Leni Sinclair: From Outsider to Insider

BY Taylor Rebhan

To coincide with the launch of The Runwell Turntable, we collaborated with iconic rock n’ roll photographer and cultural activist Leni Sinclair. Her images capture jazz and rock legends — from Miles Davis to the MC5 and Prince — during a pivotal era in American culture.

Framed, black and white prints will be for sale in our Detroit, Tribeca and Downtown Los Angeles stores over the holiday season—a great gift for the music fan in your life. Read on for a glimpse into Leni’s world.

Leni Sinclair is not from around here. You can tell by the way she trills her r’s—and also by the way she paints pictures with her camera. Seeing the world through her lens is like seeing it for the first time.

“I guess I’ve always looked at the world as an outsider,” Leni says. “I have been a refugee since I was four. The Red Army encircled East Prussia in 1944 and my family was forced to flee. So, I’ve never felt like I belonged. Even now.”

The 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist winner didn’t intend to become an iconic photographer of one of the most flamboyant, influential periods in American music, culture and politics. She was just good at getting close to the things she loved most—and she happened to have a camera.


Prince (pictured above) playing his first concert in Detroit at Cobo Hall in 1980. Photographed by Leni Sinclair.

“My unofficial job description would be participating observer. I participate, but because I’m from somewhere else, I look at things from a different perspective,” she says.

More than half a century into her accidental career, Leni still doesn’t consider herself a good photographer—making her all the more disarming, and her visceral instincts all the more impressive. No one is better at focusing her sights on something and getting it than Leni Sinclair is.


Bob Marley (pictured above) photographed by Leni Sinclair, at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in 1976. Leni has a deep love for Reggae and Caribbean music that she believes stems from listening to Harry Belafonte’s first record, which happened to come out around the same time she got her first radio. 

In 1952, East Germany was experiencing a potato beetle infestation, and the government offered cash incentives to children willing to collect beetles from the fields in an effort to stave off famine—one penny for every bug seized.

Each day after school, children armed with glass jars would sweep the potato fields for the tiny pests and collect them with their bare hands. “We were very poor and I was eager to get some money. I could spot those suckers from far,” says Leni. “I was a stinky mess, but by the end of the season, I had collected the most potato beetles in my village,” she says. “I even got my picture in the newspaper.”

Leni was paid 360 marks for collecting approximately 36,000 potato bugs.

“My mother took me into the city, and I used all my money to buy a little box radio,” Leni says.

In her room, with a blanket over her head, Leni drifted from station to station, from world to world. “It was all very clandestine. I was living in a communist country and we weren’t allowed to visit any Western radio stations,” Leni says. “The one station we all loved was Radio Luxembourg. It was the closest thing to American rock stations. Every week they played the latest hit parade, so we all knew what was happening. When I went to school on Monday morning, we’d trade information,” she says. “But we were not supposed to.”

That wouldn’t be the last time she did something she wasn’t supposed to do. Leni continued to follow the music and made a habit out of confronting the status quo.

“I went to America because of the music—because of jazz,” Leni says. “For people like us, in the East, jazz was the music of freedom. It was liberation music. I expected to see a jazz club on every corner.”


Sam Sanders (pictured above) photographed by Leni Sinclair, in front of the Renaissance Center in the heart of Detroit, was once called the city’s most precious natural resource.

Because they wouldn’t accept children at the refugee camp, Leni had to wait until she was 18 to escape East Germany. “I had an aunt and some cousins in Detroit who agreed to sponsor me, but first I had to go to West Berlin. It took a year to get the paperwork together, and in that time, I worked at different factories,” says Leni. “We made light switches at one, parts for refrigerators and stoves at another.”

“When I finally got to Detroit, I couldn’t find any jazz,” Leni says. “I was only 19 and too young to go to the clubs,” she says. “Then I met John Sinclair.”

Leni was studying geography at Wayne State University and John had just enrolled in graduate school. As Detroit’s downbeat correspondent, he was able to get into any show. Leni went with him, snapping photos of the artists who came through town, like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, B.B. King, Roland Kirk and her personal favorite—John Coltrane.


When the king of blues rolled through Detroit, Leni was there with her camera. B.B. King (pictured above) photographed by Leni Sinclair in 1974. 

“I would shoot for myself,” Leni says. “I photographed the things I found important and wanted to retain,” she says. “I was always reluctant to let someone look at my proof sheets because it’s almost like letting someone read your diary.  You can tell what the photographer was interested in by which people and things she focused on.”  

Soon after meeting and falling in love, Leni and John started the Detroit Artists Workshop.


The Detroit Artists Workshop, seen here and photographed by Leni Sinclair, attracted poets, artists and musicians from across the country. In 2014, the organization celebrated their 50th Anniversary.

“We made a space where people could just be and create, and from then on, things were on another level,” Leni says. “We started publishing magazines and books and organizing poetry readings and concerts, and since I had a camera, I started documenting our activities. I became the photographer for our organization.”

“I never thought of my photography as expressing a point of view. I never considered myself a political activist,” Leni says. “We were just living and trying to have fun.”

Art and politics eventually intertwined, and whether or not it was Leni’s intention, she found herself at the epicenter of Detroit’s counterculture movement. John started managing the socially conscious and politically radical rock band MC5, and out of that evolved the White Panther Party—in support of the Black Panther Movement.

“Musicians are the real politicians to me,” Leni says. “A lot of artists are highly conscious and express it in their art.”


Detroit’s rebellious past was immortalized in one of the most iconic photographs of the MC5 (pictured above) ever taken. Photographed by Leni Sinclair in 1968.

Even in black and white, Leni Sinclair’s photos paint a loud, colorful picture of some of the world’s most prolific artists—and the city that united them—in medias res. Somewhere in the middle of their story.


Iggy Pop (pictured above) photographed by Leni Sinclair during a free concert he played in Ann Arbor in 1969.

“Allen Ginsberg once said, ‘A good photograph gets better with age.’ When I look at my photographs now I think, I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was,” Leni says. “Now that so much time as gone by, they have more meaning.”


Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (pictured above) at slain Detroit jazz club owner Henry Normile’s funeral. Photographed by Leni Sinclair in 1979.

Today, Leni spends most of her energy supporting her family. When she’s not whisking her granddaughter to and from school, she’s working feverously to create a public archive of her work.

“I keep thinking it’s wonderful to be recognized and given awards, but if they only saw what else I have, that no one has seen but me, then they would really be impressed,” Leni says. “I have boxes and boxes and boxes of slides that have never even been scanned.”

Still a prominent fixture in Detroit’s artist community, Leni has no plans to slow down.


The infamous MC5 (pictured above) recording “Kick Out the Jams” live at the Grand Ballroom in 1968, photographed by Leni Sinclair. 

“I told my granddaughter I’m going to make sure she’s a good driver, so when I can’t drive anymore, she can drive me to all the clubs,” Leni says. “Someday if I’m too old to run around and take pictures, I will pick up my paintbrushes. Before I met John, I wanted to paint,” she says. “A lot of my photographs are taken with that in mind. I shoot things that would make a good painting.”

Leni is honest, even when revealing her other motivation for taking a photograph. Her honesty may be the secret to her craft.

“I guess I do it because I want to be loved,” Leni says. “When you take a good picture, they like you.”


John Lennon and Yoko Ono (pictured above) photographed by Leni Sinclair in 1971. The two played a concert in Ann Arbor, organized by Leni, to free her husband, John Sinclair, from jail after he’d been arrested for possession of marijuana. Three days after the concert, he was released.

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