My 13-Year Mission to Save Jazz Photography
Chasing the ghost of Robert James Campbell
By Jessica Ferber
On the eve of the release of my book, Rebirth of the Cool-Discovering the Art of Robert James Campbell, I’ve been reflecting on my 13 year journey toward publication. I think about the serendipitous coincidences that paired me with this project when I was 22 years old, the progress and rejection along the way. But most of all I think about how it feels to be “done,” and that it’s not exactly what I had anticipated.
Rebirth of the Cool is half narrative, half photographic. It’s about a thriving photographer named Bob “Soupy” Campbell, working in the 1960s jazz era of New York City. The unique intimacy seen in his images capture a vibrant moment—a flashpoint for the culture and the heritage of New York. It’s also about a talented artist whose pathway from a fruitful career as a photographer led Campbell to escape to the West Coast in the 1970s, only to return east and die in a homeless shelter in Vermont in 2002, anonymous and alone.
I never knew Robert James Campbell while he was alive, though I’m sure that we crossed paths a few times. He was residing in a subsidized homeless shelter in the small city of Burlington, Vermont while I was a student up the hill at UVM. I probably passed him on Church Street on my way to the bar with my friends to hear the Dave Grippo Band at the Red Square. I learned years later that my friend Chris used to serve him coffee at his favorite cafe on a daily basis, after I showed him a picture of “Bob.” He told me he was always talking about playing Paul Chambers’ bass, and that he seemed to be homeless. Bob and I lived within a mile radius of each other for years as strangers with a 40-year age gap, but the universe was determined to connect us.
I first learned about Bob from my former photography professor Dan Higgins the summer after I graduated. Stunted by a failure to launch, I decided to stay in my college town and work in a photo processing lab and also as a cocktail server. My housemate at the time informed me that the photo department was looking for a volunteer to survey some materials left behind by a homeless man after his death earlier that year. There was speculation that the contents of his belongings were photographic, and they should be reviewed before getting tossed in the trash.
That was my introduction to Robert James Campbell, and in one day my life was taken over by 6 boxes of a dead man’s belongings. That was what I signed up for, and that is how we “met.” Immediately I started referring to him as Bob.
Over the next few months, my bedroom transformed into his tomb. The dresser that once held cute tank tops and cutoffs was emptied so that Bob’s stuff could move in. The surface of my desk used to have framed photos of family and friends, but it was now overtaken with towers of decrepit negatives. The speculation was true, and the contents were photographic— fading images of famous jazz musicians, civil rights activists, and haunting portraits of people on the streets of New York. It was clear that this person who died homeless was undoubtedly an important photographer and a talented artist.
Two components were tied closely together: Bob’s photography and Bob’s life story. Quickly I learned that the contents of his photography dated back to the 1950s and 60s and were primarily focused on jazz. Nothing was labeled and the contact prints that existed were illegible. In addition to the thousands of rotting negatives and prints, I found a sea of personal ephemera including family photos, journals, postcards, drawings and other relics. I sifted through his piles daily and attempted to make sense of it all. The allure and mystery surrounding this man was gripping.
The second thing that became glaringly obvious and equally strange was that this man came from a lineage of exceptionally prestigious and wealthy folks—The Nashes. I thought initially that there must be a mistake, how could this happen to someone like him? I tracked down a copy of his certified death certificate and ran an ad in the Burlington Free Press advertising his “estate.” Certain that a family member would come forward, I was prepared to wipe my hands clean, box up his stuff, chalk it up as an interesting experience, and move on.
But no one came, the ads turned up empty and it was as if he didn’t exist outside of the four walls of my bedroom. It was devastating for me to fully understand that this was someone who died completely alone. In Bob’s case it meant that every person that ever knew him didn’t know or care that he was gone. I learned that he had a VA burial, and two people attended his funeral. Two.
Of the hundreds of personal photographs, most of them were of him. I saw every stage of his life from infancy to death. I learned about his estranged family, I read his journals and the yellowed editorial pieces that featured his photography. I watched him peak in his career and unravel. His life was fascinating and sad, and the more I learned about him, the more I felt protective of what would happen to his belongings and his legacy. The project was no longer only about researching photos, it was now personal. I felt an emotional responsibility to preserve the memory of a very special person, someone I had grown to respect, admire, and care about. Robert James Campbell was not a stranger to me anymore.
