When Thelonious Monk played, when Nina Simone paused, when Louis Armstrong took a smoke break, photographer Herb Snitzer was there.
“He was there,” says Bob Devin Jones, a playwright and friend. “He was in the room where it happened.”
A white Jewish kid from Philadelphia, Snitzer was drawn to the jazz scene in the late 1950s, the Black musicians behind it and the growing movement for equality they helped lead.
Throughout his 60-year career behind the camera, through more than a decade in education and in the 30 years he has made his home in St. Petersburg, one theme united Snitzer’s work — freedom.
“It’s always been there,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1999 said. “Strive for freedom, dignity and equality. To me, that’s what jazz was and still is. It’s a metaphor for freedom.”
Snitzer died on December 31 at 90 of complications from Parkinson’s.
The photographer’s experiences with equality and discrimination went beyond what he saw through his viewfinder. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Snitzer studied at art school before serving in the military, then moving to New York City.
His first job was to design a ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. Snitzer’s boss loved him, said wife Carol Dameron, and even treated him to a performance at the opera. When Snitzer’s parents took the train from Philadelphia to New York, his boss came along to greet them. He realized his protector was Jewish, Dameron said.
A week later he fired Herb.
Snitzer, who had taken photography classes in college and made photographs during his time in the military, was soon hired by a magazine editor to make images of Count Basie Orchestra’s tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
“That session completely changed my life when it came to wanting to know more about these musicians as people,” Snitzer told the Times in 1999.
He began making images for Life Magazine, The New York Times and other national publications. He got married, started a family and gradually became famous and familiar in the jazz world. Snitzer played table tennis with Thelonius Monk. Dizzy Gillespie knew him by name.
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Snitzer photographed jazz artists who used their music to promote freedom.
“Nina Simone and John Coltrane, that was the message they were sending,” he told the Times in 2020. “It was a message of freedom and they used music as a conduit for anger. Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln did a thing about freedom. It was in the air. Boy, you couldn’t escape it. And you wanted to it does not escape.”
Snitzer captured now-iconic, candid images of famous people because his presence put them at ease. He wasn’t there to withdraw or replace, he added something, says Jones, who is one of the founders of The [email protected] in St. Petersburg is.
“He was an easy trip to a distant planet.”
Snitzer found success behind the lens, but he soon left it and New York City for another calling.
In 1963, Snitzer and his family moved to the Adirondacks. There, inspired by the Summerhill School in England, which taught “participatory democracy”, Snitzer helped found the Lewis Wadhams School. He served as a school principal and earned his master’s degree in education. That school closed in 1976, and soon his marriage ended and Snitzer was fired from his job at Polaroid.
In 1992 he went to St. Petersburg and resumed photography. At the opening of Galery 146, which has since closed, Snitzer was sitting and chatting with a fellow artist when he spotted artist Carol Dameron. She had no idea who he was or the career he already had.
“The moment I saw him, I wanted to go and talk to him,” she said. “He looked up at me and said, sit down. And that was it, we never looked back.”
Snitzer worked and moved quickly. He didn’t hesitate or think too much. As he did with the jazz musicians in the 50s and 60s, he continued to make intimate images of people in moments of ease.
“You get the feeling that they don’t even realize that their photos are be taken,” said Robin O’Dell, who spent 15 years at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, including as the curator of photography. “He was just very good at capturing a moment in time and telling a whole story in a single image. He just had a way of cutting through.”
Snitzer also had a way with the images he composed. The black borders around some of his photos show that he didn’t go back and forth to crop or reassemble.
“He was right in there,” O’Dell said. “It’s kind of a point of pride. That’s what he saw in the camera and that’s what he took.”
Snitzer’s images are on album covers, in private collections, on T-shirts and part of our culture. His fingerprints on St. Petersburg is equally present.
For years he St. Pete Pride photographed. He played an early role in Salt Creek Artworks, an artist collective and gallery space that was a precursor to the Warehouse Arts District. He served as the first interim director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
“Everybody knows he was a master photographer, but he was also a master human being,” Jones said.
Snitzer loved people and their stories, but he also loved their humanity.
“James Baldwin says art is important because life is important,” Jones said. “And Herb’s life, his activism, his compassion stood very much in protest for many things — civil rights, human rights — I think they were one in the same.”
Poynter News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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