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

It must have been a real treat for you as a young person in the ’60s just being around some of those subjects, like the Who and Jefferson Airplane.

At that time the blues boom was on. Bands like Cream were popularizing and introducing people to blues. As an 11-year-old I got ahold of a Howlin’ Wolf record, “Evil,” and an Albert King record. At a young age I became obsessed with real Chicago blues. I stopped listening to rock music of my time and had a real attitude. I was a 12-year-old blues snob. I didn’t like this phony stuff with all these gimmicks and wah-wah pedals. I’m a drummer myself, and I had a pair of Keith Moon’s drumsticks, which I really didn’t care about. I played with them until they broke and then threw them away.

Photographer Art Kane (photo c/o Art Kane Archive)
Photographer Art Kane behind the famous “Pictures of Lily” drum kit designed for the Who’s Keith Moon (photo c/o Art Kane Archive)

I did go to a couple of the shoots, including Jefferson Airplane in Long Island City and the Mothers of Invention one with Zappa and the band with the babies in my dad’s studio. It was an amazing experience. The week before at the Airplane shoot, I was turned off by those guys. I don’t know what it was, but they were snobby towards us. My brother and I were introduced to them and they wouldn’t even look at us or talk to us. I thought that’s just how rock stars were. So I was nervous going to my father’s studio for the Mothers shoot because I thought they were going to be the same way. I walked in the front door and Frank Zappa came charging at me and gave me a huge hug. He said, “Man, you should have been here an hour ago … the babies were pissing all over us … we got soaked, man.” I thought, “Oh God, these guys are different.”

About 20 years later, I was playing at a venue named le Confort Moderne in Poitiers, France, and I was on the bill with a guitarist named Eugene Chadbourne, who was doing a duet with Jimmy Carl Black [former Mothers of Invention guitarist]. Jimmy and I were on the same train from Paris and we met on the platform at the station waiting for our ride to the gig. We got into a conversation and I told him about the shoot and my father’s picture.  And he said, “Man, that’s the only picture I have of the band in my house.” I told him, “It was so great meeting you guys.” And I told him how snobby the Airplane guys were. “But you guys were all so nice to me.” He said, “Why do you think they called us the Mothers, man?”

Different people. God knows how Bob Dylan would have treated you if you had been at that shoot.

My dad’s picture of Dylan is fascinating. Dylan was refusing to pose. My dad wouldn’t take no for an answer and finally Dylan crept into a corner and looked at him, like, “Okay, you got me.” At that time, Dylan was on a break from that infamous tour in Europe where he was playing electric and he was getting booed all over the world by half his audience. So it must have been an incredible time for him. He does talk in his book Chronicles about taking a break from the tour and going back to L.A. for a few weeks in the late winter or spring of 1966. That’s exactly where and when Art Kane photographed him.

How do you think he would have dealt with the digital revolution in photography?

I think it might have depended hugely on where he was in his career. I think about that all the time. He loved technology. He loved gadgets. To think that Art Kane never had a laptop or smartphone … I think he would have been all over it. If Art Kane were still alive, he would have been an elder statesman. We ask ourselves that about artists all the time. The burning fire inside you that you have when you’re starting your career, you’re not always going to operate at that level. If Art Kane had been a young lion in the advent of digital photography, he probably would have done something to absolutely explode it. I think he would have been fascinated with the immediacy and he would have been all over Photoshop, but we can only guess.

It’s amazing what he did without Photoshop.

We were talking before about the sandwich images he did, pioneering the layering effect. Those images are 30 years before Photoshop. He would shoot two different frames with the idea that he’d be layering them together. His image in the civil rights series with the young African-American man behind a steel gate in front of a door is so profound and powerful. There’s another one from that same essay on civil rights for Look magazine that has an African-American man standing behind an American flag that’s turned upside down, as in the distress signal, which is as timely today as it was 50 years ago when he made it. These are all effects that now are relatively simple to achieve with Photoshop, but in the time you really had to think. He would sit in his darkroom with a loop. You couldn’t do that kind of layering on the projection. You’d have to sit over a light table. It reminds me of a scientist with a microscope. He would painstakingly align these images until he got exactly what he wanted. It was quite profound. People had never seen anything like it.