Photographer Leni Sinclair is Kresge Eminent Artist

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Leni Sinclair, whose photographs of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s constitute an indelible portrait of an exuberant era, will be the Kresge Foundation’s 2016 Eminent Artist.

Leni Sinclair will get $50,000 as Kresge’s Eminent Artist.

The foundation made the announcement Thursday. Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson cited her ability to “capture the enormously deep and often raw emotional energies of the time.”

“I still can’t believe it,” Sinclair, 75, said from her home in northeast Detroit. “Oh man! It’s like a game-changer, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Very few people get that.”

Sinclair’s portraits, some of which have become iconic, include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti, and Detroit jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave — who was himself a Kresge Eminent Artist in 2009. Sinclair’s work has appeared in the Fifth Estate, the Ann Arbor Sun and Downbeat magazine.

Sinclair grew up in East Germany before escaping at 18. She was married to John Sinclair, a writer and poet who was Michigan’s most visible anti-war radical from the ’60s. He also managed the local rock band MC5.

Together, he and Leni founded the White Panther Party in 1968, which later became the Rainbow People’s Party. The two divorced in 1977.

When her husband was sentenced to prison for giving an undercover officer two marijuana cigarettes, Sinclair helped organize a 1971 benefit at the UM Crisler Arena that drew Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the 1971 benefit concert in Ann Arbor for John Sinclair, in prison at the time on marijuana charges.

She was also a member of the Detroit Artists Workshop, and a co-founder of the Red Door Gallery — two institutions that helped birth the Cass Corridor artistic movement in the 1970s. But mostly she was the young woman with the camera shooting performers in Ann Arbor’s West Park or Detroit’s legendary Grande Ballroom.

“Leni didn’t just cover music,” said WDET’s Ann Delisi. “She covered the counter-culture in a way nobody else did at the time — and she did in our own backyard.”

Vince Carducci, a College for Creative Studies dean who writes and edits the online Motown Review of Art, thinks she’s sorely under-appreciated.

“Leni’s someone who should be better known than she is outside Detroit,” he said. “She is the primary photo witness of Detroit’s counter-culture in the 1960s and ’70s.”

Eminent Artists get $50,000 with no strings attached. “This is going to give me a little breathing room to finish the work I started 50 years ago,” Sinclair said. “There’s so much stuff I haven’t finished — like my archive, for example.”

Sinclair is working on an online database of her photos of Detroit musicians. Most of her photographs are now housed at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library in the “John and Leni Sinclair Papers, 1957-2003.”

Sinclair said shooting performers was perfect for a shy personality like hers.

Alice Coltrane, shot by Leni Sinclair.

“I actually don’t like taking pictures of people,” she said. “That’s why I stuck to shooting performers on stage. They don’t see me, but I see them. I couldn’t take pictures of strangers in the street. And I couldn’t shoot a wedding to save my life.”

Asked if she misses the ’60s, Sinclair laughed.

“I never left them,” she said. “I love hippies. I love that whole era. I love what happened to America when the hippies arrived. Without them we’d still get 20-to-life for giving a friend a joint — and we’d still be in Vietnam.”