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Remembering Don Hunstein Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

24 March 2017

Don Hunstein, who was Columbia Record's in-house photographer from 1955 to 1986, passed away in Manhattan last Saturday at the age of 88. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., Hunstein graduated from Washington University in 1950 with a degree in English. He enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Fairford, England.

His parents had given him a camera so he could send them photos from abroad. But when that camera was stolen from the barracks, Hunstein went down to the PX, the post exchange, and replaced it with a Leica M3.

On a three-day pass to Paris with his M3, he ran across a book of black-and-white candid street photographs by Cartier-Bresson. Inspiration struck.

After a year in Fairford, Hunstein was transferred to a base outside London where he joined a local camera club and took evening classes at London's Central School of Art and Design.

When he returned to the States in 1954, he moved to New York and became an apprentice in a commercial photography studio. He improved his photography skills, learning large format photography and studio lighting. He was hired as an assistant for a photographer with a studio in the Carnegie Hall building and went on location with him. One memorable shoot was a dress rehearsal of a Broadway musical.

He was famous for producing proof sheets that didn't have a single bad shot on them and for photographing musicians of every genre. Neither feat can be said to have been duplicated.

He met Deborah Ishlon, who ran Columbia Records' publicity department and offered him a job helping her provide publicity prints to the press. But he also began to taking his own photos for the company. He gradually worked his way up to the position of Director of Photography for CBS Records.

As chief staff photographer for Columbia Records during its heyday, Hunstein photographed all the big names of rock and roll, jazz and classical music. He shot in the studio and on location, going beyond publicity shots and album covers to document the cultural history of the music of the day, shooting intimate portraits of the artists as they recorded.

Those artists included Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Aretha Franklin, Thelonious Monk, Janis Joplin, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash and Barbra Streisand. Among many others.

He never bragged about the stars he knew. "I'd just like to think that I had a good eye for detail," he told music critic Jon Pareles of the New York Times, "that I captured the moment at hand. But mostly, I just did my job."

He was famous for producing proof sheets that didn't have a single bad shot on them and for photographing musicians of every genre. Neither feat can be said to have been duplicated.

He was also famous for falling in love with Dee Ann the minute she walked in the door at a small weekly gathering in a private home. "He said he saw me across the room," Dee Ann remembered in a recent interview, "as I walked in the door and he said, 'I have to get to know that person.' He came straight over to me and introduced himself and that was it."

Years later, he told her about it during intermission of the stage show South Pacific after hearing Some Enchanted Evening sung. "That's exactly how it happened, when I met you," he told her. "I saw you across a crowded room and I knew that you were the person for me."

A selection of his work was published in the 2013 book Keeping Time: The Photographs of Don Hunstein. His Web site has a few images on display as does the Rock Archive.

Thorsten Overgaard's The Story Behind That Picture: Freewheelin' With Don Hunstein recounts Overgaard's visit with Hunstein in 2014.

As Overgaard tells it, Hunstein couldn't speak by then but Dee Ann was happy to tell the stories. At the end of the visit Overgaard was able to get a last photo, posing Hunstein with Dee Ann and Joy Villa (who has since become Overgaard's wife).

Overgaard remembers, "There was only one spot I wanted to photograph him in, by the table with a large panorama window on the side. I used both the Leica M 240 and the Leica M Monochrom cameras and Don would fondle the one I didn't use with a smiling recognition of the Leica M format."

He got the shot and then had to rush out, his time up. But Hunstein waved him back to the table, a look in his eyes as if he wanted to say something.

Overgaard went back to him. "Then he took my hand and kissed it."

If only we could wave Don Hunstein back, just to kiss his hand.

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