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The Forgotten Photos of Robert James Campbell

“Everyone has a story”

Photographer Robert James Campbell in his darkroom
Bud Powell at his piano, New York City, 1964
Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Elvin Jones (from left). Gretsch night at Birdland, New York City, early 1960s
John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Paul Chambers (from left), New York City, late 1950s
Roy Haynes, Cecil McBee and Wayne Shorter, New York City, mid-1960s
Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley, New York City, early 1960s
Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, New York City, early 1960s
Tommy Turrentine (left) and Philly Joe Jones, Birdland, NYC, early 1960s

The story of photographer Robert James Campbell is one of increasing rarity in the current age of communication oversaturation, when obscurity can seem almost impossible. Even for lost souls, Campbell’s familiar narrative of early artistic brilliance and eventual dire straits tends to have a happier ending nowadays, thanks to technology. Campbell, who died homeless in Vermont in 2002, when the Internet couldn’t so readily identify and revive forgotten talent, never caught such a break. Not while he was alive, anyway. Born into affluence and deeply wounded by the ineptitude of his mother, he began photographing musicians while enlisted as the bassist in an Army jazz band, and from there led a life that can neither be called nomadic nor purposeful. He traversed Europe, did serious work for DownBeat and the Village Voice in New York, bided his time in Los Angeles and spiraled downward in New England, where he grew up. After his mother committed suicide, he inherited her New Hampshire home in 1987, and suffered a stroke there from which he never recovered.

Incredibly, he maintained an archive of sorts in a series of dusty cardboard boxes. Even more miraculous, those negatives and prints made their way to Jessica Ferber, then a recent college graduate, soon after Campbell’s passing. Immersed in the restoration of his work and in the scattered details of his life for well over a decade, she has painstakingly pieced together Campbell’s story in a remarkable new book, Rebirth of the Cool (powerHouse), whose excellence can be split into two components: first, Ferber’s heavily researched, photo-filled biography, made all the more romantic by Campbell’s cinematic good looks, which evoke a rebellious, rough-and-tumble leading man; then there’s the photography, as masterful as that of any iconic midcentury lensman you might name. Campbell beautifully captured street life and the flourishing Greenwich Village folk scene, but his live jazz images, taken in the heady late-’50s and ’60s, stand as his creative summit. We’re proud to excerpt some of those pictures here.

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Originally Published