Art Kane: A Great Day Frame by Frame

In a new book, Jonathan Kane tells the stories behind his father’s most famous photograph: Harlem 1958

'HARLEM 1958' cover trade edition

Cover of Art Kane Harlem 1958

In 1958 Art Kane was a successful art director who had dabbled in professional photography and was itching to make it his full-time profession. Knowing that Esquire magazine was planning a special issue on jazz, Kane made an audacious proposal to the magazine’s then-editor Harold Hayes and art director Robert Benton: to photograph a collection of prominent jazz musicians on location in Harlem. After getting the green light for the session, the nascent photographer was faced with the daunting task of shooting not 15 or so musicians, as he had expected, but 58 (or, as it turned out, 57). The result was the iconic and often-imitated photograph known familiarly as “A Great Day in Harlem,” the same name as Jean Bach’s 1994 documentary about the photograph, the photographer, and the musicians. Although Kane created many well-known photographs—including the Who huddled under a British flag, Jefferson Airplane in space-age glass cubes, and Bob Dylan crouched in a corner glaring at the camera—it was this photograph of many of jazz’s greatest players gathered on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone that would resonate most of all.

JazzTimes spoke with Kane’s son Jonathan, who, on the 60th anniversary of the photo’s original publication, has produced a new book, Art Kane Harlem 1958, published by Guido Harari and Wall of Sound Editions, documenting that session as well as other photos and sessions tied to the jazz essay in Esquire. The sumptuous volume includes forewords by Quincy Jones and Benny Golson (the last surviving person in the photo other than Sonny Rollins), as well as commentary by father and son. Numerous outtakes from the historic photo session shed light on what was indeed a great day for Kane, the musicians and jazz history. –Lee Mergner

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JazzTimes: I’m glad that you’ve done this book because if people hadn’t seen Jean Bach’s documentary, they likely wouldn’t have known much about your father and the story of that iconic photo and session.

Jonathan Kane: The film definitely opened up a lot of areas of the deep dive into the mechanics of it. But the photo itself was legendary and had reached a whole new audience before the film came out, through a poster. It had already been deeply ingrained into the public collective consciousness with jazz fans and even more than jazz fans. I think music fans and history fans are fascinated as well. It appeals to different people on so many levels.

But if you’re over the age of 50, you have certainly seen Art Kane’s work. He was in almost any magazine you might have run across between, say, 1959 and the mid-’80s, when he started slowing down and pursuing more teaching and educating. As broad as his impact was on photography in general, his music portraiture seems to have been his most resonant. But he also did groundbreaking work in editorial photography and was a pioneer in color photography, pushing it forward as an art form when black and white was still thought of as the pre-eminent medium. [He’s known for] his use of sandwich images, a technique he pioneered in which he would layer transparencies together to create visual metaphors for enhanced storytelling. He did so many different things, but this photograph was the explosion.

Photographer Art Kane (photo c/o Art Kane Archive)
Photographer Art Kane (photo c/o Art Kane Archive)

In this book I am letting the cat out of the bag about the notion that this was his first photograph. It was a myth he supported, though in truth it was his first full-fledged assignment. But for example, he’d already had the cover of Erroll Garner’s album Concert By the Sea three years before, which featured my mother. And other album covers as well. When that Esquire issue came out, that’s when he quit his job at the agency and became a full-time photographer.

Your father came to photography after an early successful career as a magazine art director. He seemed to bring a real design aesthetic to his photos. He had a different approach than, say, Jim Marshall, who liked to be the fly on the wall. Your father preferred to set up a specific look or theme to his shots. 

Somebody once said that Art Kane didn’t photograph people doing their thing. He photographed them doing his thing. It’s really true. He virtually never did live or concert photography. He’s quoted as saying, “Performance shots are a waste of time, they look like everyone else’s.” Art Kane was about coming up with a concept for his subjects. He defined himself as a conceptual photographer. He would intensely study his subjects, listen to all their music, read as much as he could about them, and take that as far as to do mockup drawings of what he had in mind for each photo shoot. He would go into each photo shoot with a very clear idea. And sometimes, as in the case of the Who shot or the Jefferson Airplane shot, with extensive props that were prepared to support that concept and image.

That Jefferson Airplane photo is particularly striking because it looks like it was shot in a remote desert area of California—but it was in Queens.

It’s Long Island City, on the waterfront where there’s now a development with Gantry Park and high-rise condos. At the time it was a gypsum factory—the stuff that they make sheet rock out of. Those big piles of white powder are actually right across from the United Nations. The cubes that were brought over there were created at great expense to Life magazine and cost several thousand dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot now but in 1968 that was a lot of money for an editorial shoot. Art Kane could command that type of budget.