When photographer James J. Kriegsmann emigrated from Austria to New York in 1929 and set up a studio in West 46th Street on Broadway, one thing he didn’t bring with him was the prejudice he’d experienced as a Jew in 1920s Europe. He was determined that, unlike a lot of photography studios at the time, he would welcome everyone into his studio and to this day the business he established over 80 years ago still has the respect he first earned way back then.
Having studied photography in Vienna, Kriegsmann relocated to New York and set up his studio in an old night club on Broadway. This was a time when any aspiring entertainer needed publicity shots to have any chance of getting their career off the ground and was also a time when very few photography studios would welcome black artists through their doors. Kriegsmann’s studio was open to everyone and he soon gained a reputation as the go-to ‘head shot’ photographer, not only because he didn’t discriminate but also because he was very good at his job. He was a master of the art of re-touching photos and getting the lighting just right – he could make women appear to lose several pounds and could make a cheap suit look good. When a young down-at-heel Frank Sinatra came to Kriegsmann for an early publicity photo he had on a frayed shirt and his hair was slicked back. The photographer persuaded him to brush his hair forwards and wrapped toilet paper round the cuffs on Sinatra’s shirt to cover the fraying ends. The resultant photo was one of, if not the, earliest publicity shots of young Sinatra.
He became the official in-house photographer for the Cotton Club in Harlem and went on to become one of the top three ‘head-shot’ photographers in the US. He had a portfolio that included the aforementioned Sinatra, Dean Martin, our old mate Sammy Davis Junior and Jerry Lewis amongst others. It seems he lavished the same amount of care and attention on all his customers whether they were showbiz luminaries or just starting out and to say he was prolific is an understatement. He conducted some 35,000 sessions over a 42 year career which even by our rather poor maths gives an average of 16 sessions a week and that’s not even taking holidays into account.
Here we take a look, not at the big names Kriegsmann shot, but rather those at the other end of the spectrum. The ones whose careers never quite came up trumps and who despite showing enough early promise to justify publicity photos never got their names up in lights. Sometime back in the 1980s retired music photo archivist Michael Ochs bumped into Kriegsmann and realising the sheer number of photos he had made him an offer to buy the archives. Once he’d purchased them he shipped them to his home in California and started sorting through them. To prune the collection (and bear in mind this was the fruits of some 35,000 sessions) he started to remove those with no agents and no managers and dumped them in the wheelie bin (or dumpster as they are known to our American cousins) behind his place in Venice Beach. By some strange twist of fate these were found by a guy called Mike Lee who was on vacation in California at the time. He’s a friend of Jennifer Sharpe who is involved with NPR (National Public Radio) in the States and as she was the only person he could think of who might have an interest in the photos contacted her. There were so many in the collection it took them 15 hours to sift through them all and fortunately they’ve managed to stick a number of them online. We’ve selected our favourites and posted them below. Enjoy a bit of obscure history and remember, as we’ve said before, it’s not always about the big name celebrities – to get a feel for a period in history look at the regular guys (and girls), they’ll show you what was really going on at the time.