NAACP, Miles Davis, and Tyron Lewis on view in ‘Can I Get a Witness: Photographs by Herb Snitzer’ at the MFA

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –  After 61 years photographing political change, urban life and the African-American journey, internationally acclaimed photographer Herb Snitzer has finally received a show focusing on his social activism in the Museum of Fine ArtsCan I Get a Witness: Photographs by Herb Snitzer.”

herb snitzer nina simone, aeWhile the exhibition also offers some of Snitzer’s iconic photos of musical geniuses Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong, it largely documents his devotion to justice work.

One such photo reveals his early interest in the NAACP in New York City, foreshadowing his work with the St. Petersburg NAACP decades later — a commitment that led to his receiving a lifetime achievement award from the organization in 2005.

Other photographs document the 1997 City Hall demonstrations that followed the death of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis at the hands of a white police officer; another set captures the St. Pete Pride Parade.

All offer a view into Snitzer’s life-long dedication to revealing the social unrest and political intricacies of America’s – and St. Pete’s — ever-changing cultural landscape.

Born in Philadelphia in 1932, he graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art and moved to New York City in 1957.

“The late 50s, early 60s living in New York, I engaged in civil protest and work in the black community; it was quite a time and we were all young,” Snitzer reminisced during our recent interview.

Snitzer’s photography landed him jobs in LIFE, TIME, LOOK, the Saturday Evening Post, Fortune, The New York Times and The London Sunday Times, among others. When he became a photography and associate editor of Metronone, a leading jazz journal, he met and became friends with many of the artists whose images he would later photograph, with his photos appearing on over 250 CD and album record covers.

Coltrane, Lester Young, the Divine Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrea, Woody Herman, and Abbie Lincoln are just a few of the names among the impressive list of musical greats appearing in Snitzer’s archives. His book, “Glorious Days and Nights” recounts his five decades of work in the jazz field.

Eventually, a desire to “get out of the cold” and the ease of traveling to family scattered across the country from Tampa’s airport landed him in St. Pete in the early 90s.

“When I came to St Petersburg almost 25 years ago now the communities were totally separate. The black community and the white community were like two different worlds…and for a little white guy going into the middle of this it was an eye-opener.”

Snitzer recalled that the city had “a white police chief who made so many mistakes when it came to the black community,” and an active NAACP headed by Darryl Rouson.

“I served with him for five years and then he went on to become a state senator, and he’s doing a terrific job,” acknowledged the award-winning photojournalist, his voice tinged with fatherly pride.

Another image in the exhibit is of noted American historian John Hope Franklin, whose 1947 book “Slavery to Freedom, a History of Negro Americans” is still the longest-running, continuously updated book on the African American journey, from the continent to contemporary times.

Alongside Snitzer’s photograph is a handwritten letter from Franklin to the photographer.

“During Black History Month, John would come to St. Pete and just have a month of relaxation. Any of the other black personalities of that time would set up speaking engagements because it was a way to make a lot of money, for a number of well-known African Americans. But John just felt that it was not the right thing to do — so he never engaged the white community during Black History Month.”

Snitzer heard Dr. Franklin was in St. Pete and asked a mutual friend to introduce them.  “I said to her ‘just tell Dr. Franklin that I’d like to meet him and photograph him; he’ll probably say no, but if you could do that it would be great.’”

He met Dr. Franklin, did the session and out of it came a friendship.

“We would have dinner together when he was in town; he would come every February. I just got to know him and love him, and just felt just being in his presence was enough for me. And I stayed in touch with him until he died.”

The photographer also shared a bit of backstory on his famous photos of Miles Davis and Nina Simone.

“We were at the Newport Jazz Festival and Miles had just finished performing and he was standing in the doorway of his trailer, being asked questions by another photographer by the name of Herman Leonard. And as he was answering the questions, he got this look on his face — and I just saw that, and I just started snapping away, and that’s what produced that photograph. Miles was a very difficult man; that was just him, part and parcel. But, he did me well with that photograph,” Snitzer mused.

“Nina and I were friends for about 35 years; and what was going on in that photograph was that I was doing a record cover for Colpix records called “The Amazing Nina Simone” which was her first breakthrough album. We were just having a lot of fun — we were the same age, we just sort of took to each other, and we were clowning around. And it was a different Nina.”

Snitzer admitted that the Simone of later years – such as the version depicted in the 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — was a different woman. “She lived a very difficult life at the end of her life. But talk about talent — that lady had some talent.”

Another photo captures a pre-elected Barack Obama at Gibbs High School in 2008: “I didn’t know very much about him other than what other millions of people knew about him, that he was a wonderful young man who made a major contribution to America,” he said, revealing that he was really interested in Michelle Obama.

“Can I Get a Witness: Photographs by Herb Snitzer” is at the MFA until Aug. 5.

The Museum of Fine Art is located at 255 Beach Drive N.E. Hours: Monday-Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10-5 p.m.; Thursday from 10-8 p.m. & Sunday from noon-5 p.m.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com.

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