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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Peter Yates

When: December 21, 2023

Peter Yates
Peter Yates

Peter is a professional photographer who started as a street photographer in New York and went on to work for national magazines and newspapers shortly after moving to Ann Arbor in 1969.

Peter reminisces about some of his memorable photography assignments; the restaurants and music venues he misses; the friends and colleagues who helped him; and his time working in Ann Arbor -- at Mark's Coffeehouse, the Blind Pig, and the Ann Arbor Observer.

Browse our Peter Yates Collection

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] AMY CANTU: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:11] EMILY MURPHY: This is Emily. In this episode, AADL talks to Peter Yates. Peter is a professional photographer who started as a street photographer in New York but soon went on to working for national magazines and newspapers shortly after moving to Ann Arbor. Peter reminisces about his time in Ann Arbor, his work at The Observer, favorite venues, and the people and places that made Ann Arbor a place he'll always remember. Thank you so much for joining us today, Peter. Can you start by telling us where you were born, where you're from?
  • [00:00:47] PETER YATES: I was born just outside of Liverpool in England.
  • [00:00:51] EMILY MURPHY: I know that was where you went started your schooling. What did you initially study and where?
  • [00:00:56] PETER YATES: Well, my family moved to India when I was five, so my schooling really got going there and I spent two years in India. Then my parents returned me and my sister back to England, and they left us there and moved back to India, and I wouldn't see them for three years, so it was a different situation. I was at a boarding school, but I was at the school year-round.
  • [00:01:29] AMY CANTU: How did that shape your studies and what you decided to do with your college career?
  • [00:01:36] PETER YATES: Well, that was a long time before college. But my college career, I went to the University of Louisville and studied history.
  • [00:01:48] EMILY MURPHY: How did a history degree bring you to what you're best known for?
  • [00:01:53] PETER YATES: It had nothing to do with it. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I went into market research. I was in London and hated it and got fired and cited. I had this real need, I was a jazz fanatic and I had a real need to go to New York to listen to the jazz. I couldn't get that permission, I couldn't get the right. They changed how many people they led into the US and couldn't go in that year, so I went to Montreal instead. After a while in Montreal, I moved to New York where I could do all the jazz I wanted to.
  • [00:02:39] EMILY MURPHY: Let's talk a bit more about jazz. Talk about where you listened to the music. What drew you there?
  • [00:02:45] PETER YATES: Well, I started listening. I heard Coltrane play in England. I went to hear him play in Belgium. But we didn't get many opportunities to hear him. Of course, soon after I got to New York right at the end of 1966, although I had actually heard him play in 1966 earlier visiting from Montreal. Then in 1967 he died, Coltrane. He was lying in the church just a short place from where I was working. I went there and it was just me and his wife and the church looking at Coltrane. But my intent to move to Montreal was to get down to New York as soon as I could, which was actually eight months before I went there. Then of course, I was illegal, and I was illegal for 20 years and I was amnestied by Ronald Reagan. But in that period I was working as a photographer, I had Secret Service clearance which I should never have been given to an illegal. But I claimed to have been born in the US. They couldn't really check on things back there to find out if you were legal or illegal. I had a long career as a photographer. Photographing presidents and all kinds of meetings and without the permission to do it really.
  • [00:04:20] AMY CANTU: Now, I read that you had studied with Lisette Model.
  • [00:04:26] PETER YATES: I had started photographing in Montreal, I just bought a box camera and for the first time I got an interest. Then in New York, I went to a place called New York Institute of Photography, which was just a 10-week course. I learned a lot there and I started doing street photography around New York. Then I heard about this course of Lisette Model who is a famous French photographer who was running at the new school. I had to go and meet her in the cafe and be interviewed by her and I took some photos. She really liked my photos. She gave me the course for free if I just helped in the class. That was a wonderful experience, and we became friends. I took a day of Sunra and she took me to Krishna Murti. That was how I really started as a photographer.
  • [00:05:44] EMILY MURPHY: What did helping out in that class look like? Were you teaching or were you doing more administrative things?
