Expert witness: Herb Snitzer

The exhibit at St. Pete's Museum of Fine Arts reflects a lifetime of bearing witness.

Can I Get a Witness

Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Dr. NE, St. Pete.

May 5-Aug. 5

Included with museum admission.

727-896-2667. mfastpete.org

click to enlarge NAACP, 1958, Gelatin silver print. Collection of the artist. - Herb Snitzer (American, b. 1932)
Herb Snitzer (American, b. 1932)
NAACP, 1958, Gelatin silver print. Collection of the artist.

Herb Snitzer isn't a local photographer.

Although he lives in Lakewood Estates, he bristles at the moniker.

Instead, he tells me, he's a "photographer who happens to live local."

Fair enough. After all, he may live locally, but his life's work — thus far — reaches farther than Tampa Bay.

For most of his life, his work has borne witness to humanity.

He remembers taking his first photo in 1955, when he was 22, of a black construction worker leaning against a fence with his wrists crossed over the fence. Snitzer pantomimes the crossed wrists, showing how they could, to the imagination, look manacled. 

He didn't keep the photo.

"Back then nobody considered photography an art. I did. When I moved to New York, there was one photographic gallery," he says.

If Ansel Adams gave the West visual voice, and Clyde Butcher for Florida, Snitzer did the same for equality.

His work has roots in jazz; four years after his first photograph, Snitzer landed work photographing the cover of The Amazing Nina Simone. The two became friends.  

"When I met her we just fell in love," he says. "We were the same age, and we were starting out."

To Snitzer, a diminutive man in his early 80s, the struggle for civil rights is inexorably linked to jazz. 

"I think all jazz is a statement of freedom," he says. "Jazz music is basically coming out of struggle — the early jazz."

We're upstairs at the Museum of Fine Arts and, like it or not, we have an audience as we talk — several staff members stay for the interview, and it's no wonder. Listening to Snitzer talk about his work and his subjects is hypnotic. Robin O'Dell, who curated the upcoming show featuring his work, is one of the witnesses, which is fitting, as she chose the title of the show, Can I Get a Witness. 

"When I first heard it, I was [like], 'What, to police brutality?' Can I get a witness to really, whatever," he says. "It’s going to arouse a lot of questioning, which is really always good. Even though there’s a period, [not] a question mark, one could fill in..."

O'Dell selected the 34 pieces in the exhibit. There's no question we're witnessing evolution — we hope. A photograph of three young boys, one Hispanic, one black and one white, illustrate our unity. Another image — this one of Louis Armstrong, looking straight at the lens, holding the stub of a joint — hints at the struggle intrinsic in jazz. Snitzer points out the Star of David around Armstrong's neck, recalling the story of why Armstrong wore it (as a young boy, a Jewish family watched out for him, Snitzer says, and they gave him the medallion). "America Never Fails" captures a protest, and it looks not unlike photos from the more recent Women's Marches. 

Snitzer did shoot the Women's March in downtown St. Pete, but this photo is not from that. It's from a 1961 protest. 

Other photos, some from past St. Pete Pride parades, show unity and love. Snitzer's entire life, it seems, bears witness to struggle, from jazz to the Women's March. 

Not everything he witnesses is on public display. He cites a series he shot on obesity, which he chose not to publish because he felt it would too easily lend itself to mocking the subjects. Documenting life, his decision asserts, is not akin to judging it. 

He says his stature helped his career. 

"I’m a little guy, so I'm not threatening anybody. If you look at the history of war photographers, they’re all little," he says. 

He became a photographer because the way photographs show life appealed to him.

"It was a whole different way of looking at life, to document it, and I wanted to be part of it," he says, adding: "Look at the world and decide what it means to be alive and in it."

He still shoots film — he uses a Nikon B90. Digital, he says, is too common. Everyone can do it, or thinks they can. For new photographers who want to bear their own witness, he has some advice — and some questions. 

"I mean, why do you want to photograph? I ask young people that. It’s a hard life, unless you want to do fashion, and then it’s even harder. Most young people can’t give me an answer. Well, an answer that has any kind of depth to it," he says. "That sounds elitist, and I don’t mean it that way."  

A look at his life's work would tell you as much. 

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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