September 2007 -- Few have personified the phrase “self-made man” as did legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990). The world remembers Davis for his varied and extraordinary accomplishments as an actor, singer, musician, dancer, and comedian.
But hardly anyone outside his circle of friends and family has been familiar with his photography—until now. With this hefty book, interspersed with reminisces by longtime friend Burt Boyar (who co-wrote Davis’s autobiographies Yes I Can and Why Me?), his old fans and a new generation can revel in hundreds of images that reveal yet another significant facet of Davis’s far-reaching talents.
Though Photo lacks the singular thematic focus of books published by such photographer-celebrities as Dennis Hopper and Gerry Spence, that’s no drawback for this posthumously published volume. Rather, it pulls the reader into the exciting world of nightclubs, casinos, and Beverly Hills homes in which Davis moved, mostly from the late 1940s through early ’70s. A voracious shutterbug, he took his photography seriously: his compositions are strikingly iconic, employing sophisticated use of line and form. Yet, his pictures are mostly snapshots—in the best sense of the word: they capture their subjects spontaneously, and his joie de vivre suffuses his work. Think of it as a highly stylized family album packed with candid portraits of “Rat Pack” pals Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Shirley MacLaine, as well as other famous friends like Nat “King” Cole, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Sidney Poitier, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Lewis, and Bill Cosby.
Among the more touching aspects of this book are the portraits of his actual family: his parents, his second wife May Britt and their children, and his third wife (and widow) Altovise Gore Davis. The most poignant are the many shots of actress Kim Novak, the first great love of Davis’s life, who was forced by Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn to break off their relationship (interracial relationships were strictly taboo in 1950s Hollywood, not to mention in society generally).
One photograph, despite its matter-of-fact framing, is particularly chilling. Through the window of a passenger train en route to Miami, Davis snapped a picture of an elderly white gentleman on a station platform holding a cigarette, standing before a pair of double doors over which the foreboding phrase “WHITE WAITING ROOM” is painted. Davis’s photographic abilities and inclinations were such that we see a mostly glamorous world through his eye. Thus, when we arrive at this jarring image, it’s impossible not to apprehend it from his point-of-view—and also not to feel the sense of injustice that he must have experienced in the Jim Crow South as he clicked the shutter.
As Davis’s show business career took off, many venues—even north of the Mason-Dixon Line—were happy to let blacks perform onstage; but the same headliner artists weren’t even permitted to drink at the bar, use a dressing room, or occupy one of their hotel rooms. Photographs from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and portraits of politician friends Senator Robert Kennedy and President Richard Nixon, give silent witness to Davis’s largely forgotten achievements as an outspoken civil rights advocate.
Photo is a coffee-table book that won’t spend much time on the coffee table if your living room’s guests are anything like mine. Because of a car crash in 1954, Sammy Davis, Jr., was left with only one eye. But what an eye this cat had!