  • [00:05:51] PETER YATES: No, there was really not much to do. I don't really remember, I just would stand by her in the class and move things around.
  • [00:06:01] AMY CANTU: Your initial focus then was on street photography? How would you say that shaped your vision as an artist? How did it evolve from there?
  • [00:06:13] PETER YATES: Well, that was a whole different thing that I had never done before. You had to deal with people who didn't want to be photographed. It was a way of seeing New York. That all changed when I hadn't planned to move Ann Arbor. I love New York, I had an apartment. A friend of mine who had been living in New York invited me to go and visit Ann Arbor. I was just going to go there for a couple of weeks. I sublet my apartment, that's something I shouldn't have done. They had a party and got thrown out of the apartment and all my stuff was thrown on the street. All my negatives from New York were gone, I didn't have any. I didn't have a place in New York anymore so I stayed in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:07:10] AMY CANTU: If that hadn't happened, you would've stayed in New York, do you think?
  • [00:07:16] PETER YATES: I love New York. Although, it might have been harder for me there to develop a career than it was in Ann Arbor. Because when I got to Ann Arbor I'd lucked to meet Andy Sacks. Do you know Andy Sacks?
  • [00:07:32] AMY CANTU: The photographer? Yeah.
  • [00:07:34] PETER YATES: Well, once I had a girlfriend who was playing in this band, the band that Andy was in. I went along to one of the sections that she said to Andy, Peter's a photographer too. Andy decided I could be his assistant. Andy had connections from Ann Arbor in that period in the '60s. There was a lot of attention because of all the street, the action that was going on. Andy connected with the New York Times, photographing for them. He was a great person and he became my best friend. I was his best man and he was my best man. We worked together for a while and slowly, he changed his direction in photography more away from shooting for newspapers and magazines to photographing for Getty Images. That gave me a chance to start photographing for the newspapers and magazines and all it all came from Andy.
  • [00:08:51] AMY CANTU: You had quite a lot of assignments for major newspapers and magazines isn't that right? Can you talk a little bit about some of those?
  • [00:09:04] PETER YATES: I was doing a lot of work for the New York Times and all the magazines, Time and Newsweek. Then also, I started the Ann Arbor Observer. I photographed it right from almost the beginning of the Observer. That was a great connection to Ann Arbor. I was writing for the Observer as well.
  • [00:09:28] AMY CANTU: Talk a little bit about that, was that under Don and Mary Hunt?
  • [00:09:32] PETER YATES: It was under Don and Mary Hunt, yes. I did multiple articles and I did most of the photography for many years there at the Observer. It was the greatest thing that meeting people and so many friends there just through the photography. Susan Wineberg, for instance, I met her through taking a photograph of her and later I was embarrassed to read what I'd written on the envelope where the film was and a junk collector. Susan Wineberg, junk collector. They became two of my closest friends, Susan and Blind. I met my wife, they had a weekly get-together and I met my wife there.
  • [00:10:22] AMY CANTU: What were those meetings at Susan's like? What did you discuss?
  • [00:10:26] PETER YATES: It was just a Saturday get-together every Saturday. The whole crowd of fascinating people, a lot of university professors. There was a little jazz group there, talk jazz all the time. Peter Mikolowski and I were always, my wife said she could never get to talk to me because we were always talking jazz.
  • [00:10:54] EMILY MURPHY: What was the music scene like in Ann Arbor at that time?
  • [00:10:57] PETER YATES: It was a big center of jazz. There were groups in Ann Arbor but then there were all these other bands. All the great musicians were passing through Ann Arbor. I know that there were quite a lot of my photographs that are at the library.
  • [00:11:17] AMY CANTU: We have quite a few photos from the Earle and the people that you saw there. Can you talk a little bit about that because when I see those photographs, I really envy the performers that you got to see in that venue.
  • [00:11:30] PETER YATES: Yes. I'd almost forgotten about that for a while. They were having some of the Giants of Jazz and they asked me to come and take photos.
