Don Hunstein’s iconic photographs have become symbols of an era. In the history of music photography, Don’s work during his 30 years at Columbia records is unsurpassed in its scope and breadth. Through his subtle humor and quiet nature, he was able to record many great moments in music history. He photographed the famous and the not so famous. Hundreds of album covers and behind the scenes work. His photographs documented a rare time when musicians spent time on their art, rather than their publicity.
Don grew up in St. Louis, MO and attended Washington University, graduating in 1950 with a degree in English. After college he enlisted in the US Air Force and was stationed in Fairford, England, and assigned a desk job. It was this assignment that allowed him to travel around Europe. He began photographing casually, taking pictures to send home to his family, and then with the help of a Leica M3 purchased in the PX, and inspired by a book of renowned street photographer Henri Cartier Bresson’s work, his hobby began to take him on a lifelong path. After a year in Fairford, Don was transferred to a base outside of London. There he joined a local camera club and took evening classes at London’s Central School of Art and Design, becoming influenced by the artists and designers whom he met there.
He returned to the States in 1954, ending up in New York City, where he eventually landed an apprenticeship in a commercial photography studio. There he honed his photography skills by mastering large format cameras and lighting. At the time, photography was, as Don put it: “ not a glamorous profession,” but it satisfied his creative side. He soon met and became mentored by Deborah Ishlon, who worked in the publicity department at Columbia Records. She offered him a job helping her run the photo library there and supplying prints to the press. As he began to take his own photos for the company, they recognized his talent, and he gradually worked his way into the position of Director of Photography for CBS Records.
Don’s most notable role was as chief staff photographer for Columbia Records during its heyday in the realms of rock and roll, jazz and classical music during the 1950’s and 60’s. Fortunately for Don, this was a time when the company was under the direction of Goddard Lieberson, who thought it important to document in photographs the cultural history of the music of their time. He had the opportunity to do far more than album covers and publicity shots, covering their recording sessions and even visiting them on their home turf. Don instinctively understood that to capture artists at their best moments, patience, trust and humility were needed. This ability to set both new comers and experienced stars at ease in his presence is evident in his photographs, which captured the intimate personal moments as well as the quintessential portraits.
Don’s access to a broad range of musicians, in a wide variety of musical styles, was unparalleled in the photographic world. Over the course of his career at CBS, he shot hundreds of album covers and documented the recording of many of the great albums in music history.
During his lifetime he explored photography as an artistic medium shooting street photography, and often experimenting with studio still lifes at the CBS photo studio into the 1970’s and onward.
“Whether Hunstein’s subjects were looking directly into his camera or going about their business while he observed them, his photos appear strictly matter-of-fact. But their straightforward reportage can’t conceal their visual elegance. “
-Jon Pareles, Keeping Time
“ That’s why he was able to capture the essence of people, because they weren’t putting on airs or pretending to be more glamorous or more important than they were. Don always said ‘They’re just people to me. I didn’t care that they were famous or they were celebrities, I wanted to get to know them.’ He wasn’t fawning all over them because they were so great. People like Johnny Cash or Miles Davis were notorious for being difficult with other people, but not with Don. ”