Pete Turner, a commercial photographer whose richly saturated color images graced the covers of hundreds of jazz albums, many of which were produced by Creed Taylor at ABC-Paramount, Impulse, Verve, A&M and, most notably, CTI, died Sept. 18. He was 83. [Photo of Pete Turner by George Jardine, courtesy of Pete Turner]
Pete’s iconic images were featured on some of jazz’s most notable albums, including Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave and virtually all of the albums on the CTI label, including Eumir Deodato’s Prelude, Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, Jim Hall’s Concierto and Milt Jackson’s Sunflower. What helped these images stand out was Pete’s rich use of color and the lamination that Creed was willing to invest in to position CTI album covers as coffee-table conversation pieces for young-adult jazz listeners. Pete’s cover images tended to feature wild animals, exotic nature scenes and geometric abstractions in lush color rather than typical jazz covers that employed hip typefaces, nocturnal urban scenes or the artists themselves.
Back in 2009, I interviewed Pete, and we had such a great conversation that he insisted I reach out to Creed, which I did. Creed and I have been friends ever since. It should be noted that Pete was a great guy—an artist with a philosophical way of looking at life and a lust for nature and the world in which we live.
Here’s my complete interview with Pete…
When bassist Ron Carter and I spoke in 2009 about his work for CTI Records in the 1970s, we both remarked how stunning the album covers were. “That’s Pete Turner,” Ron said. “Give him a call.” So I did. Like all great jazz-album photographers, Pete is as much a part of the music’s evolution and the jazz culture as the musicians themselves.
Starting with Kenyon Hopkins’s The Sound of New York in 1959, Pete and producer Creed Taylor revolutionized jazz-album cover art, ultimately altering the direction of print advertising and magazine design. Instead of featuring jazz artists on graphically designed album covers, Creed and Pete went for full-blown, color-saturated photos of African and South American wildlife, geometric shapes, shadows and other images that purposefully worked against album titles and stirred record-buyers’ curiosity and souls.
JazzWax: How did you get started in photography?
Pete Turner: I’ve always loved cameras and taking pictures. Even in grade school I had a small camera. In high school, in Rochester, New York, I was the photographer for everything, including the yearbook and newspaper. After graduation, I attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, which had a big photography department. It was near Kodak’s headquarters, so the company was always providing the school with the latest cutting-edge film, which at the time was color. I was a top student because I loved photography and had so much fun doing it. That’s where my career started. But as soon as I graduated in 1956, I was drafted into the Army.
JW: Where were you stationed?
PT: Wait till you hear this. After basic training, they asked me what I was trained to do. I said I was a photographer. So they sent me to Indianapolis to the Army Finance Center Photo Studio. There was no war on, so I was asked to photograph a general. He called me into his office and said, “Son, you don’t belong here. You belong at the Army Pictorial Center, the Second Signal Combat Team.” That sounded great, so I asked him, “Where’s that?” He said, “That’s in New York City.” The center turned out to be in Astoria, Queens, which is now the Kaufman Astoria Studios where they make movies [pictured].
JW: What was it like?
PT: Heaven on earth. They had a brand new lab, and they needed a guy to run it who knew color photography, which I did from school at RIT. I had a sergeant from Hawaii who said if I let him take credit for my work, he’d let me do anything I wanted. So here I am, fresh out of college, I knew everything about color photography and I’m running this $1 million photo lab. It was an official Army barracks, with 100 guys in a room on bunk beds. But in the morning, I’d go down to my lab and work and be happy.
JW: How long were you there?
PT: I worked there for a year and half. On weekends I’d go into the city or anywhere I wanted to and photograph whatever I thought was interesting. They called it “on the job training.” During the week, if I wasn’t in the lab, they’d send me off on assignments, like photographing rockets down in Florida. I was living a dream. And learning. And photographing constantly.
JW: What happened when you were discharged?
