No one does anything completely alone in this life, especially not writers. The work can be (and to a degree needs to be) solitary, but there is a reason why the acknowledgements sections of nonfiction books tend to be so lengthy. Can’t get it done any other way.
One of the most helpful, generous, and convivial people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in the course of my work as a curator and writer was photographer Lee Tanner, who died last fall at the age of 82. When our team was putting together an exhibition on Miles Davis years ago, Lee not only offered his own remarkable photographs of Davis in performance but helped us by clearing the way for other photographers with whom he had worked to contribute as well, some for very low fees. Tanner had curated a series of gallery sections called Indelible Images for JazzTimes as well as a photography show on Davis, and his rolodex had many an important contact he shared freely.
Years later, we both found ourselves working on book projects, he on an image anthology of jazz photography called The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography, and me on Blue Notes in Black and White, a cultural history of jazz photography. Lee called on me to read his text in proof, which I gladly did. He did much more for me, sitting for an interview one warm summer day in Berkeley, inviting me to his house for a delightful meal, and sending me on my way with a gift of rare and hard-to-find books of jazz photographs from his personal collection. I couldn’t keep up with Lee’s generosity. He laughed it off, saying that everyone needs a good mentor. How true.
While Lee became known around the world for his photographs and published four books on jazz and blues from 1994 on, his Jazz Image work was his retirement gig. His first career was in metallurgy, but he always found time for jazz. His work can be found in Down Beat and other magazines and on album covers and cd reissues from the late 1950s on. He produced music programs for WGBH in Boston in the 1960s.
He once told me that photography combined the artistic background of his family—his father was an artist and his mother worked in retail fashion in New York—with science. In his second life, he showed his own work in galleries and clubs and constantly championed the work of others, including photographers from beyond U.S. shores such as Giuseppe Pino, Jan Persson, and Jean-Pierre Leloir.
I’ll always remember how excited Lee was when he told me about opening Life magazine in 1943 and seeing Gjon Mili’s jam session photographs—he got his own camera soon after—or what it was like to go to the Royal Roost or Birdland in New York and see the photographs of Herman Leonard not long after they had been made, or how exciting it was to visit The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. And always the music, the soundtrack to his life.
Lee’s daughter Lisa Tanner is a professional photographer who manages Lee’s work via The Jazz Image. Check out examples of his favored performance shots there.
Lee’s bibliography includes:
Dizzy: John Birks Gillespie in His 75th Year. New York: Pomegranate, 1993.
Images of Jazz. New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1996.
Images of the Blues (with Lee Hildebrand). New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1996.
The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography. New York: Abrams, 2006.