Art Kane

 

Natasha Desai finds herself suspended in the conceptual world of Art Kane’s symbolic and emotive visual artistry.

Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Photograph / Art Kane Archive

The year was 1958, and a young, relatively inexperienced, jazzloving photographer attempted the unthinkable. On a balmy New York morning, Art Kane photographed 57 of the greatest jazz musicians on a street in Harlem for a spread in Esquire. The giants of jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, amongst others, congregated together and made the day more of a reunion for the legends, which proved to be nightmarish for Art Kane.

This haunting image of Jim Morrison from The Doors, was shot in 1968. Art Kane wanted a dingy space that would convey the doom that Morrison sang about. As he entered his hotel room and opened his closet, his search was complete. The television set was added to act as an X-ray view into the singer’s core. As he flipped through the channels, Marilyn Monroe popped up on the screen and he had Morrison stare straight into the lens, as he often demanded of his subjects. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

This haunting image of Jim Morrison from The Doors was shot in 1968. Art Kane wanted a dingy space that would convey the doom that Morrison sang about. As he entered his hotel room and opened his closet, his search was complete. The television set was added to act as an X-ray view into the singer’s core. As he flipped through the channels, Marilyn Monroe popped up on the screen and he had Morrison stare straight into the lens, as he often demanded of his subjects. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Armed with a rolled up newspaper acting as a megaphone, Art urged the laughing, talking, gossiping artists to come together on the steps of a townhouse. Little children from the neighbourhood gravitated to the merry-making and became a part of the scene. After a couple of hours, he gave up trying to control the chaos and soon things fell into place. This resulted in Harlem, 1958, one of the most iconic images in jazz music history. It was at this moment that Art Kane went from not just being the youngest Art Director of a major US magazine, but also one of the biggest fashion and music photographers of his time. A documentary about the making of Harlem, 1958, titled A Great Day in Harlem, was made, which eventually received an Academy Award nomination.

Arguably the most definitive image of The Who, and one of the most copied in music photography, was made in 1968. Frontrunner Pete Townshend said, “When Art Kane took our picture, he told us, ‘Go there, do this, do that, be asleep, put your head on his shoulder.’ We like that kind of direction.” Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Arguably the most definitive image of The Who, and one of the most copied in music photography, was made in 1968. Frontrunner Pete Townshend said, “When Art Kane took our picture, he told us, ‘Go there, do this, do that, be asleep, put your head on his shoulder.’ We like that kind of direction.” Photograph / Art Kane Archive

The image also featured in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Terminal, and was even recreated by XXL magazine on the 40th anniversary of the photo, with a plethora of hip hop artists. After his start with Harlem, Art Kane went on to shoot some of the most famous portraits of musicians like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Louis Armstrong, The Who, Janis Joplin, Sonny and Cher, and more.

Relinquishing Control

When shooting musicians, photographers would usually let them come in and do their own thing. But not Art Kane. He would direct the artists in the exact way he wanted them to pose. He believed that performance in images was unnecessary and, instead, preferred shooting with a heavy use of symbolism and iconography, that would bring out what he believed the artists were trying to say. Prepping for a shoot was an extensive process for him. Art Kane would immerse himself in their music for days on end while visualising and sketching their shots.

Afraid and unnerved by the angry music of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Art Kane was nervous about this shoot in 1968. But, on the day of the shoot, he was met with warmth and compassion instead. He wanted to shoot them protesting angrily with their own images plastered as their picket signs, but Frank Zappa dismissed it as “the worst f**king idea I’ve heard in my entire life.” Art decided to reveal the band as a more human and emotional group of people. The contrast between the naked babies and the long-haired, bad-boy rockers was his way of making viewers look beyond the tough image that they projected and get a view at the vulnerability beneath. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Afraid and unnerved by the angry music of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Art Kane was nervous about this shoot in 1968. But, on the day of the shoot, he was met with warmth and compassion instead. He wanted to shoot them protesting angrily with their own images plastered as their picket signs, but Frank Zappa dismissed it as “the worst f**king idea I’ve heard in my entire life.” Art decided to reveal the band as a more human and emotional group of people. The contrast between the naked babies and the long-haired, bad-boy rockers was his way of making viewers look beyond the tough image that they projected and get a view at the vulnerability beneath. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

He would eventually produce images that were almost exactly what he had envisioned. While control and planning were important to him, he would give in to spontaneity too, as he did with the portrait of The Who, choosing to have them pose outdoors when he felt that the studio shots looked far too sterile.

