Staying Power

To the one and only Larry Kuzniewski, who's captured the city's faces and places for nearly four decades, Memphis is home.



Larry Kuzniewski

He’s been with us through fat times and lean. He knows the staff’s spouses and kids, their pets and pet peeves. On any given day, after he comes upstairs from his studio and home, located below our offices at 460 Tennessee Street, he’ll stop at half a dozen desks to chat. There’ll be talk of Saturday’s big game or the latest local scandal. He’ll ask about weekends, catch up on office gossip, crack jokes, make new employees feel at ease. In short, he’s family, and this magazine wouldn’t be the same without him.

He’s Larry Kuzniewski, and ever since his first photo assignment — cotton fashions featuring models in flowing caftans and flaring pants —graced the pages of the April 1976 issue, the Pittsburgh transplant has been at the ready with his quick wit and trusty camera. His lens has captured everything from the whims of style to the tragedy of AIDS.

A lucky break as a teenager steered Kuzniewski toward his career. He snagged a job in a commercial photography studio, running packages between locations in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Then he went to his boss and said he wanted to work the camera. “Some of the people there laughed at me,” says Kuzniewski, “but within a couple of years, I was the number-two shooter.”

Among the studio’s big Pittsburgh accounts was Rockwell International’s power tool division. When that company moved its offices to Memphis, Kuzniewski got his second break. “The studio was asked to open a location here too. They made a deal where I had one-third of its partnership,” says Kuzniewski. “There I was, 22 years old with my own studio waiting on me, so I packed up and moved to Memphis.”

That was in 1974, and before the magazine’s launch, Kuzniewski stayed busy with corporate clients. Through one he met Jack Atkinson, a designer who a couple of years later worked with the magazine’s founder and publisher, Bob Towery. “Jack was the person who birthed the visual aspect of the first issue,” says Kuzniewski. “There, at our studio at 433 Madison, he designed it, laid it out, made it pre-press ready.” Working with him was a young intern named Fred Woodward, who held the reflector on Kuzniewski’s first shot for the fashion spread. “That’s how I met Fred and you know his story,” he adds, referring to Woodward’s four-year stint as the magazine’s art director before his gradual rise to Rolling Stone fame.

Among Kuzniewski’s early memories of City of Memphis — as it was called for two years, operating at 1545 Brooks Road in Whitehaven — were brainstorming meetings, sometimes at the publisher’s midtown house. Kuzniewski smiles today, recalling the enthusiasm bursting from that small group of staff and freelancers. Libations loosened the flow of ideas and, says Kuzniewski with a laugh, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we smoked a doobie . . . not saying we did, not saying we didn’t.”

Staying busy with his commercial studio accounts, and photographing models for Goldsmith’s, Julius Lewis, and Steinmart, he considered magazine work “my little hobby to help these guys out.” Yet he’s never forgotten the thrill of seeing his first cover on the newsstand. “That was July 1976,” says Kuzniewski, “and we were doing bicentennial kitsch.” The cover shot was Patty Towery, the publisher’s wife, sporting an Afro-style wig in red, white, and blue. “In Pittsburgh I was so excited when my first published shot ran in an ad in the Sunday paper. I couldn’t wait to see it. I felt just as excited about having the cover of a city magazine. That was a real buzz.”

He also talks of disappointments — like “the million-dollar mistake” as it came to be called. “Bob [Towery] had bought a four-color, continuous-feed press that was environmentally friendly, way ahead of its time,” says Kuzniewski. “But it never produced to the quality of traditional presses. And with the ink, there was no absolute dead-on color match.” He remembers the January 1977 cover image — a woman with her hands over a crystal ball — promoting a story called “The Psychic Boom.”

“The original was so beautiful,” says Kuzniewski. “Fred and I were so excited. Then it came off the press — about 40 percent darker than the original — and Fred went out on the back steps and cried. The press just didn’t have consistency. Sometimes a shot came out good, other times not. The machine stayed with us till we moved to this building.”

He means 460 Tennessee Street, which has been Memphis’ headquarters since the mid-1980s. By 1990, Kuzniewski had set up his studio and home in the building too. Through the years, his assignments have run the gamut.

