Unseen Billie Holiday Photos Form a Legacy Between Father and Son

6Share

Grayson Dantzic was initially unaware of his father Jerry’s early freelance photo assignments, in 1950s New York. Growing up in the 1970s, he was steeped in the color photographs from his father’s groundbreaking work with a Cirkut camera, through summer trips with his parents to document America in the panoramic format—city by city and state by state.

Above: Billie Holiday backstage at Sugar Hill, with her Chihuahua, Pepi © 2017 Jerry Dantzic/ Jerry Dantzic Archives

“My father's passion was the Cirkut camera,” says Grayson. “He had his first solo exhibition of this work at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1978, curated by John Szarkowski.”

A Photographic Journey in Search of His Father

Always a man on the move, by the late 1990s the elder Dantzic was juggling his award-winning photography with adjunct teaching at Long Island University, in Brooklyn, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Grayson hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to his father’s life and work, when his health suddenly became a huge issue. “One minute my father was running around, the next minute he became mostly bedridden,” he says.

Billie Holiday holding her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, in front of Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April 18, 19572017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

It was 1999, and Grayson was working the front desk at the Plaza Hotel, but his thoughts were focused on the realization that he really didn’t know much about his father's early life and career. “I came upon the statement, ‘the people that we love the most, we know the least,’” he says. “When I mentioned this, Dad said, ‘why don’t you go up to my photo studio, look around and see what you find.’”

Armed with that nonchalant introduction, Grayson entered his father’s inner sanctum, coming face-to-face with his beginnings as a photojournalist during the golden era of magazine work.

“Among the first photographs I discovered were Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Ingrid Bergman, and a variety of other celebrities,” he says. “And I was immediately struck with the thought, ‘I’m going to quit my job and work for my father. I’m going to find out who he was, and we’re going to do something exciting with his archives.’”

Billie Holiday with Carl Drinkard, on Broad Street, Newark, receiving a gift from a fan2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

At first approach to his father’s many years of untouched assignment work, Grayson felt an equal measure of excitement and intimidation, but he jumped right in. As an aspiring musician and writer with a love of black-and-white photography, he had a special affinity for his father’s early subjects. “I love jazz, so the fact that he had photographed all my heroes—you just couldn’t dream that up,” Grayson says.

Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill

In 1957, Decca Records hired Jerry Dantzic as a freelancer, to photograph Billie Holiday during her Easter Week engagement at the Newark, New Jersey club, Sugar Hill. He had unfettered access to photograph the singer at the club, on the streets of Newark and in her hotel room. He also captured intimate moments during Holiday’s visit with Bill Dufty, co-author of her autobiography, and his wife and child—her godson—in their New York City apartment. Dantzic shot 11 rolls of 35 mm film during the week, most of which was still unpublished when Grayson found it.

Billie Holiday (right) plays with her godson, Bevan Dufty (left), and his mother, Maely Dufty (center), at the Duftys’ apartment, at 43 West 93 Street, New York, NY2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

After 17 years in “the dream stage” with Grayson fully immersed in archival research and making connections with supporting characters in his father’s coverage of that week in time, his book Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill was released, in May 2017. Influenced by books such as William Claxton’s Jazz, Grayson notes, “We could have done the book in a variety of different ways, but I was able to work meticulously with my editor, Christopher Sweet, and have major control, determining its full bleed, double truck deliciousness—to let the pictures tell the story.”

He describes the process of piecing together the book’s narrative as being very much like working on a detective novel. “It was a little chaotic, but the exciting thing was that all the pieces were there to be found, once I started to know what I was looking for.”

Covering All the Angles

When photographing Holiday, Dantzic was likely working with two Leica M3 series cameras (Leica M3s) and three lenses of 35mm, 50mm, and 300mm focal lengths. He was also working without a flash. “Looking through the work, it’s all shot with available light,” says Grayson.

Sugar Hill2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

The pictorial effect is rich with blacks and luminous highlights, particularly inside the club. While Grayson admits that some of the frames could have benefited from a little more light, “they still give the gritty beauty of the Tri-X film that he shot with. The thing that I noticed from his contact sheets is that my dad wanted to capture it all,” adds Grayson. “You can see where he’ll get a close-up, and then he’ll pull back and get the whole ensemble, as well.”

The use of a long lens for close-up portraits in a darkened nightclub environment was a new development at that time, as evidenced in Dantzic’s 1959 article on this topic, for Salon Photography magazine. “A photographer’s constant concern is to get close to his subject,” he wrote. “With the advent of new precise, faster, longer lenses, extension tubes, and other assorted gadgetry, this is becoming more easily possible than ever before. If truth is the last refuge of scoundrels, then the extreme close up serves that purpose for the photographer.”

Sugar Hill2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

Meanwhile, Dantzic’s attempts to “cover all angles” often caused him to switch partly exposed rolls of film between cameras, which jumbled his actual shooting sequence. “There’s a discontinuity in the frame numbers, which made it hard to get the proper chronology,” Grayson explains. “I’m only guessing, but when I rearranged the contact sheets by the numerical order of the film strips it helped me arrive at the best chronology.”

Assembling an Archive from a Lifetime of Work

While the elder Dantzic had set up his files using a semi-numerical system, with contact sheets and negatives in glassine envelopes, a few key pictures were not discovered until Grayson had dug deep into his archives. Several color portraits of Billie were unearthed from various 35mm slide boxes, and a sleeve of medium format transparencies was found tucked behind a desk. Then, in 2006, Grayson stumbled upon a single strip of negatives, misfiled with a 1957 wedding assignment that Dantzic had shot at the Plaza Hotel. “As I blew up an image and looked at it—lo and behold, it was Billie, walking off into the night,” he recalls. “The image was dark, but there she was, and I knew, that’s got to be a great ending to our story.”

