When Thelonious Monk played, when Nina Simone paused, when Louis Armstrong took a smoke break, photographer Herb Snitzer was there.
“He was there,” said Bob Devin Jones, a playwright and friend. “He was in the room where it happened.”
Snitzer, a white Jewish kid from Philadelphia, was drawn to the jazz scene in the late 1950s, the Black musicians behind it and the growing movement for equality they helped lead.
Throughout his 60-year-career behind the camera, through more than a decade in education and in the 30 years he made his home in St. Petersburg, one theme united Snitzer’s work — freedom.
“It’s always been there,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1999. “Striving for freedom, dignity and equality. To me, that’s what jazz was and still is. It’s a metaphor for freedom.”
Snitzer died Dec. 31 at 90 due to complications from Parkinson’s.
The photographer’s experiences with equality and discrimination went beyond what he saw through his viewfinder. Snitzer, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, studied at art school before serving in the Army, then moving to New York City.
His first job was designing a ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. Snitzer’s boss loved him, said wife Carol Dameron, and even treated him to a show at the opera. When Snitzer’s parents took the train from Philadelphia to New York, his boss came along to greet them. He realized his protege was Jewish, Dameron said.
“A week later, he fired Herb.”
Snitzer, who’d taken photography classes in college and made photos during his time in the Army, was soon hired by a magazine editor to make images of Count Basie Orchestra tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
“That session totally changed my life when it came to wanting to know more about these musicians as people,” Snitzer told the Times in 1999.
He started making images for Life Magazine, The New York Times and other national publications. He married, started a family, and gradually became known and trusted in the jazz world. Snitzer played ping-pong with Thelonius Monk. Dizzy Gillespie knew him by name.
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Snitzer photographed jazz artists who used their music to push for freedom.
“Nina Simone and John Coltrane, that was the message they were sending out,” he told the Times in 2020. “It was a message of freedom and they used music as the conveyor of anger. Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln did a thing on freedom. It was in the air. Boy, you couldn’t escape it. And you didn’t want to escape it.”
Snitzer captured now-iconic, candid images of famous people because his presence put them at ease. He wasn’t there to extract or exchange, he was adding something, said Jones, who is one of the founders of The Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.
“He was an easy travel to a distant planet.”
Snitzer found success behind the lens, but he soon left it and New York City for another calling.
In 1963, Snitzer and his family moved to the Adirondacks. There, inspired by the Summerhill School in England, which taught “participatory democracy,” Snitzer helped found the Lewis Wadhams School. He served as headmaster and got his master’s degree in education. That school closed in 1976, and soon his marriage ended and Snitzer got laid off from his job at Polaroid.
In 1992, he moved to St. Petersburg and resumed photography. At the opening of Gallery 146, which has since closed, Snitzer sat talking with a fellow artist when he spotted artist Carol Dameron. She had no idea who he was or the career he’d already had.
“The minute I saw him, I wanted to go talk to him,” she said. “He looked up at me and said, sit down. And that was it, we never looked back.”
Snitzer worked and moved fast. He didn’t hesitate or overthink. Like he did with the jazz musicians in the ’50s and ’60s, he continued making intimate images of people in moments of ease.
“You get the feeling that they don’t even realize that their photographs are being taken,” said Robin O’Dell, who worked for 15 years at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, including as the curator of photography. “He was just really good at capturing a moment in time and telling a whole story in a single image. He just had a way of cutting through.”
Snitzer also had a way with the images he composed. The black edges around some of his photos show that he didn’t go back after to crop or recompose.
“He was right in there,” O’Dell said. “That’s kind of a point of pride. This was what he saw in the camera and this is what he took.”
Snitzer’s images are on album covers, in private collections, on T-shirts and a part of our culture. His fingerprints on St. Petersburg are equally present.
For years, he photographed St. Pete Pride. He had an early role in Salt Creek Artworks, an artists’ collective and gallery space that was a precursor to the Warehouse Arts District. He served as the first interim director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
“Everyone knows he was a master photographer, but he was a master human being as well,” Jones said.
Snitzer loved people and their stories, but he also loved their humanness.
“James Baldwin says art is important because life is important,” Jones said. “And Herb’s life, his activism, his compassion was very much standing in protest for a lot of things — civil rights, human rights — I think they were one in the same.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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