Art Kane wanted to shoot Louis Armstrong in a contemplative mood, rather than the usual way where he would be playing his instrument, with his cheeks puffed out. Armstrong’s song Old Rocking Chair, and a sunset he saw while sketching fashion layouts several weeks earlier, inspired this image of the ageing legend. When they landed in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in 1958, with only minutes of a sunset left, Art Kane had an epiphany as he began photographing what was his first interpretative portrait. “I realised the intense joy of having an idea, based on research and some understanding of my subject, conceived 2000 miles away and seeing it start to happen. Louis Armstrong was in a rocking chair at late light.” Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Art Kane wanted to shoot Louis Armstrong in a contemplative mood, rather than the usual way where he would be playing his instrument, with his cheeks puffed out. Armstrong’s song Old Rocking Chair, and a sunset he saw while sketching fashion layouts several weeks earlier, inspired this image of the ageing legend. When they landed in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in 1958, with only minutes of a sunset left, Art Kane had an epiphany as he began photographing what was his first interpretative portrait. “I realised the intense joy of having an idea, based on research and some understanding of my subject, conceived 2000 miles away and seeing it start to happen. Louis Armstrong was in a rocking chair at late light.” Photograph / Art Kane Archive

“As a photographer, I’m not observing too carefully where I’m going, because tripping over a stone might just lead to something marvelous. So what if you get cut up occasionally? I hate to feel that I know exactly what’s going to happen. When something becomes predictable, like when I control light by using a strobe or whatever, then it begins to bore me,” said Art on his preference for natural light, no matter what the nature of his shoot. His studios would have large north-facing windows and access to several materials to diffuse the light streaming in.

Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Photograph / Art Kane Archive

The ‘Anti-fashion’ Photographer

Art would often use wide, 21mm lenses to create drama, such as he did with the opening image in this story. He shot the model as a vertical frame, but, accidentally turned the print and realised that it made her look like she was flying. “There’s something spiritual about this picture. It shouldn’t be. It’s just a girl in a coat, but my hand in the foreground… it looks as if there’s some communication or power, as if I’m forcing her to fly.”

Art’s use of surrealism was devoid of pretence. It involved well thoughtout elements that came together in the simplest manner. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Art’s use of surrealism was devoid of pretence. It involved well thought out elements that came together in the simplest manner. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

His use of sandwiching, montage, and flipping wide-angle images to create surreal, conceptual interpretations earned him a revered status, mainly because he applied them in advertising, fashion, editorial, social and political movements, and portraiture, which was unique for his time. Art Kane’s images were widely sought after, but he was never satisfied with just recording what was in front of him.

“I realised that photography wasn’t merely the act of selection but is equally an act of rejection, deciding what you will and will not allow in.”

Art Kane’s compositions and background in art direction give his images the ability to confound and surprise the viewer at the same time. They always make you take a moment and think about them. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Art Kane’s compositions and background in art direction give his images the ability to confound and surprise the viewer at the same time. They always make you take a moment and think about them. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Instead, he chose to bring in symbols and interpretations, as he did during the civil rights movement in USA. One of the images in his series was a print made with sandwiched negatives, of a young, black boy overlaid with a white gate. It clearly brought out the feelings of entrapment that come with racial discrimination. Art Kane was a visionary whose legacy includes only the absolute best images from his work. While the world looked on with wonder at his powerful and emotive creations, Art Kane saw himself as “a poor bastard for whom the real world just doesn’t look good enough.”

Charles James with model. 1948. Art began shooting fashion when Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, Diana Vreeland challenged him. He had resisted shooting fashion as he was not interested in garments, and preferred shooting beautiful women instead. Diana asked him, “What are you afraid of Kane?” Which is when he decided to enter and break the rules that fashion photography was following at the time. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Charles James with model. 1948. Art began shooting fashion when Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, Diana Vreeland challenged him. He had resisted shooting fashion as he was not interested in garments, and preferred shooting beautiful women instead. Diana asked him, “What are you afraid of Kane?” Which is when he decided to enter and break the rules that fashion photography was following at the time. Photograph / Art Kane Archive

Art Kane was one of the best conceptual photographers of his time, whose repertoire of images covered the gamut of commercial photography. His contemporaries were Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin in the 60s and he had strong themes of eroticism and surreality running through his images, which you can view at www.artkane.com.

Tags: Anniversary Issue Vol 2, Art Kane, better photography, Commercial Photography, fashion, fashion photography, Fashion Stories, July 2016, modelling, natasha desai