Jim Cummins: The Forgotten Pictures Of A Music Photography Pioneer Jim Cummins was one of the few African-American photographers working in superstar rock, shooting everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Sonny & Cher. Along the way, he forgot about more than 2,500 negatives.
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The Forgotten Pictures Of A Music Photography Pioneer

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The Forgotten Pictures Of A Music Photography Pioneer

The Forgotten Pictures Of A Music Photography Pioneer

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In New York City, a trove of forgotten photographs of such music icons, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, is being displayed for the first time. The original negatives have been boxed up for decades in photojournalist Jim Cummins' basement. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Cummins' work graced more than 900 album covers.

Andrea Shea, of member station WBUR, has the story.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: For more than three decades, Chris Murray ran the Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C.

CHRIS MURRAY: To find an archive that's been lost, if you will, or overlooked, it's always a wonderful and extraordinary thing.

SHEA: Murray still curates shows and also edits books about rock and roll photography.

MURRAY: The thing I liked about Jim Cummins archive the most was the album covers. It was the vinyl long-play album jackets where I feel photography and music really had their greatest moments because they entered into literally millions and millions of people's homes.

JIM CUMMINS: Talk about getting your ego stroked. You know, you walk into a record store and you see a wall of like 50 to maybe 100 album covers that you've shot. It's kind of mind blowing.

SHEA: Talk to just about anybody and they'll tell you Jim Cummins does not have an ego. And that's one of the qualities that's made him successful.

CUMMINS: The one thing that was key with me was to be unobtrusive, not seen and not heard. You're a ghost. Especially in the studio, you really had to stay out of the way, because there was just so much tension.


SHEA: The tension was thick at the Record Plant in New York City when Jimi Hendrix and his producers were laying down tracks for this song.


CUMMINS: Between takes, you know, he'd look over at me and I was looking at him and then I'd raise the camera and then start shooting.


CUMMINS: I had the camera in a case as to where you couldn't hear it going off. You really had to play it very, very carefully, 'cause you didn't want to interrupt anything, you didn't want to interrupt the mood.

SHEA: Apparently, he didn't. Cummins got a chance to talk to Hendrix briefly, but the photographer's favorite place to shoot was arenas.

CUMMINS: There are moments within a concert that at the height of it, that that person's really into it, you know, the expression is really there.



: Thank you. (Singing) I used to feel so uninspired.

SHEA: Cummins says he took his first picture when he was seven years old growing up in Harlem. He attended New York City's famed High School of Music and Art and gravitated towards music photography. But in 1977, Cummins left music for sports. Photo editor Gary Hoenig recalls hiring him for The New York Times sports section.

GARY HOENIG: Jim came in, a very unassuming, pleasant photographer, African-American, not an easy thing to be in the '70s.

SHEA: But Hoenig says that may have helped Cummins as a photographer.

HOENIG: Look, there were still athletes who were coming out of the segregated schools of the South. There were still musicians who still couldn't play in certain clubs when they were growing up. To have somebody with them in those intimate moments who was of their culture, of their race, had to give them a comfort level that they just couldn't get with white people in those days. And I don't want to overstate the generic or the stereotype here, especially because Jim is such a gentleman and such a decent person.

SHEA: Over the decades Cummins, now 67, says he pretty much forgot about the stash of unpublished music negatives boxed up in his basement. Then, in 2012, he showed the trove to Bob Pokress of Image Fortress, a Massachusetts company that restores and digitizes photos for the Chicago Tribune and the U.S. National Archives, among others. Pokress reverently pulls a vintage magazine out of protective wrapping.

BOB POKRESS: One of the moments that I was trembling just in terms of the significance of it was when Jim pulled out the original slide behind a photo that was used in the October 1970 issue of Life Magazine that Life ran as the obituary photo a few weeks after Jimi Hendrix died.


SHEA: Cummins remembers taking that picture at Madison Square Garden, not long before the guitarist died at age 27.


SHEA: It shows Hendrix from the waist up. The musician is looking down.

CUMMINS: It's an intense picture. It's just, he's just isolated. I think there's one little light. It's a more quiet Jimi, and I wanted to get that and present that.


SHEA: That picture, and 11 others from the first group of restored negatives are now on display at the Baboo Gallery in New York City. Cummins also plans to publish more unseen images in a book.

CUMMINS: I could've sold this stuff before, OK? I would've gotten a decent price, but I wouldn't have anything now.

SHEA: Now Jim Cummins is also psyched that part of his restored collection - which contains more than 2,500 images - is available online for everyone to see.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

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