On a bitterly cold day, February 1963, a singer/songwriter and his girlfriend come walking down Jones Street toward 4th West Street, West Village, New York. Music echoes in their footsteps: How many roads must a man…
On either side of a snow covered Jones, a Volkswagon camper, a truck, a car and other traffic are parked up narrowing the one way road. A fresh-faced Bob Dylan, freezing in the icy weather, has his hands thrust deep into his pockets, while Suze Rotolo hangs on his arm. Unseen, photographer Don Hunstein is waiting to shoot them as they move toward him.
“This was totally Don’s idea,” DeeAnne, Don Hunstein’s wife of 50 years, told me of the iconic photograph that became the album cover for Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album. “The reason he was taking pictures at that time was because Columbia records had already issued Bob Dylan’s very first album and they knew he was on the road to being a popular artist…and they had no pictures. So, they said to Don, who was on the staff there, go down and take some pictures of him.”
What Hunstein caught that day were candid shots of a youthful and, somewhat, awkward fledgling pop star Dylan with girlfriend. In one shot where they have just stepped outside, Dylan is looking back up the steps of the apartment building toward the photographer, Suze clinging to his arm. The singer looks unsure, almost vulnerable, in these well crafted and natural photographs.
“Don went over to Dylan’s apartment, where the singer was living with his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo,” DeeAnne explained. “They were young (Dylan and Rotolo), I think she was 18, he was 20. They had a little apartment in a brownstone, up on the fifth floor walk-up. So, he took a bunch of pictures…then they went outside and it was a very cold and nasty day with a lot of snow in the street.”
DeeAnne laughs – a warm infectious giggle – as she recalls the story of her husband’s photo session.
“Suze, bundled up tight,” she continues. “ With a sweater and covered up with a winter coat and…she (Rotolo) says in her memoirs, that Dylan himself was very vain and wanted to be seen in his leather suede jacket which wasn’t very warm.”
These were the early sixties, Haight-Ashbury, flower power, the summer of love were up ahead. A ‘revolution’, of sorts, emerging from a counter culture structured around music troubadors like Dylan. The world was changing and brilliant street photography was a central part of that journey. Bob Dylan now a music legend and Nobel prize winner, was history in motion in 1963, walking casually down the street with Rotolo, the couple and the moment and the era expertly captured by Hunstein.
“As they walked toward him,” DeeAnne Hunstein is back on Jones Street, 1963. “He started shooting off pictures and because it was so cold out there they didn’t want to do it for very long. So he did one roll of black and white and one roll of colour.“
Hunstein, with his film would later make his way back, through the New York snow, to his Columbia Records photo studio on 7th Avenue, unaware that his work was destined for greatness.
“He just did it in a very short time as it was a very cold day,” DeeAnne explained. “It just so happened when he turned over what he thought were some of the best pictures with the art department, they really loved that picture of the two of them walking down the street. It became the cover for Freewheelin’ .”
She falls silent, ‘Freewheelin’ hanging delicately in the air like a cloud in a wide grey sky on the coldest of cold days.
“And now,” DeeAnne Hunstein starts up again. “It is a real iconic picture.”
Love minus zero?
It is more than just great street photography, more than ‘just’ another album cover. It is, in part, a representation of sixties youth. Two kids – could have been any two kids – making their way down through the icy winter snow of a New York street, dated and yet, simultaneously, timeless. It resonates with contemporary youth just as much as those who remember the sixties. This was part of Bob Dylan’s rise to fame, helped by the extraordinary brilliance of Don Hunstein.
“An awful lot of people know that picture and didn’t connect it with Don’s name,” DeeAnne reveals. “I think that the album cover does give him credit…but people never paid much attention to album cover photos (or)…the photographers. That still remains one of the most popular pictures and a lot of people want it. A lot of people write the story, what that picture means to them. They say, yes, it brings back part of their youth. Even young people today, they look back, it says to them : here are these young people walking…in the middle of a harsh environment. It has become a kind of symbol of youth starting off in a harsh environment, but with hope for the future.”
Later life has not been kind to Don Hunstein, he has Alzheimers. His loving wife DeeAnne cares for him and looks after him and keeps reminding people of how great a photographer he (undoubtedly) is.
“Don had a wonderful way with people, you can tell from all the pictures,” She remarks. “Don didn’t photograph him (Dylan) a lot after that. He did shoot in the studio and he went to a lot of the recording sessions, some of those pictures are really wonderful. He was very comfortable with Don”
Over 40 years later, Dylan has used another iconic Hunstein picture, this time for the front cover of his memoirs : Chronicles (Simon and Schuster, 2004). Hunstein’s street photography of Times Square which wasn’t the cover his design team originally chose, but Dylan insisted. Such is his respect for the work of the photographer.
Hunstein is also celebrated in a book of his New York street photography, New York City 1960’s (Spring Books 1962). The book includes that great street shot of Times Square used on the front cover of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. In addition there is also a book by Leo Sacks : ‘Keeping Time: The Photographs of Don Hunstein’ (Insight Editions 2013) offering a reference to the work of the photographer over 40 years
Don Hunstein’s street photography of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo is now legendary. It is a beautiful picture that has universal appeal across generations, remains rooted in music history and yet, somehow, travels and is as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.
Italo Calvino once wrote “The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, “I read, therefore it writes.” (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller). That’s a bit like Don Hunstein, because he (metaphorically) shot ‘the universe’ – including Dylan – we can, thankfully, marvel at his work.
Sadly, soon after this interview, Don Hunstein passed away. We are eternally grateful for this interview.