  • [00:11:43] AMY CANTU: I wonder, was Rick Burgess a friend of yours or was he involved in some of the bookings at that time?
  • [00:11:51] PETER YATES: I think he probably was.
  • [00:11:55] EMILY MURPHY: Did you have a favorite venue to photograph at?
  • [00:11:59] PETER YATES: I think they varied somewhat. The Blind Pig was it's a very difficult place to photograph, but I worked in the Blind Pig and I love taking photos down there. There was a lot of music coming through Ann Arbor so there were so many different locations.
  • [00:12:16] AMY CANTU: You worked at The Blind Pig, what did you do there?
  • [00:12:20] PETER YATES: Well, first of all, when I was first in Ann Arbor I worked at Mark's Coffeehouse. Jerry from the Blind Pig came to me. I was a manager at Mark's which was not doing, they never made a penny. Jerry from the Blind Pig then asked me if I'd come and be the day manager at the Blind Pig. I did that for three years before I quit and became a full-time photographer.
  • [00:12:49] AMY CANTU: Before we go onto another topic I didn't know you worked at Mark's.
  • [00:12:53] PETER YATES: It was a wonderful place. We all earned the same money which wasn't much and it was, I love the place.
  • [00:13:02] AMY CANTU: I know they had chess championships and that thing there.
  • [00:13:06] PETER YATES: There was chess, yes, there was. But it never made any money and they never paid the social security that they were supposed to be paying for the employees so that you had nothing on your social security when you work. It was a quite new thing. I think there hadn't been anything quite like it in Ann Arbor before that.
  • [00:13:30] AMY CANTU: Are there any images that you took of Ann Arbor that were particularly memorable for you? Anything that you think, wow, that really captured the city in some way.
  • [00:13:45] PETER YATES: What's the restaurant that's just closing in Ann Arbor?
  • [00:13:49] AMY CANTU: Angelos.
  • [00:13:51] PETER YATES: Angelos. I wrote a story about Angelos for the Observer. One of my favorite photos was of Angelo with his friends, and he was a lovely man. We spent a lot of time.
  • [00:14:12] AMY CANTU: It's funny. I know the photo you're talking about. We have him scheduled to talk with us in a month or so.
  • [00:14:20] PETER YATES: The son?
  • [00:14:21] AMY CANTU: Yeah.
  • [00:14:24] PETER YATES: Because I know they're closed now or closing.
  • [00:14:28] EMILY MURPHY: Changing the subject a bit, but thinking about Ann Arbor, and I know you are no longer in Ann Arbor, is there a place you'd like to go back to whether it's a place that no longer exists or a place that still does?
  • [00:14:41] PETER YATES: I didn't want to leave. I loved Ann Arbor, but I was married and my wife was from Seattle. When I married her, she made a promise that if she got a job in Seattle in 10 years, we'd move and that's what happened. I'd still be there if I had my choice. My favorite place is clearly were the Blind Pig, Mark's and the very popular bar. What was that called?
  • [00:15:34] AMY CANTU: Maybe the Del Rio.
  • [00:15:38] PETER YATES: The Del Rio.
  • [00:15:38] AMY CANTU: That the one?
  • [00:15:39] PETER YATES: My favorite place.
  • [00:15:42] EMILY MURPHY: What did you like about it there?
  • [00:15:44] PETER YATES: I like the people, the atmosphere. I did a whole series of photographs on the wall there in the Del Rio.
  • [00:15:57] AMY CANTU: Wow. Between the Blind Pig and The Earl and the Del Rio, you were on that particular side of town by Washington Street?
  • [00:16:10] PETER YATES: I was. Well, I spent a lot of time there.
  • [00:16:17] EMILY MURPHY: Did people recognize you as the photographer or were you able to be more anonymous?
  • [00:16:22] PETER YATES: A lot of people knew. I was photographing so widely there that I was widely known as a photographer.
  • [00:16:30] AMY CANTU: Peter, what are your impressions of Ann Arbor from your time here? You saw a lot of the counter-cultural scene, you watched Ann Arbor become maybe a little bit less progressive over the years. What's your view of Ann Arbor politically?
