Jack Mitchell, (1925-2013) bulging photographic portfolio of actors, writers, painters, musicians and especially dancers describes a pictorial history of the arts in the late 20th century.
Mr. Mitchell, who took hundreds of pictures for The New York Times, was both a portraitist and a capturer of complex motion. An expert in lighting, he worked mostly, though not entirely, in black and white, and he was known — by his subjects, by the magazine and newspaper editors he worked for, and by critics — as someone who could make a photograph reveal character.
He caught a surly, sensitive-looking young bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for the cover of After Dark magazine, and a glamorous, even kittenish young Meryl Streep for The Saturday Evening Post. He spent a decade photographing Gloria Swanson in virtually every circumstance possible, including on a doctor’s examining table undergoing an electrocardiogram.
Mr. Mitchell was the official photographer for the American Ballet Theater, and he chronicled the work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for decades. Posing dancers, encouraging them to leap, to stretch, to point their feet, he “had a way of either moving you into the pose or getting you into the pose and keeping you live while you were in it,” Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theater, said in Mr. Highberger’s film, “My Life Is Black and White.”
Judith Jamison, the dancer and choreographer who is now artistic director emeritus of the Ailey troupe, said in the documentary: “He pulled the uniqueness out of you regardless of whether you wanted it pulled out of you or not.” She added: “I look at myself growing up in his pictures. I look at Alvin growing up.”
Anthony Quinn, Jack Nicholson, Leonard Bernstein, Patti LuPone, Keith Haring, Neil Simon, Angela Lansbury, Twyla Tharp, Ned Rorem, Leontyne Price, Natalie Wood, Alfred Hitchcock, David Byrne, Spalding Gray, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Ann Reinking — the list of Mr. Mitchell’s celebrated subjects is seemingly endless. When he retired in 1995, he had fulfilled more than 5,000 assignments in black and white, and though he didn’t keep track of his color shoots, he photographed more than 160 covers for Dance magazine.
“I have known or know or have met most of the people herein pictured and am constantly startled how much of the ‘soul’ of each one has been captured in these photographs, and by this I mean how much each of the images is precisely the individual I know,” the playwright Edward Albee wrote in a foreword to Mr. Mitchell’s 1998 book, “Icons & Idols.” “How can Jack Mitchell see with my eye, how can he let me see, touch, even smell my experiences? Well, simply enough, he is an amazing artist.”
Mr. Mitchell, whose photographs have also appeared in Time, Life, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue, among other publications, was born in Key West, Fla., on Sept. 13, 1925, and grew up there and in New Smyrna Beach, south of Daytona Beach. His father worked for a railroad and was supportive of his son’s interest in photography, buying him an expensive (for the time) camera when Jack was in his early teens. His first published photograph subject, Mr. Highberger said, was the actress Veronica Lake, who had come to Florida doing a war bond tour.
Mr. Mitchell was a photographer for the Army in Italy at the end of World War II. In 1949, he was invited by the dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn to visit Jacob’s Pillow, the dance center in Becket, Mass., an experience that begat his photographic specialty.
“Their bodies are so disciplined and trained,” Mr. Mitchell said, referring to his favorite subjects in a 1994 interview on the occasion of the publication of “Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jack Mitchell Photographs.” “They’re accustomed to taking directions. And they have a youthful quality, maybe because no matter how big a star they are they take class every day. They are never out of school. Dancers make the best subjects in the world.”
Mr. Mitchell’s partner, Robert Plavik, died in 2009. No immediate family members survive.
Perhaps Mr. Mitchell’s most famous images were not of dances or dancers. In November 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to his small studio on East 74th Street in Manhattan, and he photographed them for The Times, an attractive New York couple in love. A dual portrait was published on Nov. 9, with a caption that quoted Lennon: “We were two poets in velvet cloaks.”
On Dec. 8, Lennon was shot and killed. People magazine used one of Mr. Mitchell’s other photos from the session for its memorial issue.
After The Times’s photograph appeared, “Yoko telephoned to ask if she and John could use the picture on their 1980 Christmas card,” Mr. Mitchell wrote in a remembrance on the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death. “I gladly gave permission. Given what happened on Dec. 8, I’m not sure if the card was ever produced.”