Here’s the word on the Don Hunstein “Unseen Archive of Columbia Records” exhibit up at the Museum at Bethel Woods through the end of the year: It doesn’t have the crazy sense of perfected zing inherent in the last show of behind-the-scenes shots of the 1969 festival that put the Sullivan County site on the map, but it settles into one’s dreams in what may be a more effective manner. After all, its landscape is spectral at this point – the stuff of celebrity dreams – and its cast of characters certifiably epic. It seems that our thirst is now insatiable for ever more images of the young Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel or Barbra Streisand in their formative years, Aretha Franklin before she hit it huge as Lady Soul, or the eternally photogenic Miles Davis, Billie Holliday in her later years and many other jazz and blues greats who were the mainstays of Columbia for decades.
Hunstein arrived in New York City in 1954 and was hired as in-house photographer at Columbia soon after the pioneer record company introduced long-playing records, just before it expanded into stereo. It was a time when the label was working with Mitch Miller to build its roster of pop musicians, adding on the likes of Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck and Rosemary Clooney, to its older recordings by Frank Sinatra (since moved on), Count Basie and a host of symphonic and easy-listening greats. Eventually, Miller – who notoriously hated rock music – would cede control to a young Clive Davis, and in would come the Byrds, Janis Joplin and eventually the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and the Clash.
Hunstein’s job? To create the imagery that the company could use for its advertising, public relations needs and album artwork (on which a host of illustrators, including a young Andy Warhol, were also working). Suffice it to say that the young Don stayed on…and on and on, into the later years dealing with the likes of AC/DC, retiring in 1986 just before Columbia Records were sold to Sony.
The exhibit itself is made up of highlights from Hunstein’s photographs, culled from thousands of rehearsals, recording sessions and candid moments of some of the era’s most important musicians and singers. The result: a great sense of what the music scene was at one of its creative hubs, during the artform’s diversified heyday, and a pantheon of stars, from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to all those images of Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Springsteen that we now see those figures as in our mind’s eye.
The Photography of Don Hunstein: The Unseen Archive of Columbia Records, through December 31, Museum at Bethel Woods, 200 Hurd Road, Bethel (off Route 17K near Monticello); (866) 781-2922, www.bethelwoodscenter.org.