10/12/09

Contemporary Frank Stewart Photography Exhibit to Open October 17 in NYC

The Essie Green Galleries in Harlem will host a retrospective of photography from noted jazz and cultural photographer Frank Stewart. The show, titled Contemporary Frank Stewart, runs through November 5 and includes a variety of images, from reportage to jazz, including some going back to 1969. Stewart, who is the Senior Staff Photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center, has been shooting photographs creatively for almost 50 years. He told JT that he probably got his creative visual gifts from his mother: “She was an artist, so I guess I got it from her. I started out as a painter and took classes on the weekend at the Art Institute [in Chicago]. But painting took so long. I started taking pictures because I could see what I’d done and correct my mistakes right away. I didn’t have to paint over them.”

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Wynton Marsalis by Frank Stewart

Very early on, he became fascinated with the work of the renowned photographer Roy DeCarava and eventually was drawn to New York City in order to meet his hero and learn at his feet, so to speak. “I moved to New York City to study with him and ended up at Cooper-Union [famed art school] where he was teaching. I studied with him for a year, but then he left for Hunter College.” When asked what he learned from DeCarava, Stewart said, “He taught a whole philosophy about how to approach a subject honestly and tell the truth. I hope I got some of that.” Stewart stayed at Cooper-Union where he was able to study with some of the greats of 20th century photography, include Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore and Joel Meyeritz. It was a formative experience for the young photographer. “I had to do it all there – painting, sculpture, humanities, world history.” Stewart received a B.F.A from Cooper-Union and began his storied career as a professional photographer.

His affinity for jazz likewise emanated from his family background. “My stepfather was a jazz musician, so I was around it at an early age. I remember coming to New York City with him in the ‘50s. Wow, what a time for jazz in the city.” But for Stewart, his appreciation of jazz has a much deeper resonance. “I’m culturally motivated. Jazz comes from African-American culture, which is a true American culture, because African-Americans had to create it here themselves. I’ve been back to Africa and traced the roots of this music culturally and historically to the Caribbean and New Orleans. Yes, jazz is a cultural experience.” Stewart’s work reflects that deep respect for African-American history and culture. Among his books are: Romare Bearden; The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family (with poems by Ntozake Shange); Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. Jazz fans may recall Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, a book of intimate images of Wynton Marsalis and his group on the road, with accompanying text from Marsalis.

His “on the road” aesthetic is no accident. Stewart is not drawn to studio portraiture. “I don’t ask people to do anything. I try to capture them as naturally as possible.” He shoots in black-and-white primarily on film, and shoots in color digitally. Like many traditional photographers, he’s accepted and even embraced the new technology. “It’s just another landscape to work with. And I enjoy playing with my photos in PhotoShop.”

The photos in the exhibit include nearly 50 images, including several from very early in Stewart’s career. Unlike some self-critical artists, he said that he didn’t have trouble finding acceptable images from his past. “Sometimes I find something different that I didn’t see before.” To see more of Stewart’s work, go to his site. The Essie Green Galleries are located at 419A Convent Avenue in New York. The phone is 212-368-9635.

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