Photostory12: Miles Davis


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I've always loved this Herb Snitzer image of Miles Davis. The trumpeter isn't posing or glaring at the camera. Instead, he's caught in motion, looking back at someone who has caught his eye. There's velocity here and a perspicacious flash, like a star athlete captured in mid-air making a split decision. Interestingly, Davis' restless, caged expression is similar to Frank Sinatra's. Both were fully aware of their living-legend status, happy to be the center of attention but always in control.


Is Davis smiling? Why do we see just one eye? How was the photograph taken? And when? I asked photographer Herb Snitzer to explain:

“I took this image of Miles Davis backstage at the Apollo Theater in 1960. It was taken soon after the release of Kind of Blue, so Miles was flying high. It was my first encounter with the trumpeter, who was a rather open and relaxed guy back then. I didn't speak with him that night, but I do recall he was easy-going and messing around with his band members

“I went to the Apollo on my own to photograph Miles and his group. There were no writers with me. I was on staff with Metronome at the time, but this wasn't an assignment. I was just curious, and I'd often go out on my own to photograph jazz musicians.

“In the image, the blur in front of Miles is actually an out-of-focus Philly Joe Jones. I like this one-eye view of Miles. Believe it or not, the image wasn't accident. I had planned to capture just a part of Miles as a way of saying that I didn't really know this person, only a part of him--his background, his music and so on. In addition to Philly Joe, Miles' entire group was backstage, along with disc jockey Symphony Sid.

“I was using my Nikon SP Rangefinder 35 mm camera without a flash, just high-resolution Tri-X film. Backstage wasn't the most ideal place to photograph by available light, and going forward I learned real fast to bring a small flash unit with me.

“I was relatively new both to photography and to the jazz world, and when I look back on what I was able to accomplish in the seven years I lived in New York, I feel blessed.

“I saw Miles from time to time over the years, including in 1988, 1989 and finally at Newport, RI, in 1990. By then he was, emotionally, a far different person than the person I photographed 30 years earlier."

--Herb Snitzer

All photos
by Herb Snitzer. Herb Snitzer--all rights reserved
. All photos used here with the artist's permission.

JazzWax note:
A limited number of silver gelatin, museum-finish prints of Miles Davis and other jazz artists are available for sale. Please contact Herb [pictured] directly at [email protected]

More PhotoStories:
I started this feature to showcase iconic jazz images and the stories of the photographers who took them. You'll find the 11 other PhotoStory posts in this series under the “PhotoStory" heading in the right-hand column of this blog (JazzWax).

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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