Natasha Desai finds herself suspended in the conceptual world of Art Kane’s symbolic and emotive visual artistry.
The year was 1958, and a young, relatively inexperienced, jazzloving photographer attempted the unthinkable. On a balmy New York morning, Art Kane photographed 57 of the greatest jazz musicians on a street in Harlem for a spread in Esquire. The giants of jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, amongst others, congregated together and made the day more of a reunion for the legends, which proved to be nightmarish for Art Kane.
Armed with a rolled up newspaper acting as a megaphone, Art urged the laughing, talking, gossiping artists to come together on the steps of a townhouse. Little children from the neighbourhood gravitated to the merry-making and became a part of the scene. After a couple of hours, he gave up trying to control the chaos and soon things fell into place. This resulted in Harlem, 1958, one of the most iconic images in jazz music history. It was at this moment that Art Kane went from not just being the youngest Art Director of a major US magazine, but also one of the biggest fashion and music photographers of his time. A documentary about the making of Harlem, 1958, titled A Great Day in Harlem, was made, which eventually received an Academy Award nomination.
The image also featured in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Terminal, and was even recreated by XXL magazine on the 40th anniversary of the photo, with a plethora of hip hop artists. After his start with Harlem, Art Kane went on to shoot some of the most famous portraits of musicians like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Louis Armstrong, The Who, Janis Joplin, Sonny and Cher, and more.
When shooting musicians, photographers would usually let them come in and do their own thing. But not Art Kane. He would direct the artists in the exact way he wanted them to pose. He believed that performance in images was unnecessary and, instead, preferred shooting with a heavy use of symbolism and iconography, that would bring out what he believed the artists were trying to say. Prepping for a shoot was an extensive process for him. Art Kane would immerse himself in their music for days on end while visualising and sketching their shots.
He would eventually produce images that were almost exactly what he had envisioned. While control and planning were important to him, he would give in to spontaneity too, as he did with the portrait of The Who, choosing to have them pose outdoors when he felt that the studio shots looked far too sterile.
“As a photographer, I’m not observing too carefully where I’m going, because tripping over a stone might just lead to something marvelous. So what if you get cut up occasionally? I hate to feel that I know exactly what’s going to happen. When something becomes predictable, like when I control light by using a strobe or whatever, then it begins to bore me,” said Art on his preference for natural light, no matter what the nature of his shoot. His studios would have large north-facing windows and access to several materials to diffuse the light streaming in.
The ‘Anti-fashion’ Photographer
Art would often use wide, 21mm lenses to create drama, such as he did with the opening image in this story. He shot the model as a vertical frame, but, accidentally turned the print and realised that it made her look like she was flying. “There’s something spiritual about this picture. It shouldn’t be. It’s just a girl in a coat, but my hand in the foreground… it looks as if there’s some communication or power, as if I’m forcing her to fly.”
His use of sandwiching, montage, and flipping wide-angle images to create surreal, conceptual interpretations earned him a revered status, mainly because he applied them in advertising, fashion, editorial, social and political movements, and portraiture, which was unique for his time. Art Kane’s images were widely sought after, but he was never satisfied with just recording what was in front of him.
“I realised that photography wasn’t merely the act of selection but is equally an act of rejection, deciding what you will and will not allow in.”
Instead, he chose to bring in symbols and interpretations, as he did during the civil rights movement in USA. One of the images in his series was a print made with sandwiched negatives, of a young, black boy overlaid with a white gate. It clearly brought out the feelings of entrapment that come with racial discrimination. Art Kane was a visionary whose legacy includes only the absolute best images from his work. While the world looked on with wonder at his powerful and emotive creations, Art Kane saw himself as “a poor bastard for whom the real world just doesn’t look good enough.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Better Photography.
Art Kane was one of the best conceptual photographers of his time, whose repertoire of images covered the gamut of commercial photography. His contemporaries were Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin in the 60s and he had strong themes of eroticism and surreality running through his images, which you can view at www.artkane.com.Tags: Anniversary Issue Vol 2, Art Kane, better photography, Commercial Photography, fashion, fashion photography, Fashion Stories, July 2016, modelling, natasha desai