“I loved the travel pieces, going to Florida and Colorado, doing fashion shoots,” he says — although one trip posed a challenge. It was February in Destin and so cold that the models huddled together under blankets in their bathing suits and robes — then emerged, shivering, for the camera. “We’d have the equipment set up,” says Kuzniewski, “and have to be done in about three seconds.”

On fun and sexy jobs, “people would want to go with me,” he recalls. But at least one cover Kuzniewski shot alone. This was at the home of Peter Barrosse,who for the September 1987 issue wrote “My Battle with AIDS.” Kuzniewski walked in the house and the curtains were drawn, the mood was somber. The young man was barely 30. “We talked, and he told the joke that goes, ’The hardest thing about AIDS is telling your parents you’re Haitian,’” says Kuzniewski. “AIDS was so new back then, so scary. [Barrosse] was so young. I’ll remember that shoot till the day I die.”

Another tragic cover story, “A Murder in Central Gardens,” which ran in October 2007, sent Kuzniewski to photograph the house where Emily Fisher died at the hands of her son’s drug dealers. “Nobody wanted to shoot that house,” says Kuzniewski, “because of what the new residents might think.” But those residents, Peggy and Laverne Lovell, sent the magazine a letter describing the photo as “magnificent” and “truly a great shot.

Some assignments strike a lighter note — like the trip in 1996 to Thailand, the honored country for Memphis in May. There the photographer dined like royalty and became good buds with the magazine’s reporter. “Riding the back of an elephant together makes for a real bonding experience,” he laughs. A few shots through the years led to romance, including the June 1977 “wet T-shirt cover” featuring a model in the T-shirt and scantiest of panties. “I dated her for three years,” recalls Kuzniewski, who’s still single. “Even took her home to meet my mother.”

One photo reminds him that “sometimes my mouth goes off before I know it.” The story, in November 1989, was triggered when a city school teacher accused then-superintendent Willie Herenton of proposing a sex-for-promotion deal. “He’s standing in the studio and I’m setting up lights. I say, ‘You know, Dr. Herenton, you’re my hero.’ He says, ‘Oh? How so?’ And I say, ‘I wanna have a sex scandal when I'm 49!"

Looking back over 35 years, Kuzniewski not only remembers subjects and stories. He also ticks off countless ways photography has changed, the most significant of which is this: “In the old days you had to make sure all the information or content that needed to be in that picture went from your brain into that camera — because you shut the camera door without ever seeing the image. With today’s cameras of course, the image is right there. But I’m glad I learned how to do it the way I did. And I still think that way.” He tempers his appreciation of high-tech advances with the knowledge that they can’t do everything: “I used to have to go to a shoot and take a light meter that measured light from 180 degrees of the shot. I don’t have to do that now because I can look on the screen,” says Kuzniewski. “But in some situations I know too much light is coming from a certain direction, and I need to know how much. I learned those things before technology made it easier. I had to.”

As he adapts to change, he’s grateful for what endures — his relationships with the magazine staff. “Now I do know where the bodies are buried,” he laughs. “ And if this was a drug cartel and I had to testify, I’d be given a new life in another city!”

Kidding aside, he says his habit on many days is to get up around 6 a.m., putter around his place, throw a load of clothes in the washer, work at his computer, and “finish up anything I need to do by 9:30 or 10, so I can come upstairs and bother you guys.” He’ll talk sports,
politics, theater, you name it, and he’s made lasting friendships through the years. “I love the people here,” he says. “They fill my life. And I think of the awards the magazine has won, and some of the people who have moved on and what they’ve accomplished. And the magazine has not only survived 35 years, but stayed relevant. Not many magazines can say that. It’s really pretty amazing.”

Reader Comments:
Aug 25, 2011 06:09 am
 Posted by  Money Lady

Larry is a joy to behold when he is at work -- fun, funny, skillful, artistic, passionate, creative, joyful, -- clearly a man who loves his work. If only we could all do business with people who love what they do for a living. He showed up on time for the scheduled appointment, worked his magic and was gone in 30 minutes! my kind of guy!

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