Music Through the Lens

The late New Orleans photographer John Kuhlman captured musical giants with his camera.

Hank Williams and Billie Jones married in the Municipal Auditorium in 1952.

“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.”
– Denis Diderot, French philosopher

John Kuhlman, the late New Orleans photographer, was a man of such passions.

To be sure, Kuhlman earned his living peering through the lens daily at the more mundane things of life: kids on their daddies’ knees, newborns held by proud, grinning moms and weddings – there were always weddings.

These are the subjects that pay the photographer’s bills.

But the real passion that drove John Kuhlman to work late into the night without ever looking up at the clock and over long weekends that were always too short, came with names such as Pete Fountain, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, George Girard, Sharkey Bonano, Al Hirt, the Dukes of Dixieland, Pork Chops and Kidney Stew, Lizzie Miles …

“Music was his passion, no doubt,” Susan Morris says of her father’s life and work, which sometimes seemed to be one. “And he captured his love for music in his photographs. Here’s the proof.”

Mrs. Morris lays out on her dining room table hundreds of 8-by-10-inch photos of the biggest of the big names of New Orleans music. In addition, there are countless more yellow envelopes holding precious negatives of still more photos of the men and women of jazz. Upon his death in 1978, Kuhlman’s life’s work was placed carefully in a box and stuffed away in his attic. Following the death of her mother, Morris moved the boxes of photos to her closet, its contents undisturbed and unseen for 35 years.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with them,” Morris says. “They’re memories of my father, but I really don’t have his passion for his subjects or for photography. Neither do my brother and sister. After his death, we closed his studio on Canal Boulevard and tried to return all of the wedding and other photos to the people in them. These? We kept, as you can see.”

No doubt Morris had a special spot in her heart for the photos because some of her earliest childhood memories were of traipsing behind her dad and into the presence of the music makers while he shot his photos.

“I remember when I was about 6 or so, I used to go into Lenfant’s on Canal Boulevard,” she says. “Daddy would put me on a barstool and I’d just sit there watching while he worked shooting his photos. I recall seeing Pete Fountain playing and I was fascinated by him. I decided right then and there that I was going to marry him.”
 

Photographer John Kuhlman with his daughter Sue.

“Here’s Johnny Wiggs,” she says as she holds up a photo. “Here’s the Basin Street Six. Pinky Vidacovich, Lulu White, Armand Hug, George Lewis, Godfrey Hirsch, ‘Slow Drag’ Pavageau … Look, here’s Liberace when he was in New Orleans once. Santo Pecora, Hank Williams!”

Huh? Hanks Williams?

Yes, that Hank Williams of “Jambalaya,” “Kaw-Liga” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Seems the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” decided to get married to “Miss Billie Jean Jones” on Sun., Oct. 19, 1952, at the Municipal Auditorium. The wedding photographer? You guessed it: John Edward Kuhlman.

Morris holds up a “souvenir wedding program” from the event, which were sold at the nuptials for 50 cents each.

Less than three months later, Hank Williams was dead. He passed away on an icy New Years Night in the back seat of a Cadillac in Oak Hill, W.V., while on his way to a gig.

John Kuhlman lived on to photograph many more musical giants.

And his work lives on still.

And the fate of all those photos?

“Like I said, I just don’t know,” Morris says. “I’ve thought about a coffee table book, post cards to sell in the French Quarter. I just don’t know. This is a great treasure that I just don’t know what to do with.” 

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