“On 52nd Street” is a photography exhibit currently at the Gilcrease Museum. It is a collection of photographs taken by William P. Gottlieb of some of the biggest names in Jazz during the height of the “Golden Age.” 52nd street in Manhattan was the center for jazz in New York City from the 1930s through the 50s. Its nickname was “Swing Alley” and the street hosted great jazz artists from Miles Davis to Billie Holiday.
The exhibit is tucked away in a dark room with photographs hanging on all four walls. Jazz music is constantly playing. While looking at a picture of Louis Armstrong you can hear his amazing trumpet skills. I found it hard not to move my feet to the syncopated swing beats as I read about each of the musicians pictured.
Gottlieb was born in 1917 in Brooklyn. He was a newspaper columnist and picked up photography as part of the job. Gottlieb’s aesthetic tended towards using dark backgrounds and controlling the highlights to accent foreground features such as faces or instruments. He also took some more experimental photographs like one he took of Ray McKinley in which he used double exposure to beautifully capture the act of playing the drums.
Many of the photos are happy and humorous, perfectly depicting the carefree atmosphere of the clubs. However, Gottlieb could also distill the passion and sometimes pain of an artist like in my favourite picture of his: a photo of Billie Holiday singing. The photographer was quoted saying that the picture showed “the beauty in her face and the pain in her voice.”
“On 52nd Street” brilliantly depicts the artform of some of the greatest musicians and the personality of “Swing Alley.” Gottlieb passed away in 2006 but he immortalized many of the most important figures in American music history.
The exhibit will remain at the Gilcrease until October 11th.