James J. Kriegsmann

An Eye for Entertainers: An Interview with James J. Kriegsmann, Photographer of the Rich and Famous

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, March 1987; Buddy, 1988; and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Photo of James J. Kriegsmann
James J. Kriegsmann

Start at the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street—New York City’s Times Square. Head north up Broadway, the Great White Way, named before the now-prevailing neon, when just white lights illuminated the area’s outsized billboards and theater marquees. At 46th Street, turn east. There, just steps from the garish hub of the theater district, is a plain, beige storefront studio with a large, stylized signature above the door. No bright lights are needed here, for just about everyone in show biz knows the name, James J. Kriegsmann. The spiky signature logo, faintly old-fashioned, is all the advertisement that’s needed now. His business? Theatrical photography.There’s a lot of entertainment history—and more—behind this modest façade. Since 1935, when Kriegsmann opened his first studio here, he has photographed burlesque queens, movie stars, nightclub entertainers, even politicians. Many of his clients were popular musicians. In the 1984 book by Michael Ochs, Rock Archives, a rock ‘n’ roll history in photographs, no one’s credit line appears more often than Kriegsmann’s. He was one of the original rock photographers, shooting pop stars in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, when most hits songs were still just good, clean fun. Kriegsmann’s pictures were clean compositions, too, as tightly choreographed as a Motown Review—all sequins, satin, and glamor spotlighting.

They were pretty pictures, slick publicity stills destined to illustrate some bit of theatrical news on the entertainment pages or to be showcased in theater lobbies, scribbled across and mailed to fans, and tacked to deli walls. Today, these pictures represent not only a bygone era but also the sheer talent of the man whose job it was to elevate from the ordinary to the sublime those who came to him.

Kriegsmann arrived from Austria with his widowed father, his brother, and his two sisters only days before the stock market crashed in 1929. He was just twenty. In Vienna, he had worked as a photographer’s apprentice, starting by cleaning toilets, then learning to process film, make and retouch prints, and, finally, to photograph. It was a standard, three-year routine, culminating in a studio exam.

Intending to eventually make his way to Hollywood (he never did) after settling in New York, Kriegsmann parlayed his skills into a job as a retoucher at Strand Studios, whose clients were primarily burlesque emporiums. “We didn’t have such things in Vienna,” asserts Kriegsmann, who, along with the film, was thus exposed to a lot of bare flesh.

At 77, he no longer does the photography, unless someone is willing to pay his personal fee of $1,000. He’d rather oversee the still-flourishing business—his is the oldest such studio in Manhattan—and leave the shooting to his sons, Jimmy Jr. and Tommy. Examples of his sons’ work—portraits of men and women with flawless features and a subtle glow of self-assurance—ring the street-level reception area.

Only one of the elder Kriegsmann’s photographs now hangs there, one of Cab Calloway, made when Kriegsmann was the official photographer for the Cotton Club Review, soon after it opened, two blocks to the north. With shameless hyperbole, the Cotton Club had billed him as the “famous Viennese photographer” though he had never been more than a photographer’s assistant in Vienna, and at the time had been in business for himself for only a few years.

CELEBRITY FOCUS

It’s difficult to think of a celebrity who hasn’t been flattered by Kriegsmann’s camera. He photographed Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, and Buddy Holly, among others. Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers sat for him long before their late-night shows. His glamorous photographs aided the ascent of many Motown stars, including the Temptations, the Miracles, and the Supremes.

Politicians came too. Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite portrait was a Kriegsmann. “He gave me a great compliment once. He walked in and said, ‘I have never in my life seen a studio like this!’” recounts Kriegsmann.

Having visited the Kriegsmann studio, it’s easy to understand Rockefeller’s reaction. For the past thirty years, the studio has occupied the large basement space that was once Zimmerman’s, a Hungarian nightclub and restaurant. When he moved in, Kriegsmann kept several of the restaurant’s features, adapting them to his own purposes. A wide, curving staircase, ideal for regal entrances, leads down into the studio proper. Tucked under the stairs is a full-fledged bar and a handful of little tables covered with checked tablecloths. A mural of a party of poker-playing dogs, barely discernible in the indirect lighting from desk lamps, decorates the wall above vintage banquettes.

To the left, through a doorway, stand two grand pianos, favorite Kriegsmann props. Sinatra liked the white one. Beyond are makeup stations, shooting spaces, color and black-and-white darkrooms, and printing facilities (Kriegsmann began mass-processing of photographs during World War II, printing large quantities of war-zone scenes for the government in exchange for a guaranteed supply of hard-to-get paper and chemicals.) From somewhere indeterminate, strobes flash and Top 40 music plays.