After I’d gone through every piece of material from those boxes, I set out to find answers. I took a trip to Portsmouth, NH and Bristol, VT, the places where he grew up. I thought if I could find someone who knew him or his family, it would all make sense. I quit my job as a photo processor and started working full time at The Red Square as a cocktail server. I needed to keep my days free to work in the UVM darkroom and re-archive the decaying negatives. Other parts of my life became less important and interesting, and the only thing that mattered was finding Bob Campbell.
I was hellbent on getting answers; if there was a phone number on a coaster, I called it. I tracked addresses and dates from postcards to outline a rough timeline of his whereabouts. I joined Ancestry.com to create a tree of his massive family. If there were subjects in his collection that were still living, I reached out to them personally. Most of my queries went unanswered, or into the abyss of I’ll give him the message land.
The conversations with those that I did actually reach went like this: “Hi David [Steinberg] I really like your work, Seinfeld is one of my favorite shows — but I’m calling because I have several photos of you from the 60s taken by Robert James Campbell, or Bob Campbell, or Soupy Photo. Does any of this sound familiar? Do you remember him at all? He was about 5’9”? And sort of looked like a younger Russell Crowe?”
People told me I was obsessed, and friends protested that they never saw me anymore. Sure I can see how the whole thing was pretty bizarre, but to me it was my life. The photo students in the darkroom were working on regular mid-term assignments while I was playing Miriam Makeeba’s “Pata Pata” and overtaking the drying rack with images of folks that died before I was born.
That following summer I collaborated with the homeless shelter and put on a modest viewing of Campbell’s photos at a restaurant on Church Street. It was a small honor and I selected 12 images that were printable. The response was positive, and it was apparent that there was an audience larger than myself that should be seeing his work. That fall (2003) I moved back to New York, and with the permission of the homeless shelter I set out to make a book about the photographic legacy of Robert James Campbell.
My research was far from revealing any solid information about Bob, but in an effort to decipher some of the subjects in his negatives I met with anyone who was willing to speak with me, including historians at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Rutgers Jazz Institute. While I conducted my own identification process by purchasing books, and documentaries, even looking at old microfiche, it was encouraging to get some positive second opinions from pros. Nothing about Bob existed on the internet, nor did his editorial pieces.
While I officially started this project in 2002, and it is now 2015, there was an ebb and flow during these 13 years. Periods of time passed where I was vigorously researching and printing, and then stretches of non-productive dormancy, mostly comprised of discouragement, dead ends, and regular life taking over-but I always came back to it.
From what I understood about Bob it was clear he had an abiding desire to exhibit his own photography, but the obstacles that dogged him were terminally prohibitive in realizing that dream. For me, there was this always this subtle and tragic nagging feeling; the world missing out on the influential moments he documented in his time as a journalist in New York, and these pieces of our nation’s brief cultural history were rotting away in cardboard boxes. I was determined to complete what he started half a century earlier.
By 2007 I had compiled enough information about Bob’s life and printed a solid representation of his photographic archive to assemble a concept for a book. I connected with an agent who thought my project was special and unique, and she took me on as a client. We constructed a pitch that included an overview of Bob’s bio, some of his photographs, and a little bit about my experience in researching his life.
In short we were rejected by every publisher we pitched to, and the explanations varied from, “It’s a recession, we’re not doing photo books” to “So, this Jonathan Campbell, was he in a band” “Okay, so if he’s dead why does he want his work published?” It was devastating that I had come so close to meeting my goal, only to receive these lackluster responses. I started to believe I was peddling a project that was lame, and it was all in my head, and Bob’s photos were crap. I had serious doubts about the choice I made to begin this in the first place, because no one was seeing what I was hoping they would. I felt like I was back in my bedroom alone with Bob’s stuff all over again in 2002.
