Alfred Wertheimer’s pictures of the fierce, regal, beautiful Nina Simone don’t merely capture the spirit of an artist — although, if that’s all they did, they would still be extraordinary. Instead, Wertheimer’s portraits of the singer, songwriter and civil rights activist place us directly in the path of a force of nature.
Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina in 1933) was a creative rebel, uncompromising in her craft and utterly uninterested in appeasing her audience. Her songs, and especially her singular, throaty vocals — which borrowed from gospel, jazz, blues and classical music — were challenging, even confrontational. Few musicians could be as unsettling and as uplifting as Simone sometimes was in the very same song — as when she touched the outer poles of defiance and despair in her 1968 single, “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life.” (At the time Wertheimer was shooting the portraits in this gallery, in the mid-1960s, Simone’s big song was “Mississippi Goddam” — a caustic, unsettlingly uptempo protest tune banned in several Southern states.)
Wertheimer, meanwhile, hardly shied away from chronicling what could occasionally seem like disdain in the face that Simone showed to the world. Employing what he famously characterized as “available darkness” — rather than available light — in making his photographs, Wertheimer rendered Simone as a woman both formidable and vulnerable, bolstering his assertion that one could more authentically capture a person’s true nature by shooting, as it were, in the dark.
That he was able to so sympathetically depict a figure as chimerical as Nina Simone is perhaps all the more remarkable considering that, before this, the two did not know one another. This was, in one sense, just another gig for the photographer, one for which he was hired by Anne Fulchino, Simone’s personal rep. Almost a decade earlier, in her previous position as head of PR for RCA Victor records, Fulchino had commissioned Wertheimer to make what would rightly become his best-known images: breathtaking portraits of a young Elvis Presley on the cusp of superstardom.
Here, on Nina Simone’s 80th birthday, LightBox celebrates her life and her legacy with a series of Wertheimer’s magnificent, intimate portraits. Her life was hardly an easy one. She was, it seemed, incapable of not speaking her mind — and we all know where that will get you. Her native country’s innate racism was an enduring, searing affront. (She died far from the U.S., in the south of France, in 2003). But her presence — her talent, creativity and courage — brought joy and solace to millions across the decades. We will not see, or hear, her like again.
Alfred Wertheimer is a New York-based photographer, best known for his photographs of Elvis taken in 1956. His work has appeared in publications including LIFE, Paris Match and Rolling Stone.