Set in current-day Detroit, filmmaker Jack P. Johnson explores the life of photographer Leni Sinclair. Through interviews with the artist, we will look back at her life, including many of the historical events she has played a key role in and we will also explore the stories behind some of her most iconic images.
A love of jazz brought Sinclair to Detroit. Serendipitously she bought a camera to document her travels when she departed from East Germany in 1959 however it wasn’t until 1964 that she picked up her camera and declared herself an artist. Since then, she has collected over 100,000 images of musicians – jazz, R&B, blues, rock, African bands – locals to celebrities such as Prince, Iggy Pop, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, MC5, Stevie Wonder, Fela Kuti, and John Coltrane. Additionally, Sinclair photographed life in the 1960s and 70s Detroit and Ann Arbor – the countercultural love-ins, rallies, and protests, and the activities of the black and white panther parties, and civil rights activism. When she wasn’t photographing them, she was organizing these events.
We will tell Leni’s story with historic audio, footage, and photography, and will interview Sinclair’s friends while we continuously ask what was Leni’s role? And how did she make a difference? This project’s beginning was when a mutual friend made the comment, “John’s an old friend, but I’ve been waiting for a long time for the world to discover the “other” Sinclair. I’ve always felt that the real, UNTOLD story is Leni’s.” After some thought and research, we agreed. “In seeing her photographs, and learning more of her story, it was clear her story was more than just 1960s Detroit music. When I read about the court case and Watergate- that blew my mind,” Jack commented.
Leni is a mother, sister, daughter. She’s an unassuming woman in her 70s with a friendly, infectious smile. It’s amazing to think of the things she’s accomplished in her lifetime- and still continuing to do so. As filmmakers, we are interested in history, Detroit stories, and unknown stories in which people would be amazed once people know the facts. Leni’s story is a story of feminism. It’s a story of activism and democracy. If Leni stayed in East Germany, she would have never had a voice. Even as a young girl, she demonstrated a free spirit that could not be broken. We want our audience to fully grasp Leni Sinclair’s place in history.
As photographers, we have a level of understanding of what makes a good photograph. There is a technical understanding of equipment, both while taking the photograph and after— to fully comprehend lighting, scale, framing the subject, and to capture the energy or feeling of a moment. These techniques cannot be snapped with an iPhone and quickly shared on Instagram. There was no digital photography during the bulk of Leni’s career, and there certainly wasn’t Photoshop. She’s passionate about what she’s photographing and there’s a clear connection between her and her subject. It’s also clear that Leni loves music. Not just with her huge volume of images, but the passion she captures in each photograph.
In today’s political climate, many of the social progress fought for in the 60s (race, gender equality, freedom of the press) face revocation. By telling Leni’s story and all that it encompasses we can be reminded of the struggles fought for by many.