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

The book includes other jazz-related photos from that same issue: Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.  

We show all the pictures that were shot for the Esquire essay. In context they were important, because Harlem 1958 is the seed of organization and it’s a beautiful picture, but it’s different from other Art Kane pictures, which are more conceptual in nature. For example, flying Louis Armstrong out into the desert of Death Valley with a rocking chair and asking him to put the horn down … representing a man who had created a musical revolution and now was taking a well-deserved rest in that rocking chair that he had made famous in that Hoagy Carmichael song “Rockin’ Chair.”

It took a lot to get Mr. Armstrong into that plane. He was famously not fond of flying, and he didn’t like to fly without his wife Lucille. The plane that was chartered to take them out to Death Valley was a four-seat Cessna and it only had room for Louis Armstrong, Art Kane, the pilot, and the rocking chair. Imagine that now—getting a photo shoot with a celebrity of the caliber of Louis Armstrong to go out with just a photographer and pilot. It wouldn’t happen. You’d have handlers and stylists and groomers. Louis Armstrong said, “Okay, I’ll go.” And the photograph is just so stunning, that moment when the sun lowers in the sky and aligns perfectly with Louis Armstrong’s eyes. It still gives me a chill to look at that picture every time. It’s a magical moment.

Louis Armstrong (photo by Art Kane)
Louis Armstrong (photo by Art Kane)

There was Duke Ellington and getting him onto the A train, and the New York Transit Authority actually stopped the trains to shoot him in the front of the A train. I think they shut down the IND line for about a half-hour. We also added some of the images from his Aretha Franklin shoot. We’re focusing more on the jazz and soul [images] for this book.

He seems to have shot lots more rock musicians than jazz musicians. Was that about his taste or the work that came to him? 

He loved jazz, but it’s equally fair to say that he loved all music. He was always looking for what developments were happening. He was interested in where culture was going. When rock & roll went into the ascendancy post-Beatles, he became interested in that and became a real representative of the visual aspect of ’60s culture. Later in his life he went back to more jazz interests, but that’s probably because rock became less interesting in a lot of ways by the time he was getting older.

In our comprehensive career overview book on him that came out a few years ago, you see the scope and breadth of his work. Some of his important work was about civil rights and the war on Vietnam. He also had an influential career as a fashion photographer. He was the first guy to use a super wide-angle lens in a fashion spread in Vogue in 1962, which was famously hated by Diana Vreeland, who thought it was anti-fashion. She was overruled and the shot of the model in the houndstooth coat ran and it caused a sensation. By the next week everybody in Paris and London was shooting with wide-angle lenses. Art Kane was equally significant as a fashion photographer and as an editorial photographer.

Where do you see his influence in contemporary photography?

I see it all the time. I continue to see images that he shot first. Annie Leibovitz is tremendous but she owes an enormous debt to Art Kane in the area of conceptual photography. Any photographer who planned and orchestrated a photo shoot with a concept owes a debt to Art Kane. Things like the Benetton campaign that was so huge, with African-American and white people and babies together … he did those shots for essays on civil rights back in the ’60s for Look magazine. He was a cultural commentator and visual visionary, and his work resonates to this day.

Jean Bach’s documentary about the photo came out in 1994, and just as your father would have gotten a “victory lap,” he committed suicide.  Was there any connection between those two events? 

No, Art Kane had suffered for years from bipolar disorder, as many creative people do. I think he had reached his limit. Him going out at the time of the release of the film was his way of saying, “This is the time to go, when I’m in the spotlight again.” When he gave his interviews he was in great shape. Bipolar disorder is a tricky one. When you’re on a high, you’re running the world. And when you’re on a low, you’re about as low as it goes. You see it with people like Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain. It’s a clarion call for better mental health in this country and in this world. It’s a human condition that requires a lot of love, care, and attention.