PT: When I got out of the service, I moved into Manhattan and got a job with a company called the Freelance Photographers Guild. They soon got me an incredible assignment for Airstream, the trailer company, to photograph a group of people traveling overland from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo in their silver vehicles, something that had never been done before. National Geographic provided me with all of the color film. On this trip, big oil tanker trucks followed us because there weren’t any gas stations. We had 43 trailers creeping up Africa—and pre-independent Africa at the time. That was a big deal.
JW: When did you return to New York?
PT: About seven months later. By then, I had put together an amazing portfolio, since I had shot so many photographs in Africa. When I returned, I’d go up to Holiday, Esquire, Sports Illustrated and other magazines to show them a tray of my slides in hopes of getting assignments. I was just 26 years old, and they couldn’t believe my portfolio. Color was brand new, and my portfolio was all color. So I was considered hot.
JW: When did you get a call from record producer Creed Taylor?
PT: I didn’t. On the weekends, when I was in the Army, I used to go into Manhattan. I’d take photographs for my portfolio and then go to record stores and look through the bins. I thought record covers were pretty interesting. Each time I’d run through the albums, I’d see head shot after head shot on the covers. But every so often, an album cover would stand out. When I’d turn the album over to see what was going on, the album had Creed Taylor’s name on the back [pictured above]. I said to myself, “Gee I’d love to meet this guy. But he’d probably never want to meet me.” So on a lark, I called him up at ABC Paramount in late 1958 or early 1959. In those days, you could still get powerful people on the phone. We spoke, and I made an appointment to see him. When Creed and I met, I showed him my portfolio, and he liked what he saw. I had been working on weekends on a theme, “The Mood of New York at Dawn.” They were photos of quiet New York, in the snow and things like that. The photo series was for my portfolio.
JW: What did Creed say?
PT: Creed said he was doing an album called The Sound of New York and that one of the photos in my portfolio would be great for the cover. It’s the image of a traffic light against the Empire Sate Building. The image is so quiet. Creed loved the contrast. He loved using images that clashed with the theme of albums or provoked thought.
JW: Did you move with Creed to Impulse Records?
PT: Yes. I shot Count Basie, two John Coltrane albums, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth and many others for Creed there. Coltrane was very quiet and a nice guy. I photographed him at his house. His wife was there, too.
JW: Which jazz artist stands out most in your mind?
PT: Probably Wes Montgomery. In 1968 he sat for me at my smaller studio on 33d St. for about an hour and never complained. The photo shoot was for the back of Road Song. He left my studio, and then a short time later he died. I couldn’t believe it. The album was recorded in May 1968. We did the shoot in late May or June, and he died in June. I couldn’t believe it [pause]. I was young, and death wasn’t around me. He was really too young to go.
JW: How did you ever get that studio?
PT: I had to pay a lot of key money. But it was worth it. The musicians loved coming to Carnegie Hall to be photographed. But that had nothing to do with why I had that space. The studio had great northern light, and photo studios that size were hard to come by.
JW: What was the first big turning point in your cover art career?
PT: The first jazz album that pushed the “head shot” trend in another direction was the cover I photographed for Stan Getz’s Focus album in 1961. It was a transitional cover. I photographed Stan at one of his rehearsal sessions. I put a bright light behind his profile while he had his sax in his mouth. The light blurred him in silhouette and produced a great mood.
JW: But it was still a head shot. When did your cover themes become more iconic?
PT: When Creed became the jazz arm of A&M records in 1967, he thought we should get away from doing any sort of head shot on the covers. He thought too many covers looked alike. In 1967, he told me he wanted to produce a gatefold album you could open up and put it on your tabletop to see a bigger picture.
JW: Which album was it?
PT: During a meeting Creed said he was finishing an album with Antonio Carlos Jobim called Wave. I had no idea what the music sounded like, which was the case almost all the time. They’d always be recording or mixing the album when the cover was being created. For Wave, Creed asked me to bring in images that I thought would work. But he added, “I don’t want a Japanese wave. I want something different.” So when I got home, I went into my files and pulled a shot from my library of the red giraffe.