  • [00:16:48] PETER YATES: I was involved in a very active left-wing action. When I was first in Ann Arbor, I was with a group that carried guns around trying to start a revolution almost. We even had a name for the Liberty Street Gang.
  • [00:17:07] AMY CANTU: Really, tell us about that.
  • [00:17:10] PETER YATES: The friend who invited me to Ann Arbor was this guy Van Newkirk. He was an extremist. He'd been very active in stuff in New York. Then he formed this gang in Ann Arbor that was trying to change the world. He was over the top. He was with the gangs and he thought that the White Panthers were in Ann Arbor doing nothing. He was much more active than they were. He'd go to the White Panthers and have a meeting with them pull out a gun.
  • [00:17:57] AMY CANTU: Wow.
  • [00:17:57] PETER YATES: He was the reason I was in Ann Arbor. I don't know unfortunately, he had very bad things happen to him, he became liberally crazy. When I was in Seattle, he was up in Vancouver, he was in the shoot-up with the police and it was in prison and he was madness. That was this thing group called the Liberty Street Gang. We had an apartment, a place on Liberty Street, obviously.
  • [00:18:28] AMY CANTU: How many people were in the gang?
  • [00:18:32] PETER YATES: Only about seven or eight, but he was always trying to expand it.
  • [00:18:38] AMY CANTU: Was it affiliated at all with the weather underground or anything like that?
  • [00:18:44] PETER YATES: Yeah, I think so, definitely. The new cook was always, when they had the rights in Chicago there. But I was not personally involved, I was living with him, he was my friend from New York and I wasn't into the guns.
  • [00:19:05] EMILY MURPHY: Did you find yourself documenting that history?
  • [00:19:09] PETER YATES: Well, yeah. I have photos of the Liberty Street gangs firing the guns off, stuff like that.
  • [00:19:18] AMY CANTU: Is there anything else about your time in Ann Arbor? How many years were you here?
  • [00:19:27] PETER YATES: Was it from 69 to 99.
  • [00:19:33] AMY CANTU: Quite a while. What's your favorite article or assignment for the Ann Arbor Observer?
  • [00:19:44] PETER YATES: Well, I guess the most, photographing Susan Wineberg led me into a whole group of people that I was so happy to meet. That wouldn't have happened without the photographing for the Observer. Susan is a real original. She's wonderful, I don't know anybody who has a bigger circle of friends than Susan. She writes all of her thoughts about the year, sends it to everybody, and even she's had an amazing collection of friends. I've never known anybody quite like that.
  • [00:20:31] AMY CANTU: She knows a lot about local history too. It's been wonderful to work with her on different projects here, she's wonderful. Is there anything Peter, that we haven't asked you about that you would like to talk about?
  • [00:20:43] PETER YATES: Well, the interesting thing about me is that I was an illegal for 20 years and I had Secret Service clearance in that time because I had to tell them where I was born and whatever was, but you couldn't check stock back then.
  • [00:21:09] EMILY MURPHY: Did it impact how you went about doing your work then? How did you feel taking on jobs where you needed Secret Service clearance knowing that you were living here illegally?
  • [00:21:20] PETER YATES: Well, it was amazing. There was one instant that was really odd. I was just asked to meet a photographer to pick up from. This was a Time Magazine thing. They wanted me to go to the Detroit Airport and get some film from this time photographer who was with the president. Jimmy Carter at the time and they just wanted me to take the film from him put it on a plane to New York and meet him at the airport. Because I had Secret Service clearance, I could do that. I went there and met the time photographer getting off the plane and he didn't have any film to give me yet, it was in the camera or something. He said, jump in the car, run by a secret service car that was following Jimmy Carter. I jumped in that and it was a New York photographer and the Time photographer, and I was seated in the middle and as we were driving following the president's car, one of the Secret Service guys turned around and said, who's the guy in the middle? They said he's a Detroit assassin. [LAUGHTER]. Then fortunately they all had a big laugh.
