Arts & Culture

“Can I Get a Witness” — Herb Snitzer’s Life of Activism

todayMarch 6, 2019 17

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>> Article originally published in St. Pete Life Magazine <<

The history of Jazz and the history of civil rights in the United States are undeniably and profoundly intertwined. The images caught on film by iconic photographer Herb Snitzer, over a six-decade career, is sublime proof of this premise. Snitzer and his wife, artist Carol Dameron call St. Pete home, but their lives and careers have spanned the world, giving them a global perspective on social justice and humanity. I had the pleasure of speaking with them recently in their South St. Petersburg home, lovingly called “Art on Alcazar” for all the salon gatherings they hope to hold in the future. We were joined by Robin O’Dell, curator of the photographic collection at the Museum of Fine Arts. She and Snitzer, who have worked together before, collaborated closely to bring the museum’s recently opened exhibit, “Can I Get a Witness”, to life.

Herb Snitzer’s work is arguably most recognized for it’s documentation of Jazz culture and its biggest stars. Some of the most famous images of icons like Nina Simone, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louie Armstrong are attributable to Snitzer. He knew and was close to many of them, particularly Simone, who Snitzer traveled with over a thirty-year period. His work has appeared in many publications including “Look” and “Life” magazines, he has published books, shown his work all over the world, and is generally considered a master in his field. But what Robin O’Dell revealed as she studied Snitzer’s work for exhibition, was the pervasive message of activism and a profound sense of social justice that permeated the archive.

“ I have always considered my work, even the jazz images, a metaphor for civil rights and equality”, says Snitzer. “It suggests a view of oppressed communities like African Americans and the LGBT community that I believe have been overlooked and, in many cases, ignored.” Snitzer shared his friend Nina Simone’s views on bigotry and injustice and shot many images of protests and rallies, some of which are present in the MFA exhibit. “In 1958, as I was first establishing my career in NYC, I attended an NAACP event and took a photo of a small boy who was looking right at me. It was a personal moment between us and I saw his pain. It represents a desire for freedom that stays with me and it remains one of my personal favorites.” Of course, visitors to the museum can see this photo in “Can I Get a Witness”. Snitzer wonders what happened to that boy. “He would be in his sixties now. Unbelievable.”

Robin O’Dell talked about how the theme of the exhibit materialized as she reviewed a huge archive of Herb Snitzer’s historic images. “It was an honor to put this exhibit together, and I wanted to create a collection that was reflective of his whole career. As I studied more and more photographs, what became evident was Herb’s sense of social justice. I knew that had to be the focus.

O’Dell continues, “Whenever I plan an exhibit, especially one that involves a single artist, I always look to achieve several things: Of course, I want to show the depth and breadth of the work, but I also want it to tell a story.” Asked how she came up with the name, “Can I Get a Witness”, O’Dell replied, “It was just the feeling that I had. These photos were a sort of testimonial to the struggle and Herb was witness to all of it. It seemed to fit”.

Other considerations make this exhibit work, such as its local ties. The opening of “Can I Get a Witness” was in conjunction with Pride month, and there are several photographs depicting our own St. Pete Pride parade, one of the largest such celebrations in the Southeast. This unique collection of photographs also tells us some things about its artist that we, as neighbors and fellow citizens, may not have known – Like the fact that Herb Snitzer was co-founder and Head Master of a progressive school for children that taught art and social consciousness for 13 years – Or that he actively served on the board of the NAACP in St. Petersburg for 5 years and received a lifetime achievement award from the organization. They honored his service to them and a career spent documenting the harsh realities of cultural evolution.

Artist Carol Dameron, Snitzer’s wife, was present during some of these dramatic times caught on film. She recalls the scene one year outside of Fort Benning, GA, at an annual protest against the “School of the Americas”, or “assassins” as it came to be known. “Some 16,000 people would come each year led by people like Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon to protest this program. There was one protestor dressed in a shroud with a stark white face that really struck me. The image Herb took, featured in the museum exhibit, captured the moment perfectly.”

O’Dell talks about a favorite photo in the exhibit involving one of the large-scale photos of a drag queen in a St. Pete Pride parade. “She was just so joyous and beautiful with all her rhinestones”, O’Dell recalls. “We later found out that she was very well known and even a contestant on “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”, named Coco Montrese.” Snitzer adds that “It would not have been possible to see an image like this in a museum fifty years ago.” Something to think about…

There is still a nod to Snitzer’s more well-known photographs in the collection, for example, a mural of the jazz legend Louis Armstrong. “Louie Armstrong did not know his father and his mother was a prostitute’, Snitzer recounts. “He was taken in and cared for by a Jewish family and he was given a Star of David as a gift. He wore it his whole life and was buried with it.” Armstrong’s band musicians were consistently diverse; an apparent homage to the diversity in his own life. “He was the personification of grace, dignity, and everything that is good about America”, said Snitzer.

When asked what he’d most like to be known for, Herb Snitzer does not hesitate to say, “For my sense of Social Justice”. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that “Can I Get a Witness” will go a long way in solidifying that perception.

“Can I Get a Witness” is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until August 5th. The museum hours are:
Monday – Friday: 10-5
Thursday: 10-8
Sunday: 12-5

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Written by: #HeliumRadio

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