William Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., attended Lehigh University, and after graduating in 1938 took a job in the advertising department of The Washington Post. He persuaded the paper to let him write a weekly column on jazz, but the newspaper couldn’t afford to send a photographer to shows. Gottlieb decided to shoot the photos himself. He purchased a Speed Graphic press camera and learned how to use it with help from The Post’s photo staff. Supplies like film and flash bulbs were expensive, so Gottlieb limited himself to just a few photos per show, carefully composing portraits of the singers and musicians. Since Gottlieb was shooting pictures for free, The Post allowed him to keep his negatives, giving him the start of what would become a valuable library of photographs used on many album covers, posters, T-shirts and other products. He photographed Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.
Gottlieb eventually quit his advertising job and began working at the University of Maryland, but continued shooting photos, writing his newspaper column and hosting radio shows about jazz. He was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943 and served as a photo officer. After World War II, he moved to New York and worked for Down Beat, a jazz magazine, writing about and photographing the stars who played New York’s jazz clubs.
Gottlieb compiled more than 200 of his photographs into the book The Golden Age of Jazz. In 1995 he sold his collection to the Library of Congress, which has an extensive collection of his photographs available online. Gottlieb photographs seem familiar to us because we have seen them in newspapers, television documentaries, magazines, museums, and on over 250 CD covers. In 1994, the United States Postal Service selected Gottlieb’s portraits of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Mildred Bailey, and Jimmy Rushing for a series of commemorative postage stamps. Exhibitions of the prints have appeared in more than 200 venues worldwide, from the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden, to the Navio Museum in Osaka, Japan.