Friday, July 30, 2010

Remembering Paul Hoeffler: Master Photographer

Paul Hoeffler
On this, the fifth anniversary of his death, I thought it was appropriate to write about my friend, photographer Paul Hoeffler. Between 1997 and 2005, I was privileged to get to know Paul, a man many would consider – to use that old saw – a photographer's photographer. Not only was he a brilliant photographer, but he was also known as one of the best printers around. He could take images and in his darkroom create works of art out of less than perfect material. I got to know Paul through my job at the LCBO, Ontario's government-run alcohol retail outlet. By the time we met, I'd been working in the liquor trade for 15 years and Paul had been a professional photographer for 40. In my capacity as a Product Consultant, he came to me looking for advice. A conversation started – it was always easy to talk to him – and we quickly moved beyond customer/retailer relationship into a friendship. Within our friendship, we had an unspoken rule: he taught me about jazz music and photography and I taught him about wine (I got the better end of that deal).

Jimmy Smith
In the 1950s, Paul was in the right place at the right time. Going to school during the day at the Rochester Institute of Technology studying photography, he spent his nights at many of the jazz clubs around the city. Using his blunt charm (he suffered neither fools nor crude behaviour gladly), he managed to win the trust and respect of many of the greatest jazz artists of the day during their concert tours through his town. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong and Dizzie Gillespie, amongst others, all gave him unprecedented access in Rochester and elsewhere after he left school. In the Rochester days, the photographs weren't only because of his complete love of the music and musicians, it was also his school work assignment. That access is something, Paul told me, that is impossible today. Their music inspired him to capture, visually, what they did musically. For example, the shot of Jimmy Smith, taken from below as he plays the organ (I use the present tense here on purpose, because so many of Paul's photos feels like the action is happening right now), his cigarette smoke languidly leaves the frame, could only be achieved if the subject trusts the photographer.

Count Basie and Eddie Jones - Boston, 1960
Another great photo, that Paul told me was a nightmare to print (I know, because I wanted to buy a copy of it, but it's the only time he demurred), shows a shadowy Count Basie and bassist Eddie Jones laughing their heads off at something that has taken place just off camera (Boston, 1960). The brilliant, dark-club energy and playfulness of that picture puts you right in the centre of the action. There are other images of anonymous people living the scene that are equally evocative.

Between the 1960s and 1990s (he moved to Canada in 1971), Paul continued to work as a photographer and teacher (including stints at Ryerson University and Humber College). As musical tastes changed, his collection of stunning jazz images were gradually forgotten by most. In the early 1990s, the record label, Verve, was looking to put out a series of compilation jazz CDs. Someone remembered Paul's work and contacted him. He unearthed his photographs (and unearthed is the optimum word. Having had the privilege of visiting his and his wife Claire's wonderfully cluttered home, the room where he kept his images was a pack-rat's heaven, yet he knew exactly where everything was) and they began to appear on the Verve discs. That led him to the attention of documentarian, Ken Burns (The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994)), when Burns began production on his comprehensive 10-part documentary, Jazz (2001). Burns came knocking and dozens of Paul's pictures ended up appearing in that documentary telling the history of jazz.

Oscar Peterson's Trio
Yet with this rediscovery Paul never changed. He was always wonderfully blunt (but never hurtfully so, unless they deserved it), and he remained a very good and loyal friend. After 2000, I left the store I was working in and ended up at the LCBO's head office as a writer. Our frequent get-togethers became less frequent because I was no longer at the store. We talked on the phone three or four times a year, I attended jazz photography exhibits at Toronto galleries that Paul either curated or that featured his work. We also met up when Ken Burns came to the Indigo Bookstore at Bay and Bloor in Toronto for a signing of his Jazz companion book. Paul was there, as a photographer. Burns spotted him and introduced him to the large gathering (Paul waved shyly and then got on with his job - he took a photo of me having my book signed by Burns that I treasure to this day).

I called him around Christmas 2004 to wish him the best of the season. I got his voice mail and left a message. About a week later he called back, but I was out. He explained that he'd had a fall and broken his hip. He was recovering, but it was hard to get to the phone. He ended his message, as he did with every conversation we had, with "to be continued." It wasn't to be. I didn't want to hassle him so I decided to give him a couple of months to recover before we spoke again. For a variety of reasons, a couple of months became eight. In mid-August 2005, I opened the Sunday Toronto Star and saw an article topped with one of Paul's photographs. I thought, 'oh must give him a call, he's got something coming up.' No he didn't. It was a tribute to him as he'd died from bone cancer on July 30th (when the doctors had gone in to do surgery on his broken hip they had discovered the cancer)

Hoeffler's Billie Holiday Picture
I was devastated. I called Claire and expressed my condolences. She apologized to me because there had been a memorial party a few days before, but she couldn't find my phone number to let me know. I apologized to her for not keeping in touch. We had a brief chat that was filled with laughter and reminiscences. That's the way Paul would have wanted it. One final thought. I will always remember the story Paul told me about how he and Claire met, because it was like something out of a screwball comedy. One afternoon he had a piece of classical music playing loudly on his record player (I think it was Beethoven, but I don't remember) when his phone rang. He picked up and Claire was on the other end. They determined it was a wrong number, and as Paul was talking and about to ring off, Claire said "shut up! Is that (whatever the piece was)?" He said it was and they began to talk. She was a music teacher. It was the beginning of a long and happy marriage. There are few great and grand people who pass through ones life. Paul was one such person. I still miss him. But as Jazz Times said in a tribute, we will always have his images, and for that we can be grateful.

All photographs above, except Paul Hoeffler portrait (by Bob Lansdale), copyright Paul Hoeffler.

– David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.


  1. I was a student of Paul's at Ryerson the first year he taught there (many years ago!). Paul was a wonderful person and inspiring teacher. My 4th year at Rye was my most valuable because of him. Thank you for an excellent article.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I got to know Paul when he taught for a short period at Humber College back in the early 70's. He would hold private classes out of his home for those looking for more than the college curriculum provided. Believe me, for a small group of us that were privileged to know Paul, we got more, much more than 2 years at Humber could ever have delivered. Paul knew the power of the still image better than most and his teachings echo within me to this very day. He was a true inspiration to those that knew him.
    Thank you for this.

    1. I was also fortunate to have Paul as a teacher at Humber College.I remember our first class with Paul where he showed us his portfolio,and the print that stands out was a large sephia print of hat pins.It's print quality blew me away and to know that we were to have this transplanted New York photographer teach us was certainly a great gift.Some of the memory hi-lites with Paul would certainly be the trip to the Eastman Kodak house in Rochester including a stop at RIT.I know he had to jump through hoops to get the school on board,considering he was taking a class of twenty students out of country.Two other greats were a trip to Unionville ,Ont.(where I now reside) armed with cameras and I believe a 16 mm. movie camera,and a wonderful afternoon with Paul going to see "The Last Picture Show" movie and discussing our opinions and views afterwards.When I happened upon this tribute to Paul I was extremely saddened to know he had passed,but felt so fortunate to have spent time with not only a master of photography but also a generous human being and Teacher.I still cherish to this day a print of a green pepper I handed in for an assignment given by Paul,which is signed on the reverse---RETURN TO HOEFFLER XXX.I was overjoyed he thought it was worth having in his possession.He is dearly missed.I consider myself so very lucky.