"It was part of a series I started doing back then called 'Apparitions of Festive Occasions," explained Kounitz. "I loved to take pictures of people in costumes and Santa Clauses were among them."
A selection of 29 black and white prints Kounitz made more than 30 years ago are on display for the month of December at the Hamilton Park Ale House at the corner of Jersey Avenue and 10th Street. The pictures highlight Kounitz's effort to capture on film costumes connected to holidays and festivals.
"I used to go to Halloween parties and take pictures of people in costume," said Kounitz. "They could be a complete stranger's party. I'd just go and take pictures. That was the early 1970s. Everyone was a little loaded back then, to be sure."
Routinely traveling from the New York area to New England in search of subjects, Kounitz made visual records of such events as the St. Patrick's Day Parade, Mardi Gras, and the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia.
"The Mummers Parade is held on New Year's Day," Kounitz said. "Clubs compete to see who can have the most elaborate costumes. It's a very Philadelphia thing."
The inspiration for the Santa photos came, according to Kounitz, from a terrified child.
"I went with my college roommate to take his son to see Santa Claus at a shopping center," Kounitz stated. "The kid flipped out and threw himself on the floor crying."
When the child stopped crying, Kounitz added, his father asked him why he was scared of Santa.
"The kid said the Santa scared him because of his beard," Kounitz said. "His father and I had beards, but they were black. The kid was scared of the white beard."
Kounitz realized he had never thought much about taking pictures of Santa before that incident. "I want to capture on film the things that everyone sees, but no one looks at," Kounitz said. "Santas were perfect for that."
When not working in his general contracting firm, Kounitz traveled East Coast looking for Santas during the holiday season.
"Most of the guys I took photos of had a sense of humor," Kounitz commented. "Although they were a little surprised to see an adult showing up by himself."
All the Santas in Kounitz's portraits are photographed from a low angle, as if the subject is looking down at the viewer. This is intentional on Kounitz's part.
"I wanted to show all the Santas from the scared child's perspective," Kounitz explained. "The Santa has to look bigger than the kid."
Pick your 'racially appropriate' Santa
During one Santa search at a Gimbels in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, Kounitz found not just one Santa, but a small army of Kris Kringles from different racial backgrounds.
"Out in front, there were six Santas," Kounitz said. "Two of the Santas were black, two of them were Hispanic, and two of them were white. There was a women there guiding the children. The kids would be sent to the racially appropriate Santa."
"Jan had a lot fun doing that work," commented Sid Kaplan, a professional black and white print maker, remarking on the prints on display at the alehouse. "I think he also has a sense of humor and it shows in his work."
Born in Trenton, Kounitz got his start in photography in the advertising industry. It was in that field he developed his love for black and white photography. At the same time, he grew to dislike color photography.
"Color is a lie," Kounitz stated. "At the time, I was a color print buyer in cosmetics advertising. With retouching the color photographs of models, we took girls who weighed nothing and made them look even less."
Retouching became so extensive that it became for Kounitz a completely unrealistic way to portray people.
"No one has the skin textures that the models had in those photos unless they were 2 years old," Kounitz said. From then on, Kounitz worked with black and white film.
"With black and white, you get the little imperfections in people," Kounitz explained.
"The composition is excellent," said Hamilton Park-area resident Doug Baynes. Baynes and Lorraine Berge were eating dinner among Kounitz's Santa prints.
"The pictures are a little disorienting," Berge said. "Santa's face seems smaller than the rest of his body. They are sort of disturbing."
Since moving to Jersey City in 2000, Kounitz has been working mostly with digital photography.
"I just bought a new house that does not have room for a dark room," Kounitz said.
Still, Kounitz is using digital reproduction of photographs to create odd pictures of ordinary scenes.
"I've been doing a lot of landscapes," said Kounitz. "Most of the landscapes don't have people in them. But I do try to suggest a human presence in the pictures."
Kounitz scans the regular photos into a computer and reproduces them digitally. Often times Kounitz is surprised with the results.
"When the digital photo is reproduced, there are distortions," Kounitz said, smiling. "I love the surprises."