Kriegsmann says he left the bar intact because “it’s part of our business. Performers come, and sometimes they’re nervous. They need a little bit of a lift.” He tells a story of a pair of comedians who requested a pricey brand of liquor, which they sipped throughout their session. When presented with the bill for the photography, which included a charge for the liquor, they were aghast. Says Kriegsmann, “They said, “Even the Cotton Club doesn’t charge this much for a bottle!”

Kriegsmann speaks with the ease and cadences of one who has been interviewed often. No need to question him. He’s ready with a series of anecdotes well tested for entertainment value, each introducing the next. “I used to get a tremendous amount of publicity,” he says. “I was on every television show and every radio talk show.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING FRANK

Kriegsmann’s most fertile source of anecdotes is Frank Sinatra, who he photographed repeatedly throughout the singer’s early career. However, he is clearly ambivalent about Sinatra; a clash of wills eventually ended the mutually advantageous relationship “To me,” he says, “Frank Sinatra is an enigma. The man is unbelievable. Even now, with his potbelly and hair plants, he is a great, great artist. I benefited an awful lot, being associated with Frankie. No question.”

And Sinatra had the advantage of Kriegsmann’s instinct for publicity when the singer was still unknown and, as Kriegsmann tells it, still unpolished. “The first time, he came in wearing a tuxedo with no cuffs. I said, ‘Frankie, you can’t wear a tuxedo with no cuffs!’ So I got out some tissue paper and made him some cuffs.”

Just before the singer’s first smash solo performance at New York’s Paramount Theatre, his publicity man came to Kriegsmann. “‘Jimmy,’ he said, ‘this kid has got something. We’ve got to do something a little bit different.’ Well, those were the years when every performer wore a tuxedo or tails.” Instead, Kriegsmann dressed Sinatra in a sport coat and bow tie, and combed his hair loose, with one curl hanging over his forehead—a look that became Sinatra’s trademark. The picture topped the Paramount marquee throughout Sinatra’s engagement.

“At first I didn’t think Sinatra was that good,” Kriegsmann remembers of the man who took to practicing at the white piano in the then fourth-floor studio. “Then I took my wife to see him. I was flabbergasted! He had personality!”

During World War II it was Kriegsmann’s idea to photograph Sinatra at the piano, holding his tiny daughter, Nancy. The purpose: To remind the public that Sinatra was a father, and thus exempt from the draft.

MAKEUP AND LIGHTING

Kriegsmann was uniquely skilled at painting his subjects in the best possible light, literally and figuratively. Some performers needed little help on this score. Johnny Carson, for example, had “a perfect face.” Others needed corrective measures. When Sinatra was too poor to pay Kriegsmann, let alone have his teeth fixed, Kriegsmann retouched them. And he obscured the less photogenic side of the singer’s face by casting it in shadow.

Then there were the Andrews Sisters. Six years ago, Esquire quoted Kriegsmann as saying, “They sure were ugly girls.” The picture captioned with that remark belies the statement, and Kriegsmann says he was misunderstood. He points to one of the sisters. “I made her chin a little longer; I gave her a beautiful nose. I gave her lips and cheekbones. All with makeup. But they were not bad looking. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as an ugly person.”

In general, he disliked retouching. It was time-consuming, and it sometimes showed. He preferred to make alterations with makeup and lighting, before exposing the negative. “I would always try to improve appearance,” says Kriegsmann, who thus filled in hairlines, shaved jowls, sculpted noses and shaped cheekbones. “Every nose has to have a bridge,” he advises.

Like most theatrical photographers of his day, Kriegsmann worked with an 8×10 view camera. He especially liked his Deardorff, which he would adjust to lengthen a short face or to shorten a long one. In his profession, such tricks were de rigueur.

Kriegsmann’s groupings and his static renditions of classic nightclub staging were distinctive. So, too, was his lighting, which he says he learned by watching three or four movies a week. I very seldom missed a new motion picture. I used to sit down and just look at the lighting. Then I copied it.”

He used incandescent lights, never flash. He says he never used a light meter and often didn’t even bother to check the image on the ground glass, relying on instinct to tell him when the setup was perfect. He would make a few blank shots to relax the subject before he actually started exposing film.

