“Performance shots are a waste of time, they look like everyone else’s. If you want to shoot a performer, then grab them, own them, you have to own people, then twist them into what you want to say about them.” -Art Kane
Sixty years ago, on August 12, 1958, Art Kane made the photo titled “A Great Day In Harlem” for Esquire magazine. With this image, he instantly changed careers from art director to photographer. The picture is of 57 jazz musicians posing on the stoop of 17 East 126th Street in Harlem. The photograph has become one of the most celebrated in American history. The New York Times described the photo in Art Kane’s obituary as “It was essentially a class portrait of America’s greatest jazz musicians among them Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Maxine Sullivan and Sonny Rollins.”
Art Kane — art director
At age 27 he was working for Esquire magazine doing page layouts when he was named art director for “Seventeen” magazine. At the time he was the youngest art director for a major magazine. He studied with legendary art director and graphic designer Alexy Brodovitch at the New School whose alums included Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus.
Style blazing photographer
Kane can be easily credited with creating the photo illustration three decades before the advent of digital image manipulation. He sandwiched photos together. He flipped duplicates to create mirror images. He carefully taped the images together at the edges then photographed the results that would make him a unique photographic storyteller. He worked to make his photos exude metaphor and poetry.
Fashion, celebrity, and rock ‘n roll
While best known for the photograph of jazz musicians, Kane’s vision was published in fashion magazines not only in America but in Europe and the U.K. as well. Art Kane saw things differently. His photograph of “The Who” had band member Pete Townshend say that Kane was exemplary of how photographers should direct subjects. Kane photographed Jim Morrison of “The Doors” in the closet of his hotel room in the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles behind a television set. He photographed Bob Dylan squatting in a corner. His fashion photographs pioneered the use of low angles and wide angle lenses. His fashion composites remain arresting to this day.
Art Kane — awards and on display
He was honored as Photographer of the Year by ASMP in 1964 and 20 years later received its Lifetime Achievement award. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.