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Photographer William Gottlieb Dies

Photographer William Gottlieb died at his home in New York today. He was 89 years old. The world-renowned photographer was called “The Great Jazz Photographer” in a 1990 issue of Modern Photography, while the New York Times commented that Gottlieb had “the flair of a high artist” and the New Yorker said, “Gottlieb stopped photographing jazz musicians in 1948. No one has surpassed him yet.”

Gottlieb was born Feb. 28, 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Sam and Lena Gottlieb. His family moved to New Jersey when Gottlieb was four, but his mother died when he was in his teens. Gottlieb attended Lehigh University as an economics major and, due in large part to his experience as editor-in-chief of a monthly campus magazine and columnist for the weekly newspaper, earned a position at the Washington Post immediately after graduation.

It wasn’t until 1939 that Gottlieb first used a camera, when he began using photographs to illustrate his fledgling weekly jazz column, “Swing Session,” in the Post. He was paid only for his writing, and not the photographs, so Gottlieb learned to shoot carefully as the film, flash bulbs and cameras were expensive.

His dedication and experience paid off, as he later earned a position as an Air Force photo officer in World War II, and then an editor’s position at Down Beat. He left the jazz scene in 1948 to produce educational films, later serving as president of University Films/McGraw-Hill. He also wrote and illustrated 16 books, one of which, the children’s book Laddie the Superdog, sold more than one million copies.

Gottlieb retired from McGraw Hill in 1979 and that same year, published his old jazz photographs as The Golden Age of Jazz. His images have since appeared on more than 350 record album and CD covers, in addition to numerous books, magazines, calendars and documentaries.

The National Portrait Gallery hosts some of Gottlieb’s photographs, including one of Duke Ellington, and his images also appear on four U.S. Postage Stamps. The Library of Congress purchased all 1,700 of Gottlieb’s jazz images “for posterity,” and Down Beat also presented him with its Lifetime Achievement award in 1998.

Gottlieb is survived by his wife, Delia; children Barbara, Steven, Richard and Edward; grandchildren Leah, Sara, Brian, Jason, Celia and Noah; and great-grandchildren Evan, Lily and Enzo. A memorial service will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at Riverside-Nassau North Chapels in Great Neck, N.Y. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Jazz Musician Emergency Fund c/o Jazz Foundation of America, 3rd Floor, 322 West 48th St., New York, N.Y. 10036. More information is available at the Foundation’s Web site.

Originally Published