JW: When did you take that photo?
PT: In 1964, during a photo shoot in Africa for Esso. The oil company wanted to become associated with Africa and didn’t know how to pull it off. In a meeting at Rockefeller Center, I came up with an idea to photograph an Esso fuel tanker and animal herds running along side of it.
JW: How did the executives react?
PT: They were excited. The head guy had an office so big I could hardly see him at the other end. All I remember is him saying, “Well, we hear you’re really good.” The next thing I know I had first-class tickets to Africa. I got this great big tanker and snuck it into this area and started driving around with the animals. After I got the shots for Esso, I stayed on to isolate and photograph some giraffes for my portfolio. That’s where I made the shot that’s on the Wave cover.
JW: How’d you capture the red and purple colors?
PT: That’s a whole optical thing using special filters and machinery. Actually, the album with the green cover was a mistake. They switched the plates by mistake. But I kind of like that one, too.
JW: Did Creed go for the red giraffe right away?
PT: Yes. I brought the giraffe and other images in a slide tray. As soon as the giraffe came up, Creed said, “That’s it.” So I photographed Jobim in silhouette and we put him small on the back cover with the giraffe wraparound. The rest is history. That broke the cover routine of always having the artist on the front cover. Wave established a model that we used in many of the albums that followed.
JW: So they’d tell you the album title and you’d find a photo in your library?
PT: There was no “they.” There was Creed. And an art director that I suggested to Creed.
JW: You must have had some photo library.
PT: I think I did. I’m an artist, I mean I guess I am, you know. All through my career I’ve photographed pictures for myself. If I had an assignment to shoot an oil truck in Africa—which was my idea anyway—I also was going to photograph other things for fun. You do the same thing with your blog. You don’t get compensated for it. You do it for fun. So we’re on the same path.
JW: So the lesson is whatever you doing for fun, archive it and someday someone will want it and you’ll have it?
PT: I hear that. [laughing]
JW: A Day in the Life for Wes Montgomery is an odd cover, isn’t it?
PT: Yes it is. It showed an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, with Wes on the back in a smaller image. It represents a day in the life. The mood we were shooting for is what someone feels when waking up in the morning, looking at the ashtray and saying, “This isn’t going to work.” It’s symbolic, with the lipstick on the cigarette butts.
JW: Was there any pushback on the ashtray cover?
PT: No way, man. After that album came out, you’d drive down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and look at Tower Records when they used to have all those album covers up against the wall. These albums would be popped up real big. They also stood out in the bins. That’s what Creed and I wanted to achieve.
JW: Shortly after Creed founded CTI Records in the late 1960s, he began using high-gloss covers. Was this possible due to some new technology?
PT: Actually the albums were laminated. Creed wanted those albums to be first class. He didn’t want to skimp on packaging. He realized early on that packaging was the way to go. Frankly, we could still be doing those covers if it hadn’t been for CDs. [laughing]. As soon as CDs came in, they killed the visual part of the music experience.
JW: Did they send you on photo shoots for CTI or were all the cover photos coming out of your library?
PT: Again, it’s not “they.” It was Creed. We think corporately today but back then Creed controlled it all. When you don’t do group think, you get more creative work. For one album called Soul Flutes, which featured four flutes, I couldn’t think of anything in my library that would work. I said to Creed, “What about shooting a beautiful pair of lips? Not the kind you see in Vogue. Let’s get a model with great lips and we’ll paint them so they have a really different look.” Creed said, “I love it.” So yes, I did shoot some of them.
JW: What was Creed like to work with back then?
PT: Quiet and very unassertive. He knew exactly what he wanted, and if he didn’t like something he’d let you know. But that was rare. We were always on the same page. I just liked the guy. He was straight up, and we got along fine. Ultimately, we both got what we wanted. [Creed Taylor pictured with Wes Montgomery]
JW: You and Creed took an approach with CTI that was somewhat counter intuitive—that the cover could be as artistic or even more so than the music inside.