Billie on Broad Street, after the gig2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

In hindsight, Grayson admits that his biggest challenge in transforming the raw materials into a book was committing to the edit. “I was convinced that the project was going to happen, so in 2003 I had 5 x 7 reference prints made of every single B&W negative, and I scanned and printed the color images,” he says. “Looking through each of the frames, I started to see the emotional content, the respect, the dignity, and all the things my father keyed into that were important to him. I was able to look at these photographs and say, ‘Wow, he really got those emotional moments,’ and I would get a shiver. My dad had gained Billie’s trust,” he adds. “You can see that when she looks at him and she’s trying to size him up. He was very quickly accepted into her private world.”

Billie at the Second New York Jazz Festival, on Randall’s Island, August 24, 19572017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

Although Grayson’s initial goal was to search for his father through his photographs, delving into his archive to publish this book has created a legacy with a much deeper meaning. “I’m not only talking about my father at this point, I’m talking about people looking at his pictures of Billie, and reexamining the Billie that they thought they knew, and suddenly giving this woman a whole different take,” he says. “Giving her dignity, and above and beyond that, humanity.”

Billie Holiday’s music has brought Grayson more comfort than he feels he can ever repay, “Yet, in some small way I feel this is tipping the cap,” he says. “I feel privileged to have this in my catalog, and to be able to offer a fuller vision of who this woman was—because she was obviously a complex, beautiful artist. But I don’t want to draw any conclusions, I feel that is up to the audience.”

Book cover: Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill, with a reflection by Zadie Smith, by Jerry Dantzic, Grayson Dantzic, Zadie Smith, Published by Thames & Hudson2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives

In July 2017, Grayson Dantzic offered an illustrated lecture about his father’s Billie Holiday images at the B&H Event Space. Click here for the video. In fall 2019, an exhibition of this work will debut as a traveling show, curated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service [SITES]. According to SITES Project Director, Sara Artes, "The first three venues for Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic, will be Irving, Texas, in September 2019, then the Museum of Arts and Science, in Daytona Beach, Florida, in January 2020, after which the show will travel to the Newark Museum, in Newark, New Jersey, in May 2020." For full details about this traveling show, click here.


To purchase the book, visit the Thames & Hudson website.

6 Comments

I tend to agree with Earl Rogers in that I don't ever recall seeing a picture of Lady Day in color. Great set of photos nonetheless.

What a great talent she was. Before my time for sure, but I've listened to much of her music, read her biography but was disappointed in the movie.

Hi Rich, thanks for your comment about this story, as well as about the unforgettable Lady Day, who left us much too soon. It's especially poignant to think of her today, on the 58th anniversary of her passing on July 17, 1959. What better way to honor her memory this Wednesday, July 19, than to join Grayson Dantzic for his lecture at the B&H Event Space from 1-3 pm Eastern. Those who are unable to attend in person can register for the Live Stream by clicking here: https://bhpho.to/2u2lAdD.

Enjoy ... and thanks again for reading the Explora blog!

For color fotos of Billie and other prominant black artists check out Carl Van Vechten. Her Biography was filled with about as many lies as truths with much info edited out - talking about her lesbic relationships with famous with actresses might have been a little complicated. And the movie  aside from being based so much on the farse of her biography was twisted in many ways by her last husband who made himself out to be sort of her hero - when really he was a low life her left her to die with nothing.

Thanks for the reference to Carl Van Vechten, tjjazz, his portraits from the period of, and following, the Harlem Renaissance are very special and widely overlooked. Indeed, it is photographs such as Van Vechten's, as well as Jerry Dantzic's documentation, so thoroughly researched by his son Grayson, that add new dimension to Holiday's life and legacy, Immerse yourself and feel the music, and thanks for reading the Explora blog! 

 In all my years of reading, hearing, listening to it and seeing pictures of Billy Holiday.  I  Believe this is the first time I have ever seen seen a picture of her in color ,even though I may be wrong I have to look at my LP  to see if her picture is in color,but thank you very much for the article. I enjoyed reading about her there's only one Billy Holiday.

Thanks so much for writing in Earl, glad to hear that you enjoyed this article. According to Grayson Dantzic's essay at the end of his book and an accompanying collage of archival materials on page 142, Holiday's 1958 album, The Blues Are Brewin' features a color photograph on the cover. Although this is uncredited and the original 35 mm slide is lost, Grayson believes that his father made this image during Holiday's engagement at Sugar Hill. Grayson also notes that Dantzic's archive contains 18 35mm slides from Holiday's Sugar Hill appearance, as well as 4 35mm color slides and 12 2-1/4 color negatives from Holiday's performance on Randall's Island in 1957.

It may be worth noting that the use of color film for music performances was likely greatly limited during that era due to slow film speeds, especially since Dantzic was not using flash but only shooting with available light.

Finally, for those in the New York City area, Grayson Dantzic will be presenting an illustrated lecture about his father's Billie Holiday pictures at the B&H Event Space, from 1 - 3 pm this Wednesday afternoon, July 19. Please stop by, or watch for the event video on YouTube. Thanks again for your interest, and for reading the Explora blog!

Close

Close

Close