Leni Sinclair was born in Koenigsberg, East Prussia, and raised on a Collective Farm in the former East Germany. She escaped from there before the Berlin Wall was built, and emigrated to America with the help of relatives and settled in Detroit. While studying geography at Wayne State University in the early 1960s, she helped organize the Detroit Artists Workshop and began documenting the cultural and political history of Detroit with her camera. She soon discovered the thriving Detroit jazz clubs and by mid-decade, she also found herself amidst an explosive “Michigan Rock” scene, working with emerging artists such as the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, and Bob Seger while also serving as part of the lighting crew at the legendary Grande Ballroom.
Leni possesses a genuinely iconic collection of photographs documenting the political and cultural transformations taking place in Detroit and Ann Arbor from 1965 to 1975. Her love for music has led Leni to photograph literally thousands of musicians over the subsequent decades, covering jazz, blues, rock, reggae, African music and more. Her photographs have appeared in newspapers, magazines, books, and on album and CD covers, both in the U.S. and internationally. In 1984, with author and jazz historian Herb Boyd, she published the Detroit Jazz Who’s Who that features nearly 400 photographs of Detroit-based musicians. In 1995, she moved to New Orleans where she documented hundreds of musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, street parades, and music festivals, including the celebrated New Orleans Jazz Festivals before returning to Detroit in 2000.
In 2009, Leni had her first major museum exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and since then had exhibitions in Lille, France; in Munich, Germany; and in Lagos, Nigeria, as well as at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale, Michigan in 2014. In 2012, she and the artist Gary Grimshaw co-authored and published Detroit Rocks! A Pictorial History of Motor City Rock and Roll, 1965 to 1975. From Coltrane and Sun Ra to Howlin’ Wolf, Hendrix, and Aretha Franklin, Leni Sinclair’s images present not merely five decades of music photography, but an essential portrait of American culture.
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