Columbia Calling: The incredible story of Don Hunstein, Columbia Records' in-house photographer


8 June 2015


From the early 1950s to the 1980s, Columbia Records’ studios hosted a selection of the world’s best musicians, with legends like Janis Joplin, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Simon and Garfunkel strolling along its corridors and recording songs that would go on to become some of the pillars of modern music. Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records from 1956 to 1971 was clever enough to recognise the cultural history that was being made on the premises and decided to hire an in-house photographer who could document his musicians at work. That man was Don Hunstein, and he worked at Columbia from 1955 until 1986, amassing an archive of over 100,000 photos.

We wanted to talk to Don about his career, his ability to capture the artists as they would want to be perceived, and the things he learnt along the way. When we got in touch through his site though, his wife DeeAnne replied saying that unfortunately Don has Alzheimer’s disease and would not be able to take part in the interview. She then added that she had been married to Don since the mid-1960s and would happily tell us everything we wanted to know of his career through her own eyes.

DeeAnne Hunstein lives in New York and runs her own music management company, in between caring for Don at home and being his biggest fan. She met Don when she was 26-years-old shortly after arriving in New York with the intention to become a music writer. “I started to going to a soirée that was held every Friday at the home of a man who published something called The American Record Guide. It had been suggested that I could meet people there in the music world, and one of the people I met was Don. I didn’t get a job out of it, but I could say I got a long-term marriage. From the moment we met we just knew that it was meant to be.”


Miles Davis

After they were married Don and DeeAnne set off to London for their honeymoon where they famously spent time larking around and photographing the young and exciting Simon and Garfunkel. “They were running around Hyde Park with capes flying around them and there were a couple of famous pictures of them taken that day that ended up on album covers. That was the beginning of our honeymoon, then we went on to France and spent our first week there – paid for by Columbia Records of course!”

It sounds idyllic but DeeAnne insists that at the time Don’s job wasn’t seen as especially glamorous, despite him hanging out with the likes of Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett and some of the most iconic jazz musicians in history on a day-to-day basis. “He was a working photographer,” DeeAnne said. “It was only after David Hemmings did Blow Up that suddenly being a photographer became glamourised, but before that he wasn’t a celebrity. People knew him and they liked him but he was always in his working clothes: we would go along to these fancy receptions and he was just in his jeans, carrying his photo bag.”

This wallflower nature allowed Don to photograph in a unique way. “He knew when not to be obtrusive. A lot of people see photographers as being invasive of their space and they don’t want them around, but Don knew how to be very discreet and would never make them feel that they were being pushed in any way. He was always so funny and full of jokes and humour so people just loved having him there. He put them at ease.”

This easygoing personality and ability to make everyone laugh led Don to be invited into the New York apartment of the up-and-coming Bob Dylan. Don hung out with Bob and snapped away while he smoked cigarettes, played his guitar on his bed, messed around with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo and tried on a number of different hats. His photos would go on to be the stuff of legend, particularly the shot of Dylan and Rotolo cuddled up together on a frozen New York street, eventually used as the cover for Dylan’s groundbreaking album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

“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,” DeeAnne told us. “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.”


Johnny Cash

From the late 1950s onwards Don was photographing Johnny Cash in the Columbia studios, documenting his journey from country music poster boy through his much-publicised fall from grace, and slow climb back to global fame. Cash, who notoriously – and sometimes violently – spurned journalists and photographers, got on so well with Don that he invited him back to his farm where Don captured him most at ease, fishing with his family on a canoe or tuning his guitar in his wood-panelled living room. Sometimes Don’s photos have such an unobtrusive quality that you feel guilty for looking at them, like you don’t deserve to be in that quiet dressing room with Johnny, or to see him rub his sleepy face during a long recording session. But Don allows you to be there. “Being a photographer is about being able to capture the exact meaningful moment that will resonate with people who see it. It’s the way things combine.

Don has a wonderful way – even when he’s doing street scenes – of being able to capture the exact moment when something unique happens,” says DeeAnne. “For instance in one of my favourite pictures of his, he was photographing a Puerto Rican girl who was all dressed up to be a prom queen. She was leaning on this big console television set and suddenly there’s a picture of a campaigning Bobby Kennedy on that set and you see the picture next to her colourful outfit and just the juxtaposition of that… Of course we all know what happened to Bobby Kennedy in that campaign – he got shot and killed. Don has a way of being able to capture those moments and that’s his talent. That’s what it’s all about.”