THE BIG BREAK

Kriegsmann’s first big break involved the Flying Wallendas, one of the great circus aerial acts. It happened while he was still working at Strand Studios.

When the circus came to town, the Wallendas showed up at Strand to have their pictures taken. Kriegsmann, though still an apprentice, won the assignment by default, because the aerialists spoke only German, and he was the only staff member who could communicate with them.

So began a lifelong friendship and the steady expansion of his clientele, as the Wallendas sent other circus performers to him. But the contact briefly dimmed his interest in photography. He became obsessed with their lives and ways and decided to join the circus himself. Carl Wallenda dissuaded him, saying, “You dammed fool! Don’t do it!”

Before long, Kriegsmann left Strand and opened his own place, which he called Studio One. By the time the Cotton Club made him its official photographer, he had honed his technique to a fine edge and had built a solid reputation. Photographing black faces was a new challenge. Kriegsmann still bridles at the memory of warnings that photographing blacks would irreparably damage his career. “I said, ‘Don’t tell me that! They’re human beings like you and me. Sure, their skin may be different. But the talent they have, most of the white people haven’t got. That’s the truth.”

MUSICAL INTERLUDE

Whether they were black or white, Kriegsmann found inspiration in the musicians he photographed. Around 1953, he began writing music. “I love music,” he says. “I studied the violin. I absorbed so much music in Vienna and from all the activity here in New York that I could sit down and write without any problem. Only music. Not lyrics.”

He took an office on the third floor of the Brill Building, sharing it with two songwriting partners. This became Studio Two. Studio One remained open for photo business while he and his two partners composed music. One of their songs, “Joey,” hit number eleven on the charts. “Almost the Top Ten,” says Kriegsmann. And Mantovani recorded their tango, “Desiree.” “It did very well in the South American countries, but those were the years here when they didn’t plan many instrumentals. Mostly vocals. Finally, we had a hit with ‘The Happy Organ,’ recorded by Dave “Baby” Cortez in 1959. At that time, the disc jockeys took graft. We picked three spots—Buffalo, Baltimore and Chicago. We paid them each $150. Now that’s illegal. Then it wasn’t. About a week later, we got calls from all three of them. ‘You’ve got a hit! A big hit!’

“We were number one for two solid weeks across the country. We made so much money, we went crazy! Even today I get royalties. Not much. I couldn’t live on it. But it’s enough to buy me pretzels every day.”

FIGHTING WORDS

Kriegsmann also became a professional writer. For a time he wrote a column called “World in Focus,” purchasing space in the New York Herald Tribune to publish it. Big business and Walter Winchell, the famous columnist and radio newscaster (and a Kriegsmann photo subject) were the impetus. It served as a steam valve as well as a clever self-promotion.

He began writing it in the late Thirties, when the government froze prices. Like many small businessmen, Kriegsmann was caught off guard. But some large firms, he remembers, raised their prices just weeks before the freeze. “I was angry. I thought, ‘Why can’t I write my political views, like Walter Winchell does?’”

He did just that, starting with an editorial deploring government favoritism toward big business at the expense of the little guy. “I got so much mail you wouldn’t believe it!” After that, he published the column every Monday until the day before Eisenhower’s election to the presidency. He signed off with early congratulations to the candidate he had championed.

But songwriting and editorializing, for all their rewards, were never more than peripheral enterprises. Photography was central to Kriegsmann’s life. And the studio became a family business. “Did you see the beautiful redhead upstairs when you came in?” he asks. “That’s my wife.” Kriegsmann met her when she came in looking for a modeling job, at age 17. They’ve been married for 43 years.

Only one son has flown the Kriegsmann coop, a broker who lives in Seattle; the other two stayed with the business. Their growing interest in photography dovetailed neatly with his own retreat from the camera, coming along as the stagey, large-format portraits that were his specialty began losing favor to more candid small-format stills. The involvement of his sons, using a more up-to-date approach, allowed the studio to stay in business while many of Kriegsmann’s contemporaries faded from the scene.

In the end, there’s one last tale to tell before heading upstairs and out. “This famous comedian—what was his name?—brought me a grandfather clock. He left it here.” Kriegsmann points to the middle of the room. “It was ugly. When he went into makeup, I picked it up to move it out of sight. He came running out with this big grin on his face. He said, ‘Jimmy, you shouldn’t be carrying that thing around like that! It’s heavy. You should really get a wristwatch.’”

© 1987, 1988, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman

 

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