interview with herb nolan, photographer


Herb Nolan is a photographer residing and working in Chicago. For five decades he has photographed a wide range of subject matter in Chicago and internationally. Most known for his photographs of jazz and blues musicians, his work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Daily News, and Downbeat Magazine. For the last eight months, I have been archiving his collection of 1,600 photographs and countless negatives. In a recent interview we discussed some of his protest photography from the 1960’s.

Tom Waits at the Victoria Restaurant ,  silver gelatin print by Herb Nolan, 1976

Tom Waits at the Victoria Restaurant,  silver gelatin print by Herb Nolan, 1976

Sandy Guttman: Tell me a little about yourself.

Herb Nolan: I was born in Evanston, IL, My family lived in Winnetka and Riverside. I went to high school in Riverside, and I studied at Bradley University where I graduated in… a long time ago (chuckles). While at school I studied journalism; there were 16 people in our little graduating class. I worked for a bunch of newspapers and magazines and now I work in a hardware store.

SG: Which magazines and newspapers did you work for?

HN: I started out at a little newspaper called the Wheaton Daily Journal. Those were 60-hour weeks, at $85 a week. I also worked as a copyboy at the Peoria Journal Star. Then I was drafted and went to Vietnam.

SG: When were you drafted?

HN: 1965.

SG: And how long were you there for?

HN: 1966 through 1967.

SG: What was that experience like for you?

HN: Guilt.

SG: Just guilt?

HN: Guilt, but interesting research on what war looks like.

SG: Did you have your camera with you when you were in Vietnam?

HN: Yes, everybody took pictures. I have a lot of color slides from then. We’re not going to archive those.

SG: When you got back from Vietnam what did you do next?

HN: I wandered around the neighborhood (chuckles), and I cleared my head. But then I went back to working as a newspaper reporter.

SG: What were you reporting on?

HN: Everything. Police, city council, school boards, boards of trustees - in the suburbs through this whole chain of community newspapers.

SG: And you took photographs when you were reporting?

HN: Yeah, often with small newspapers you took your own pictures, back then it was all film.

The Biograph Theater , Herb Nolan

The Biograph Theater, Herb Nolan

SG: When did you start taking photographs?

HN: When I was in college there was a woman that was doing black and white photography as part of her art. I saw what she was doing and said, “Shit, I like that.” So I bought a cheap camera and started doing it. It clicked. Photography was part of the journalism thing. And the Tribune used to hire me to go along as a photographer with their freelance writers. I also used to write features for the Tribune.

SG: Did you have formal training in photography?

HN: I’m self-taught. There was a class in the journalism curriculum, and those days we used 4 by 5 speed graphic cameras.

SG: What were some of your favorite things to photograph?

HN: Things you would see, people, city stuff, it depends where I was. Just images I saw and wanted to capture. Not landscapes, I’m not Ansel Adams. And here’s the philosophy, you and I could be looking out of the same window or looking at the same thing on the street, and it’s boring to you, you don’t see anything. I do.

SG: After looking at your whole collection, the photographs of the 1960’s Daley Plaza protests stuck with me. How did you end up taking those photographs? I’d read that some of those protests turned violent; did you experience any of that?

HN: No, I never got beaten up. But when I came back from Vietnam, I was extremely opposed to the war. Before I was drafted, nobody else was paying attention. I wasn’t in that group of people who was going to run off to Canada or burn their draft card because in those days nobody was doing that. The war was fought by draftees. I ended up in Vietnam, which in a way was kind of interesting. I was well schooled in the history of Vietnam. And friends of mine who had said that the war was a good thing, by the time I came back, were in all of these antiwar movements and were saying they were wrong. I went to the demonstrations. And this was after the ’68 Convention, where there was a lot of violence. I was extremely angry, because the city lied, the newspapers lied.

Photo collage of protest photograph from 1968-1969, Herb Nolan

Photo collage of protest photograph from 1968-1969, Herb Nolan

SG: Were you at the protests to report or because you were protesting?

HN: Both.

SG: How active were you?

HN: We went to a few, the big ones. There was one in Daley Plaza where I left just before the police came in and beat everybody up. That was probably late ’68 or ’69. And then there was a big march down State Street. Did you ever see the movie Battle for Algiers?

SG: Yeah.

HN: Well you know where they’d all whistle? Demonstrators in Chicago picked up on that whole thing. And then there was a gathering, when the Chicago Seven were being transferred to Cook County Jail. Phil Ochs and all the big time players were there. The march went from Daley Plaza, where the demonstration was, down to Cook County Jail to demonstrate down there.

SG: That’s kind of a far march!

HN: Well you took the train (chuckles).

SG: Oh, it’s not a literal march!

HN: No, no. But people were angry. Not everybody felt the way I did, I saw so much abuse of information and power – we still see that today. It’s all the same thing. I almost threw up when Bush decided to invade Iraq, because I knew exactly. Just channel Vietnam, my friends. Utilizing information that turned out not to be correct. I mean Vietnam and Gulf of Tonkin, you know that fake thing.

SG: If you look at what’s happening right now with police brutality in the United States, I didn’t live through your era, but it was pretty terrible.

HN: Well, it was. You know in the ‘60s you had the Freedom Riders risking their lives in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia. Studs Terkel had this great quote, where he said that in those days that’s when kids had issues other than themselves. But I don’t know how it is now. There were those sit-ins for Wall Street, and people were doing that in Berkeley and got doused with pepper spray. Police in the ‘60s clubbed people, threw them in jail. It was a little more violent. Fortunately I didn’t get caught up. I left before that happened. I was just capturing the images from that. How do I capture this, so when I’m gone, it won’t be gone?

SG: Which is powerful.

HN: Certainly a lot of people took those pictures in ’68.

Mid-cataloguing Herb Nolan's photography collection. His work is organized into three categories: Music, Travel, and Chicago/Family & Friends.

Mid-cataloguing Herb Nolan's photography collection. His work is organized into three categories: Music, Travel, and Chicago/Family & Friends.

SG: We’ve spoken at length about your photographs of musicians, how you have photographed intimate moments with Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, and Elvin Jones. And then you stopped for a period of time. HN: Yeah I quit taking pictures of musicians, because it becomes the same thing. It’s like writing about music. I figured, what kind of a career is that? And there are so few jobs. You do an intense period writing about this stuff, you really work at it. Chasing musicians around, and I’d get on the bus with them, like Almost Famous – I did that. But, in the end, the adventure is kind of over. Taking photographs is an adventure, I’m pretty shy about it, so sometimes I didn’t take pictures and I wish I had. I think about some of those images.

SG: What’s something you wish you’d photographed?

HN: I was in New York. Columbia Records had put me up in the Plaza Hotel, those were the days, man. I had a limousine at my disposal, it was picking me up to take me back to LaGuardia. And I looked out – there was Keith Jarrett, the great jazz pianist sitting on a bunch of luggage all by himself. He’s a private person, I didn’t want to disturb him, so I said I’m not going to take his picture. But then I kept thinking, why not? And as a freelancer, I’d photograph parties. One party was with Martin Scorsese and Liza Minnelli – the paparazzi crashed through. And one event was the topping off of the Apparel Center with the Kennedys and the Daleys. I got this shot of them all in a big line marching through the building. So that was an adventure.

SG: What was it like being at events like that?

HN: You claw your way through the crowd to get the picture, you want to figure out what the picture’s going to be, and not get the same thing everyone else is getting.

SG: How were you able to get the photo?

HN: I don’t know…

SG: Is that the magic of it?

HN: It’s just what I see.