Music

‘Phantom Photographer’ From the Village Voice’s Past Resurfaces in New Book

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It was the summer of 2002, and the belongings of a mysterious dead man were sitting in Jessica Ferber’s bedroom. Ferber was 22 at the time and working two jobs after graduating with degrees in sociology and photography from the University of Vermont. Her former professor had told her about a project related to a Burlington homeless man named Robert James Campbell who had passed away and left behind a trove of old photographs. Over thirteen years later, powerHouse Books will publish Rebirth of the Cool: Discovering the Art of Robert James Campbell, Ferber’s heartfelt recounting of her time researching Campbell’s life and work.

“The homeless shelter is looking for a student that might have a little bit of extra time to check out the photos,” Ferber recalls professor Daniel Higgins telling her back in 2002. However, when she was alone with Campbell’s boxes, Ferber was struck by a pang of uncertainty. “It was just really weird,” she remembers. “Right after it happened, I kind of had this instant feeling of regret. Like, ‘Why did I do this? This was such a huge mistake.’ It was a little freaky and a little bit overwhelming.”

After an initial period of doubt, Ferber decided to commit herself to the project. She left her job in a photo-processing lab and started waitressing four nights a week at a bar, the far “more lucrative” of the two positions. She spent her days acquainting herself with the materials — “big, huge, cardboard moving boxes full of undisclosed stuff” — at her disposal. She had expected a basic photo collection but was instead bombarded with all kinds of artifacts indicative of a life lived alone and on the move. Among the contents were letters, journal entries, phone numbers scribbled on bar coasters, an L. Ron Hubbard personality test (which took Ferber years to identify), and a lipstick-marked postcard that read: “Please write me.” And there were, of course, Campbell’s photographs, “all mixed up and weather-beaten.”

When asked if it was the photos or the mystery surrounding Campbell himself that convinced her to undertake the project, Ferber doesn’t hesitate. “The allure of Bob Campbell was a lot more interesting to me than the pictures,” she says. “It wasn’t like I was handed a cohesive cluster of beautiful images. In the beginning of it all, the photos were really sporadic. Nothing was labeled.”

What gripped Ferber right off the bat, rather, was the extensive intimacy of Campbell’s “personal material” and the nagging tragedy of his story. At 25, Campbell settled in New York City and began snapping freelance photographs — often of jazz musicians in the heat of performance — for the Village Voice and Downbeat magazine. When he died homeless at the age of 65 in January 2002, only two people attended his funeral.

Ferber is not an academic or a jazz aficionado — “I’m not an expert on the topic,” she’s quick to point out over the phone from Portland, Oregon, where she now lives — so the book reads less like a formal biography and more like a first-person detective story. There are more than a few similarities between Ferber’s perspective and that of a detective pursuing a cold case: hunting for documents that haven’t been touched in ages, trying to forge a coherent narrative where none seems to exist, and spending years studying the ephemera of deceased strangers.

Rebirth of the Cool opens with a foreword from Marc Myers, an author (Why Jazz Happened) and regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal. He also maintains the blog JazzWax, where he interviewed Ferber in 2012 when she was scrambling for Kickstarter funding to complete the book. “You are looking at works by a phantom photographer that might never have seen the light of day,” Myers writes in his introduction. Campbell’s work feels like a greatest-hits compendium of jazz in the Village during the Sixties: Mississippi John Hurt standing solemnly outside the Gaslight Cafe, Philly Joe Jones cracking a smile from behind his drum set at Birdland, Roy Haynes smacking a cymbal at the Village Vanguard.

As the book shows, Campbell’s images also spanned into other realms: He captured moments of creative process (Bud Powell, in the studio, leaning forward on his piano holding a cigarette), everyday street spontaneity (a group of kids playing ball in Cooper Square), and great political import (Myrlie Evers, eyes closed, stroking her head after her husband’s 1963 assassination). For Ferber, though, it’s the photographs of the Campbell family that retain a particular mystique, not least because of the devastating narrative hidden beneath their comfortable surfaces.

“It was really haunting,” Ferber says. “His family was huge. With all of his belongings, I had a hundred years — generations and generations — of these people, through Europe, and through the Second World War, and in Vermont on farms.” The considerable wealth and size of Campbell’s family makes his solitary death seem even sadder, stranger, and more unimaginable.

“Having those photos was actually the eeriest part,” Ferber continues. “Because all of these people were dead. One of them died in the war. The other ones didn’t have kids. The family just kind of stopped.” Ferber took out an ad in the Burlington Free Press, assuming some kind of close acquaintance of Campbell’s would turn up: “Vermont is a small state. Burlington is a small town. ‘Someone’s got to know this guy,’ I thought. But that ad ran and it was just nothing.”

Ferber hopes that Rebirth of the Cool will bring more information to light after its publication on December 15. Even after thirteen long, arduous years, her understanding of Campbell’s life isn’t wholly satisfying. “I’m hoping that the book might reach someone who knew Bob,” she says. “Because it’s still kind of an open-ended question. It would be nice to have some resolution. Just to have someone pop up would be great.”

Despite the vast amount of Campbell’s work that will now be printed for a wide audience — of the book’s 144 pages, at least half consist of full-page photographs — there are still numerous stages of Campbell’s short career that were left out of Rebirth. Ferber lights up at the prospect of publishing Campbell’s portraits of doctors’ offices and other unique settings in the West Village (“they’re so dated and so weird and creepy, but really beautiful”) or his “freaky Coney Island” output, like a shot of a “woman who was known as the first weightlifter.” Ferber also possesses Campbell’s photos of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the musician who inspired Oscar Isaac’s title character in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

For someone who’s worked so hard on something for over a decade, Ferber carries herself with an appealing air of humility. “I’m sure there are still items out there that are probably of importance that I wasn’t able to identify. I still don’t know enough,” she admits — sounding, once again, like a determined investigator heading to the archive room to chase her latest lead.

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