Remembering Paul Hoeffler and Lady Day

I remember sitting in my basement with Paul Hoeffler, not with jazz in the background, but the annoying sound of my scanner, as we were working our way through stacks of photographs of Billie Holiday.  Bowmore 12 was the poison of choice.  The stories flowed, as did the single malt.  We were scanning images of Billie Holiday for the now legendary Burns series Jazz.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday

We scanned many photographs of the legendary singer, but what I find most interesting in hindsight was maybe the contact sheets.  I have reproduced 1 below.  The sheet was not the greatest, in terms of quality, but you have to admire the degree of access.  Don’t forget, this is while Billie Holiday is on stage, singing.  She is a Superstar, with a capital ‘S’ in Jazz terms, yet she is no more than a couple of feet in front of Paul’s lens, maybe less.  I might even forgive her for forgetting a line, when you have a camera in your face like that!  You can read Paul’s recollection here:

 “ ‘Lady Day’ as she was known, died the summer of 1959.  She was in a NYC hospital – arrested for drug possession – two detectives stationed at the door.  Billie Holiday was 44 years old.  She has been described as a ‘simple woman with a gift’.

These photographs were taken during her week-long engagement at the Ridge Crest Inn, Rochester, New York.  I was in Rochester studying at R.I.T., and covering the music and musicians.  These images represent a fraction of those taken; the contact sheets show a radiant Billie, then the next frame displays a troubled and confused singer having forgotten the words.

Twice, or three times, I drove Billie, her husband and Alice Vrbsky back to their hotel.  Alice was Billie’s close friend, seen here putting on her coat and wearing glasses.  Alice tried to keep Billie in a responsible state.  Peppi, Billies little white dog, was always along.  Peppi was the substitute for the child she never had.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday and Peppi

What I saw was a very troubled woman, angry at social injustices, burdened by alcohol and drugs, and not able to steer clear of the bad actors – the men, the lovers.

Billie Holiday had a strong presence.  She was vulgar, basic, with a natural ability to make music, which touched many, many people.  It still continues to reach out today.”

I don’t think anyone, other than maybe Paul himself has seen the contact sheet below.  I scanned it for him, as we were working our way through the stack of prints that would be scanned and forwarded to Ken Burns.  I have been hesitating to show it, but I think it is a reminder of what Paul always talked about; the good old days before the goons, or should I say security guards, the publicists, the official photographers, and the hoards of long lens paparazzi.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday Contact Sheet

And finally, below, something that Paul did, but was much less known for. A colour image from the same set.  Yes, he could do that too.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday in full colour

Harbel

The Portrait – Relaxed Yet Posed

When photographing people, we tend to distinguish between subjects that are posing – basically sitters fully aware they are being photographed – and those photographs that are taken of people not aware they are being photographed, often classified as street photography.  I am interested in how these issues play out in a particular situation. 

I have collected photographs by Shelby Lee Adams for a while.  In my mind one of the greatest, if not the greatest living American photographer.  Mr. Adams has been photographing in Eastern Kentucky for many, many years.  He has been making portraits of families and individuals in the settings where they live, using an 8 x 10 camera.

Adams, Shelby Lee – Lloyd Dean with Grandsons + Pool Table 2006

In the technique employed by Mr. Adams there is a long process of building confidence, sharing meals and eventually posing the subject(s) for a portrait in their environment.  Mr. Adams uses a large format camera with a Polaroid back.  He would use the Polaroid back to ensure that his lighting, which was often quite complicated, offered him the right support for his final photograph, as well as a tool to discuss with the subjects of his photograph, confirming that they like the setting of the image.  He would often present the Polaroid to the subject(s).

Adams, Shelby Lee – Polaroid

I have had several discussions around the use of Polaroid backs in portraiture, because it crosses between the sitter being unaware and the posed photograph.  This is because when you make a photograph using the Polaroid back, the sitter knows it is not yet ‘serious’ and therefore their pose and facial expression is often more relaxed.  I would call it more natural, more genuine.  More real.  As such, the Polaroid back crosses from the photograph where the sitter is unaware, and the final staged photograph using the 8×10 photograph.  The subject knows there is a photograph being taken…. later, but the Polaroid is just a step towards the final photograph, so no need to stress or worry what it looks like, just relax.

I have shown above the Polaroid, which is in my collection, as well as the final photograph.  I personally like the Polaroid, as I find that the subjects are more relaxed and perhaps project a more ‘true’ representation.  For example, I find that Grandpa has applied more of a ‘poker face’ in the actual, final photograph.  I find the young man, the grandson in the white t-shirt has a more relaxed expression in the Polaroid than in the final image. 

Lagerfeld, Karl – Glamour Magazine 1994 Polaroid
Lagerfeld, Karl – Glamour Magazine 1994

In a similar, but different comparison, here are two photographs by Karl Lagerfeld. The Polaroid is in my collection, the other image is what was ultimately published in Glamour Magazine in Italy in 1994. I know this is completely different, but the result is the same. At least in my opinion. I find the expression in the Polaroid much more relaxed and interesting than in the final shot, which was ultimately published.

There are of course countless discussions to be had on this topic, but perhaps these two examples are food for thought. Whether you agree, or disagree, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we think about how a sitter poses and how we get the best result. The most authentic. The image that best represents the sitter.

Harbel