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

Cover of Art Kane Harlem 1958
Cover of Art Kane Harlem 1958

What were his memories of that day and its impact? What I got was just how inexperienced he was as a photographer, and how hard it was to get the musicians to stop socializing and to pose.

In the [A Great Day in Harlem] documentary he’s riffing on that same story. My dad loved to say it was his first photograph. Which is a great story. It’s not untrue. It was his first full-fledged photo shoot.

He did talk about never feeling so alone as when he was across the street, but also feeling this enormous responsibility. “I made this happen and now I have to get it together.” I’m not sure what my father would actually think of this book. Art Kane didn’t believe in outtakes. He was about the main shot. His way of editing was to sit in his editing room [with a] projector and fill up carousels with the images from the shoot and go through them in the dark looking at them very big on the wall. He would literally toss out the ones he didn’t want.

Throw them out in the trash?

Yes, literally throw them out, so that the Art Kane archive, which is huge to begin with, would be five times larger if he hadn’t thrown so much out. For example, there are 12 outtakes from the Who session. He was a big Bob Dylan fan, so there are about 20 outtakes from that session. But he was all about his main and central choice, and the rest of it was just preserved for history.

The thing is that over the course of the last 60 years, that photograph has come to mean something to the world that’s even more than Art Kane’s original intention in taking the picture. Yes, it was his idea, yes, it wouldn’t have happened without him, but it also wouldn’t have happened without the generosity and the time of those 58 men and women who showed up that morning. That kind of fascination with the picture is why I decided to work with Guido Harari and Wall of Sound Editions to do this beautiful deep dive into all the outtakes. There are photos that are grabbed quickly or blurry, but they all add up to the moment where that one photograph was taken. I think historically they’re important and beautiful. They honor the men and women of that photograph.

(from left) Benny Golson, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk (photo by Art Kane)
(from left) Benny Golson, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk (photo by Art Kane)

The outtakes really show how the musicians loved seeing each other. The camaraderie among them is discernible in the images.

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It’s fascinating to see that and to get inside of that day. Looking at a photograph is different than looking at a documentary. Sure, you can freeze your DVD, but getting a slow leisurely look through the pace of the shoot is a different experience altogether. There are several other real gems in there. Lots of them, actually. We’re very excited about it.

Harlem 1958 photo shoot (photo by Art Kane)
Harlem 1958 photo shoot (photo by Art Kane)