  • [00:22:57] AMY CANTU: Wow, that's wonderful.
  • [00:23:00] PETER YATES: I got to photograph quite a few presidents and all the time being illegal. But I had a Secret Service pass. Back then they couldn't check things like they can now. They have to go through stuck in paper if they want to find things out.
  • [00:23:20] AMY CANTU: Wow. You can't imagine that happening now. Wow.
  • [00:23:23] PETER YATES: No, it couldn't happen. No.
  • [00:23:27] AMY CANTU: Which president did you enjoy photographing the most?
  • [00:23:32] PETER YATES: The only one who I really got to talk to was the Ann Arbor one.
  • [00:23:39] AMY CANTU: Gerald Ford.
  • [00:23:41] PETER YATES: Gerald Ford, yeah. I photographed him in person and talked to him.
  • [00:23:49] EMILY MURPHY: What an interesting span of people you have met over your lifetime, from countercultural underground gangs to a more conservative president. What a lifetime of photographing. Did you continue photographing when you moved to Seattle? I know you continued to work for some of the larger organizations.
  • [00:24:14] PETER YATES: Yeah, I continued in Seattle, but the situation had changed for me so much. We had two young kids and we were living just a bit north of Seattle and my wife had to go to work every day. She was in the Archives in City Hall in Seattle. I was left with the kids, so I didn't have the opportunity to work as much, but I did continue to to photograph of the magazines and for the Times. I guess I did that until I quit in 2014. I was having health problems, multiple pneumonias and stuff, so I just quit.
  • [00:25:04] AMY CANTU: Peter, before we ask the last question, I did want to follow up on one thing. I wanted to let you know the Ann Arbor District Library has worked with the Observer, the Ann Arbor Observer. We have the entire history of all of the old magazines and we're going to be putting them up for the public to be able to peruse. We're really excited about that. I thought if you could give us a character sketch of what Don and Mary Hunt were like. What were they like?
  • [00:25:42] PETER YATES: They were very intense and they could be quite difficult. But of course, they were putting out a wonderful, it was a great product that they had there actually. But I eventually had a difficult relationship with them because I bought a house from them. After we'd come to an agreement about the price of the house, they wouldn't approve me for it and they said it was overpriced and we had to take a certain number of several thousand dollars off the price. I couldn't do anything about that, and the Hunts did it, but they were very upset about it and that affected our relationship. Before that it had been good. I was happy to be photographing for, but they were could be difficult people.
  • [00:26:43] AMY CANTU: Were they difficult because they run a pretty tight ship? Were they exacting in what they wanted?
  • [00:26:48] PETER YATES: Yeah, they were. I was sorry that the relationship didn't quite last as well as it could have been. They were of great help to me, I loved writing for the magazine and taking pictures for her and that's how I made all those connections in Ann Arbor. I wouldn't have made otherwise.
  • [00:27:16] EMILY MURPHY: Did you write stories in any particular field or did you write whatever was needed?
  • [00:27:22] PETER YATES: It was no particular field at all, just things came along and I thought, well, this would be a great story for the Observer. I hadn't done any writing before or after the Observer. But for them I did quite a lot. Churchill, who was a writer for them, said I was the best writer they ever had which made me feel really nice.
  • [00:27:49] AMY CANTU: Over the course of your career, what are you most proud of?
  • [00:27:56] PETER YATES: Working for The New York Times was my thing that meant the most to me. It's a great paper, fascinating things to do there. Situations I never anticipated people, photographing in a hospital with people dying. But I feel really lucky to have been had a career as a photographer. A wonderful way to make a living. It beats what I was doing previously.
  • [00:28:36] AMY CANTU: [LAUGHTER]. Thank you so much, Peter. This is really wonderful getting to finally chat with you a little bit about your history and some of your thoughts about Ann Arbor. We really appreciate it.
  • [00:28:47] PETER YATES: Thank you for thinking of me. [MUSIC].
  • [00:28:52] AMY CANTU: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.