstein, the great “in-house photographer” for Columbia Records, are in a show encompassing 30 years, and on display 90 miles north of New York City. For each music luminary there is that perfect instant: on the cusp of becoming themselves, of success, even hopefulness. Sometimes it coincides with a moment of great cultural change. It’s all in a gallery exhibit at the Bethel Center for the Arts. Yes, that Bethel, a showcase in many ways for the Woodstock era. But this exhibit exceeds being a 60s time warp.
“Keeping Time: The Photography of Don Hunstein” is unique because it’s not just publicity shots, though there’s that. We are on, but also behind, the stage. Most will gravitate to the generation-defining, watershed image of Dylan and his girlfriend in a snowy February in the Village, used for the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in 1963. But there are photos of a happily relaxed Dylan in his apartment, comfortable enough with Hunstein to let him into his life. A vulnerable Barbra Streisand is hard at work recording in a series shot at the 30th Street Studio: long hair, dark sweater, beads/pearls, essence of early 60s. Some of the gestures associated with the power Babs are there in embryo, yet her eagerness and baby fat cheeks are endearing.
Hunstein started working at Columbia in 1956, so this is a musical history of pre-rock, timeline from jazz to rock and beyond with a few classical musicians thrown in. There’s Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk, all reminders of the days when 52nd street in New York had wafting jazz inviting you into smoke-filled intimate venues. There’s Monk alone between sets at the Blue Angel. Coltrane serious in the studio.
My favorite is a casually shot, poignant Johnny Mathis and Pat Boone taping a car commercial together in the 1950s; contrast with Mathis’ elegant image at the L.A. Coconut Grove in 1960. A startling, scarifying look is in the uncredited image of “Miles” on a 1969 Rolling Stone cover, but another picture shows him looking worried, introspective, hand on forehead.
Hunstein’s work makes a sham of the current vogue for “anybody can do it” digital photography. Anybody can’t. An eye is still required. Yes, he had access, but impressively the ability to recognize, and grab, the telling moment. Modestly, he has always said he was just doing his job. Others have used the current drop-in compliment, documentarian. Yet the liveliness of the images, the love (hokey, but no other word for it) through the lens, shows his admiration for his subjects.
It also makes a lie of Susan Sontag’s proclaiming photography as voyeuristic, even proprietorial about the images it captures: It is death, where movies are life. If anything, these pictures fairly leap off the page (O.K., especially those presented in sequential fashion). You feel part of the action. (Which in some cases was your life.) Better to see Johnny Cash becoming the “man in black” photographed from the angle of stage lights; or outdoors in a plaid shirt and straw hat; rather than trying to grasp him in the current biopic about Cash. Why go for bad re-enactment when you can get real photos?
Hunstein “got” his subjects all right, if not in Sontag’s ownership way. Nor is it about his style (fill in your own overly mannerist photog. with his/her “look” ). Nevertheless, the museum’s director and the show’s curator, photographer Wade Lawrence, reminds of Hunstein’s compositional skills, citing the perfectly framed image of Tony Bennett performing.
A soundtrack reflecting each decade enhances the more than 130 photographs, numerous contact prints, and 24 album covers, from the 1950s through 1983.
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