William Paul Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., attended Lehigh University, and after graduating in 1938 took a job in the advertising department of The Washington Post.
He persuaded The Post to let him write a weekly column on jazz, but the newspaper couldn't afford to send a photographer to shows.
Gottlieb decided to shoot the photos himself. He purchased a Speed Graphic press camera and learned how to use it with help from The Post's photo staff. Supplies like film and flash bulbs were expensive, so Gottlieb limited himself to just a few photos per show, carefully composing portraits of the singers and musicians.
Since Gottlieb was shooting pictures for free, The Post allowed him to keep his negatives, giving him the start of what would become a valuable library of photographs used on many album covers, posters, T-shirts and other products. He photographed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.
Gottlieb eventually quit his advertising job and began working at the University of Maryland, but continued shooting photos, writing his newspaper column and hosting radio shows about jazz. He was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943 and served as a photo officer.
After World War II, he moved to New York and worked for Down Beat, a jazz magazine, writing about and photographing the stars who played New York's jazz clubs.
As the city's jazz scene faded in the late 1940s, Gottlieb left Down Beat and joined Curriculum Films, a filmstrip company, and later started his own filmstrip company. After many years and many awards, McGraw-Hill purchased the company, retaining Gottlieb as head of a new division. He also wrote many Little Golden Books including "Laddie and the Little Rabbit" (1952) and "Laddie, the Superdog" (1954). More than a million copies of his children's' books sold.
Gottlieb compiled more than 200 of his photographs into the book The Golden Age of Jazz in 1979. It was reprinted a dozen times to meet demand. In 1995 Bill's jazz photo collection was purchased by the Library of Congress with financial support from the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund. The collection is available online and includes Bill's DownBeat columns.
Gottlieb photographs are familiar to many because for decades we have seen, and heard about, them in many contexts. Documentarian Ken Burns featured many of Bill's photos in his renowned PBS jazz series. Gottlieb photos have appeared on the sets of numerous television shows and movies, most recently in Spiderman 3. In 1994, the United States Postal Service selected Gottlieb's portraits of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Mildred Bailey, and Jimmy Rushing for a series of commemorative postage stamps. Articles about Gottlieb, or using his photographs, have appeared in countless newspapers and magazines around the world. National Public Radio has featured Gottlieb on its popular programs "All Things Considered," "Fresh Air," and "Riverwalk." A large number of record and CD covers ( >250 CD's alone) feature Gottlieb images. Exhibitions of prints have appeared in more than 200 venues worldwide, from the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden, to the Navio Museum in Osaka, Japan. The National Portrait Gallery includes Gottlieb prints in it's permanent collection. Unsurprisingly, many books about jazz have included his photographs.
To get a sense of the impact of Gottlieb's photos, read some of the many quotes about his work featured on this website.
William Paul Gottlieb died on April 23, 2006 at his home outside of New York City at the age of 89. He left behind his beloved wife of 67 years, Delia, four children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.