Remembering a photographer who broke color barriers

January 18, 2010 3:23:36 PM PST
Back in the in the 1940s and 50s, film and photos were shot in black and white, and much of society was divided by color as well. But a photographer from New York looked beyond the black and white, seeing instead, people.

And what he saw were faces, great faces belonging to both whites and blacks. Many of them were stars. Back then, each photo would take several minutes or even longer to set up and shoot, and he became known for getting just the right look.

James Kriegsmann, Jr. has been photographing people for 40 years. These days, everything is digital. Easy to take, easy to erase, easy to correct. It is far different than when he started out, learning from his father, who used an 8 X 10 camera.

The senior James Kriegsmann was a perfectionist known for his style and subjects - entertainers, many of them African American.

"He welcomed black entertainers, and they felt welcome," Kriegsmann said of his father. "And that's why he built up that clientele."

And that was during the 1930s, when most white photographers refused those jobs. But Kriegsmann's lack of prejudice served him well, as he made a good living taking photos of music legends that endure even today.

"He knew how to make people look good, and that's what we were known for," Kriegsmann said. "Making people look good."

In the 60s and 70s, the work continued, with Motown and disco. A number of his photos were donated to the Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

Over the years, James Jr. has shot his share of musicians as well, though these days it's mostly actors. He helps them look their very best, the way his father did decades ago.

"I'm just proud of him," he said. "What he did was history, and no one did anything like that."

James Kriegsmann, Sr., died in 1994 at the age of 85. But his work lives on today, and most of his photos are now the property of Getty Images.