It was pure luck that Decca Records assigned Grayson Dantzic’s father as the photographer for Billie Holiday’s week at Sugar Hill in Newark, N.J., in April 1957. As Grayson has said many times, his efforts as photo archivist for his father’s work was a labor of love. The illumination of the truer, more human aspect of Billie Holiday had always been missing from previous images of her. "Yes, her true essence shone in her music," Grayson says, "but was never visual in any of the photographs taken of her."


In 1999, Grayson didn’t really know his father. They had been on family trips to support his panoramic landscape camera work, and watched the occasional football game together, but they were never really close. When Grayson became concerned about his father’s failing health he asked his then bedridden parent who he really was. His father pointed to his studio upstairs in their Brooklyn home, and said, "Look in my studio, that’s who I am."


The studio was in disarray with a lot of unfinished business. Images with Post-it Notes were everywhere, along with to-do lists and contact sheets of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ingmar Bergman and Miles Davis. At the sight of these historical artifacts strewn about, Grayson quit his hospitality career at the Plaza Hotel to become his father’s archivist, even though at the time he knew nothing about archiving. When Grayson discovered the treasure trove of his father’s work in desperate need of organizational attention, he realized he had found his life’s path.


Within a year’s time, he had his father’s pictures in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art gaining immediate recognition through portfolio reviews, then by the creation of small exhibitions. By 2002, Grayson published "Jerry Dantzic’s New York: The Fifties in Focus." This book is a smorgasbord of scenes of old New York City, from Times Square on New Year’s Eve to children playing and jazz and opera musicians, the book is a vivid pictorial of New York in the early 1950s.


Grayson Dantzic’s favorite image in the exhibition, were that of Billie holding her dog, Pepi, in front of the Sugar Hill nightclub. Later, he found a strip of negatives, with one frame in particular of Billie walking off into the night. She appears hopeful, transcendent, perhaps a metaphor for one of her sadder songs of being alone at night, not resigning to a sad place but heading into a new, hopeful world.


Don’t miss "Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photography by Jerry Dantzic" on view now at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum through Dec. 27. Grayson Dantzic will be hosting zoom lectures on Thursday, Sept. 24 and Thursday, Oct. 22. Registration is required, please see RAM’s website to sign up at fsram.org. The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum is located at 1601 Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith.


This column is produced by the River Valley Art Coalition. Our mission is to inform citizens and visitors of fine art exhibitions and educational opportunities in Fort Smith and the surrounding region. We also highlight people who make the local art scene such a vibrant and important part of our community. To send comments or for more information on the River Valley Arts Coalition contact suzie@fsram.org.