PT: What blew me away then and still does is that listeners used to take the albums and open them up where their turntable was. They’d listen to the sounds and look at the pictures. I had a whole audience back then. It’s a shame people can’t enjoy album art any more.
JW: What’s the image on Eumir Deodato’s green Prelude album from 1972?
PT: In 1959 I had photographed a shadow at Africa’s Zimbabwe Ruins, which date back to the dawn of time. That image was already in my library.
JW: What’s happening on the cover of Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar?
PT: Back in the 1960s I had done a series for Look magazine called “Black Is Beautiful.” The image on the cover of Sugar is an outtake from that shoot, of a mother licking a baby’s foot. Some people think it’s a sexual thing, but it’s not.
JW: Which are your three favorite album covers?
PT: I’d have to say Wave, Road Song and Jobim’s Stone Flower. Antonio was a great guy. We got along really well. I once asked him to pose nude and he said no problem. I wanted an embryonic figure. So he posed in a fetus position and I shot him straight down from my balcony.
JW: Was the image ever used?
PT: No. it has never been seen. I didn’t like how it turned out.
JW: Do you have all the CTI albums with your covers?
PT: Most of them. I think there are a little over 100.
JW: How many were used for your book, The Color of Jazz?
PW: A good percentage. Ashley Kahn wrote the introduction and the content inside, Quincy Jones wrote the foreword and Creed wrote the afterward. It’s not talked about, but every image for the book was rescanned. So these are pristine images, and the reproduction is pretty darn good.
JW: Where did you come up with the idea for the book’s cover? It’s an eyeball on glazed canned peaches.
PT: That was Creed’s idea. It’s the cover of Joe Farrell’s Canned Funk album. Creed suggested I use the cover cropped because it grabs you. Creed still has those great natural, commercial, artistic instincts.
JW: Did you get all the album covers that you wanted into the book?
PT: Oh yes. I had total control.
JW: When I went through the book, I was blown away by the stories behind each image. I wanted the book to be four times larger—the Complete Pete Turner Covers.
PT: You don’t know half the hassle that publishers put me through. I had this thing turned down a few times. Publishers are afraid of their shadows today. It’s the disposable world we live in. All they’re interested in is the next title.
JW: Give me a break—it’s only $29 at Amazon.
PT: I know. It’s a lot of work to produce a book at a high level, and you don’t make a dime.
JW: People who think CTI Records were too slickly produced.
PT: Granted, Creed had a roster of musicians he used regularly. But he gave those artists a glorious opportunity to make wonderful music.
JW: Do people ever come up to you and say they like the album covers but don’t like the music?
PT: Never. I never heard a negative word about them. The kinds of comments I get are like your comments or “How did you ever get that image or color?”
JW: By any measure, your work is stunning and in many ways influenced a generation of advertising and magazine art directors in the 1980s.
PT: It all started with Creed. We had that meeting when I was a kid in the Army and he loved my work. That’s the thing about Creed. He worked with the artists he liked and formed teams that produced highly creative work. Success in the arts is always built on great teams.
JW: Were any of your covers an accident?
PT: During the Vietnam war a helicopter took me to a volcano in Hawaii so I could photograph it for a client. After the helicopter dropped me off, I looked up at the insect-like machine hovering against the desolation and photographed it. We later used the image for Kenny Burrell’s God Bless the Child. People have always thought it was taken in Vietnam. It was shot in Hawaii.
JW: Do you enjoy looking at your album covers?
PT: Yes, very much. They give me great pleasure. But I don’t connect them with the music inside. That’s because I didn’t hear the music when we were creating the covers. Creed knew what the records sounded like, but the albums were never ready for me to hear. So I don’t link the two.
JW: Do you ever look at one of your covers now and have second thoughts about the image used?
PT: A few, but for the most part I worked closely with an art director and made sure things were right from the start.
JW: It’s rare that an artist can look at his work and enjoy it.
PT: I love looking at my covers, probably because I’ve forgotten the pain that went into taking the photos [laughing].