Veteran photographer from Hollis focuses lens on music and the arts in Queens

Hollis photographer
Courtesy of Nat Valentine

Before almost everyone on the planet owned cellphones and became instant photographers with just one click, millions of amateur photogs everywhere were whipping out their cameras and snapping pics of people and life events happening around them.

Indeed, since the Victorian era, folks have been capturing moments in time — some more creatively than others. But in the final analysis, one can say that there was always a big distinction between those who were professionals, and the rest.

Nat Valentine, 88, truly belongs in the former category. With his trusty Nikon hanging around his neck, the nearly 40-year veteran street photographer from Hollis had been focusing his lens on interesting happenings around southeast Queens for decades, and for the past 20 years, taking photos of colorful local festivals has been his obsession.

Hollis photographer
Courtesy of Nat Valentine

“Living here, I love capturing people and events. It’s energizing! Looking through the viewfinder, I go into another world,” he said. “And I like to capture a person’s emotions, so others will see that image and get something out of it.”

In a recent phone interview, the arts lover told QNS he was honored that his photos were chosen for the “What’s up, Jamaica!” installation — sponsored by the nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space — located in downtown Jamaica.

As ongoing revitalization efforts in that area continue to expand with public arts events and more, the recent unveiling of Valentine’s exhibit, which is currently on display, kicked off the eagerly anticipated, family-friendly, annual Jamaica Arts Music Summer Festival (JAMS) set for Saturday, Aug. 6, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The artist said that he hoped folks would find his photographs of previous JAMS Fests over the last 15 years inspiring.

Hollis photographer
Courtesy of Nat Valentine

You can see banners featuring digital images of his original work — highlighting past movers and shakers, as well as performers from southeast Queens, like saxophonist Craig Crawford and dancer Omar Edwards — affixed to streetlights, through mid-September, according to Valentine, who is a strong supporter of emerging Queens talent and small businesses. During the unveiling, he accepted an engraved decanter as a gift of gratitude.

Every year, festivalgoers flock to Jamaica Avenue, from Parsons Boulevard to 170th Street, for exciting live music performances on 164th Street, for the variety of unique items offered by local vendors, and the cornucopia of delicious ethnic fare.

Other draws to the festival include a farmers’ market, children’s corner, a senior spot and even classic cars. And don’t miss the traditional pre-fest live music event, the JAMS Under the Stars free concert, which will take place Aug. 5 from 6 to 10 p.m. at Rufus King Park. For more information about the JAMS Festival, visit eventbrite.com.

“Most importantly, small businesses gain a lot from these events,” Valentine said. “Even when the festival is over, folks from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Long Island may come back, visit shops and find things they need. And there are plenty of parking garages here.”

A Bronx native, young Nat and his family moved to Jamaica when he was 12. The longtime Hollis resident recalled what his neighborhood and others were like as Queens’ arts scene evolved. He also talked about meeting several rising artists and famous people as a youngster.

“Residents have been artists here for as long as I can remember,” Valentine said, adding, “Hollis is the home of hip-hop in Queens, and there were jazz artists in St. Albans from the ’40s.”

Looking back, the former Queens kid recounted several interesting firsthand experiences and noted that “Queens has kept pace with the arts,” while reminding readers that the borough is, of course, well-known as “the home of some great musicians, dancers and artists of all kinds.”

Back in the day, Valentine had met several of them. He remembered meeting the great jazz pianist and bandleader Count Basie, as a teenager.

“Back in 1949, 1950, he and his wife invited me and other teens in my neighborhood to his huge house in St. Albans and let us swim in his pool,” he shared.

He also met another St. Albans resident, jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane.

“A lot of jazz being played, a lot of different venues all over southeast Queens,” Valentine recalled. “When I turned 18, my neighborhood friends would go to popular clubs to hear up and coming artists perform in Jamaica — places like Copa City, Club Ruby, The Village Door. Coltrane played in all,” he added.

Performer James Brown also lived in the area.

Valentine also recalled that around Corona and East Elmhurst, a jazz group called the Heath Brothers was becoming popular and performing locally. They gained fame through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and eventually performed worldwide. He pointed out that the jazz program at Queens College was started by the youngest Heath brother, Jimmy. While the photographer hadn’t met them yet, while taking literature and writing courses at the college, he said that he did meet the group at Langston Hughes Library, in Corona.

Noting that he has gone through seven or eight Nikons over the years, Valentine said he’s currently using a Nikon D810. Along with his talent and skills, those cameras were behind the creation of his compelling works, which appeared locally across the borough. His photos were on display at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, a cultural arts not-for-profit; at various art fests in local schools, like P.S. 147 and I.S. 74; and in many other venues.

Recent photo projects include a conference that supports pregnant teens, in downtown Jamaica, a luncheon at a local senior center, as well as hundreds of events at Antun’s catering hall, in Queens Village —since the early 1990s. For a period, Valentine had contracts to photograph construction sites, from demolition and excavation to the completed projects.

Next up, is the upcoming JAMS Fest. He will be adding those pics to his vast collection.

The grandfather of four said that he loves listening to Latin music in his spare time, and one of his favorite haunts is a Cuban restaurant in Forest Hills called Guantanamera that has live music on weekends.

“Usually, I go with my son and grandson. We just like to hang out. We also go to local diners, like Parkside, in Douglaston,” he added.

A self-described “political junkie,” Valentine noted that he always reads The Sunday Times in its entirety, and he really likes the real estate section because he’s an architecture buff.

Someone once said, that to John Coltrane, a musician was a message-giver; perhaps, the same can be said of image-taker Nat Valentine.