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Oberlin Conservatory Receives Rare 1950s Jazz Photographs

Frank Kuchirchuk, a retired photographer who took live performance photographs of some of the greatest jazz artists during the height of their careers, 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 later this year. 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.

Kuchirchuk, 84, lives at the Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky. He was moonlighting from his day job as a photographer for the International News Service (INS) in the early 1950s when he took the photos, nearly all of them at Lindsay’s Sky Bar, a famous Cleveland nightclub. The images provide a fascinating glimpse into the performance styles of numerous jazz legends, among them Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday (pictured), Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Anita O’Day. Kuchirchuk’s photographs are unique precisely because they capture the energy of a live performance; they are not portraiture, publicity stills, or session shots. And one other important factor sets them apart: most of them have never been printed or published.

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, a process-like switching out the flash bulbs-that could take anywhere from 30 to 40 seconds. This sort of winner-take-all limitation imposed by the camera meant that Kuchirchuk had to compose his shots with tremendous care.

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.

This spring Oberlin is planning a special exhibition of selected images from the Kuchirchuk Collection at a date and venue to be announced. When the Phyllis Litoff Building opens later this year, the photographs will find their permanent home.

For more information about Oberlin, visit Oberlin.

Photograph of Billie Holliday

by Frank Kuchirchuk

© 2009 Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio

Originally Published