In becoming so emotionally wrapped up in the project, I needed to step back. I was starting to resent it and feel suffocated by this goal to publish Bob’s work. I needed to pull myself together and cultivate a more “normal life.” So I quit my day job, quit my Bob job, left New York and moved to Hawaii in 2008.
Over the next few years, I thought about Bob less and less. I took one photo of him with me when I moved, and returned his boxes to Burlington where they were living in a storage room of a municipal building. I wasn’t done but I accepted that my timing was wrong and that it would come together someday. I started a small portrait company on the Big Island called Apropos Imagery, photographing families on the beach. When people would tell me they were from New York and how cold and miserable it was, I felt grateful for the choice I made to literally run away. A friend in New York told me I couldn’t live on vacation, but I did.
Someone in Hawaii informed me about something called Kickstarter (I was living on a rock, I had no idea what Kickstarter was.) She explained that you could get funding for personal projects by offering people incentives to invest. Bingo, I felt ready to take another chance on this project with minimal risk. By that time my life had filled up with other things, the pursuit of Bob Campbell’s book wasn’t the epicenter of my world anymore. I was at peace with the idea of it not working out, and that this was really the final push.
My dear friends on the Big Island, who are gifted editors, set me up with a short video about my project which was accepted by Kickstarter. I had the green light to start a campaign to raise enough money to self-publish Bob’s work, even if it meant getting high quality inkjet prints and assembling them in a book report cover. This project had to get put to bed one way or another.
The name of my campaign was I SAVED JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHY. I called it this because of all of the times it was almost lost. I thought of Bob carrying it with him for decades looking for his own solution to get his work out, for me picking up where he left off with the very same intention. I thought about how tragic it was that I sat in the chairs across from esteemed editors and no one wanted it, or the time the basement flooded and the air tight tupperware boxes that contained precious vintage photography were floating around like seaweed and my heart stopped. I SAVED JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHY was about preserving Bob’s life story and of course his photography.
I launched the campaign in October of 2012 and surpassed my funding goal of $23,000 two months later, in December of 2012. Something miraculous happened during the campaign: people were grateful and understanding of what I was doing. They wanted to know more about Bob Campbell and his mysterious photography. They joined me, and finally I had the validation that I didn’t know I needed so badly.
The money I raised was used mostly to restore Bob’s negatives, which were so destroyed they couldn’t print directly from film and needed cosmetic repair. Panopticon Imaging in Rockland, MA remastered over 100 images to their original health and glory. Limited edition prints calendars, postcards and t-shirts were made to thank my backers for investing in my project.
I moved to Portland, OR and reconnected with my agent from 2007 who had since moved to Foundry Media + Literary. The second publishing pitch landed me in the hands of powerHouse Books in Brooklyn.
This month my book will be released, and with that comes feelings that I wasn’t expecting to feel. On our living room wall there is a vignette of photos and things I’ve collected over the years: framed photo booth strips of my boyfriend and I; pressed flowers from Hawaii; vintage world maps; and a four square of Bob in his darkroom. His light meter sits on our coffee table, as well as his tin Kodak film canisters.
In my intimate world of friends and family, “Bob” is a household name. Thirteen years is a long time to spend on anything, it’s impossible for whatever that thing is to not become enmeshed in your everyday life and conversation, or a part of your home. Those 13 years are now contained in 144 pages—an homage to the life and photography of Robert James Campbell.
There is some anxiety that surrounds releasing something precious to you into the world, for fear of how it will be received. But I don’t feel like that at all, the judgement is not what I’m afraid of. Instead I wonder, did I do this right? Did I do right by Bob? Did I choose the best photos? I am not a jazz aficionado, or a historian, or a photo buff, or even a writer. Instead I am just a person who was compelled to finish what I started a very long time ago, because I realized the most worthwhile contribution I will make in my life is getting Bob’s photography out of boxes and in front of people.
As for feeling done, I’m hoping that with the release of the book, someone will come forward and help wrap up his story, maybe even claim his property after all of these years. Until that happens I don’t consider this project finished.
Rebirth of the Cool-Discovering the Art of Robert James Campbell is published by powerHouse books, Brooklyn, NY. Available now directly from powerHouse, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.
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