Don’s inspiration to become a photographer came from finding a Henri Cartier-Bresson book back in the 1950s. At the time he was in the U.S. Air Force and was taking photos to show his family back home the places he was visiting. Later, while stationed in London, he enrolled into the Central School of Art and Design where he studied design and typography in night school classes. It was there he discovered the work of Cartier-Bresson and, greatly inspired, started using a camera to document the city. DeeAnne says that when he came back to New York it was this new-found talent that started his career. “He had come here to learn about photography, and he got himself a job in a photographer’s studio, running errands and stuff. He met Deborah Ishlon and she hired him to organise the Columbia photo archives and then he started taking little pictures. They would send him out to get pictures here and there, and it was only then that they realised how good he was! From there on he just started getting opportunities, but it all happened just starting off in a library, helping organise the photographs. He worked his way up. He never had any formal training in photography, he never went to school or anything.” Would it even happen these days? “No,” DeeAnne says.

“He was in a unique position and he profited from the time. It’s just not going to happen again. Well, certainly the recording industry is not like it was, and never will be. And everybody’s doing their own photography.He was fortunate to be working at a time where music had a cohesiveness, an importance. And Columbia Records happened to be the most powerful and had the biggest roster of stars.”


Aretha Franklin

You could argue that it’s relatively easy to take good photographs when you’re surrounded by the kind of talent Don was. But really the quality of his photographs is more than the sum of his subjects. DeeAnne spoke of people’s incredulous reaction upon seeing his contact sheets, particularly photo historian Gail Buckland. “She had a big show at the Brooklyn Museum called Who Shot Rock n Roll? and it was all about the photographers that took the pictures we all know so well. When she first saw his contact sheets she looked at them and said, ‘There is not one bad picture on this whole contact sheet! Every single one of these pictures is good!’ And that was the way he was. Now there are a couple of galleries that sell copies of the contact sheets along with the markings because he would always mark up the pictures that he liked.”

His work at Columbia caught the attention of music publications as well as major newspapers like The New York Times. Back then there were fewer copyright regulations and a lot of Don’s images were wrongly credited by those who used them, or worse, stolen. “There was a lot of use of his pictures without photo credit and unfortunately they’ve ended up in these amorphous libraries of people who have collected pictures of famous artists and managed to make a living out of them without crediting the photographer.”

In 1989 Sony famously bought Columbia Records and with it, all of Don’s photographs. After a few years they began realising the worth of the photographs Don had taken at Columbia.

“You know for a long time we had a hard time, when Sony decided they wanted to make a little money out of the photographs and they started something called Icon Collectibles, selling some of Don’s pictures. They resented the fact that he had an independent existence but they’ve realised over time that Don is an asset, and I think now they value him as having really left behind an image and a legacy of Columbia Records that can’t be separated from the music.”

Alongside those who tried to make a few bucks out of Don’s life’s work were others who felt that the importance of his photographs deserved recognition – particularly his colleagues at Columbia. DeeAnne remembers them fondly. “There was a very nice event a couple of years ago when the people from Columbia presented him with an award. 30th Street Studio was a very famous location where many great recordings were done because it was in an old church and had wonderful acoustics. Everyone adored that place. These people started something called the Friends of 30th Street which is an association of all the people who were behind the scenes of the famous albums. They presented their first award to Don because he had made 30th Street what it was. It’s the location of many of these great pictures – pictures he took of artists not while they were recording but between takes and whatever. They gave him a beautiful award engraved in crystal and said that he had made 30th Street ‘live in memory’ because of his pictures. That was nice. A lot of people gathered for that. They came from all over to see him and it made me realise how much he was appreciated by all those people, how loyal they were to him. He had that knack with people, he’s just a nice, funny, smart guy.”


Bob Dylan

These days, Don’s health is fading due to his Alzheimer’s. But DeeAnne’s still caring for him and talking about his career to people who, years later, have realised the depth and value of his work. With her assistant Ian Cartwright she sorts through his thousands of photographs for those who request them.

“His awareness is really fading out now, which is sad. But he’s 85, he’s had a great life. The one thing people often say is, ‘Oh aren’t you nice to take care of him,’ but I wouldn’t do anything but this. He’s such a sweetheart! He still likes to hold my hand and if he has some toast with jam on it he still wants me to eat part of it, even though he’s only part there because of the Alzheimer’s. He still has his essential good, kind and generous nature. I feel that I was very lucky that night when I met him.

“In fact I have to tell you one little story – and this makes me cry when I tell it. About four or five years ago they did a revival of the stage show South Pacific. There’s a wonderful song called Some Enchanted Evening. It goes ‘Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger/ you may see a stranger across a crowded room/ and some how you know, you know even then/ that somehow you’ll see them, again and again.’ “He said he saw me across the room, 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. He’d never told me that story until we saw South Pacific and at the intermission he said to me: ‘That’s exactly how it happened, when I met you. I saw you across a crowded room and I knew that you were the person for me.’ And I had never known that. And every time I hear that song I cry because I just cannot believe it; he knew, he just knew.”

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Liv Siddall

Liv joined It’s Nice That as an intern in 2011 and worked across online, print and events, and was latterly Features Editor before leaving in May 2015.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.