Icons of Photography: Art Kane

Art Kane was born Arthur Kanofsky on April 9, 1925, into a Bronx world of refugees from Czarist pogroms. He grew up fascinated by snakes and escaped to Manhattan as soon as he could. “Life is downtown, man, not uptown,” he said. “Nothing but immobility uptown. Downtown is action and yellow-haired beauties.” He studied at Cooper Union college and joined Seventeen magazine as art director – the youngest in the country. Mentored by Harper’s Bazaar’s Alexey Brodovitch – the Russian-in-Manhattan who also tutored Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Eve Arnold and Garry Winogrand – he became one of the great commercial photographers who emerged in the urbanity of post-war New York, struggling and finding a way to express themselves in the unforgiving, cash-focussed, pleasantry-free worlds of advertising and magazines. “Like the sun,” said his friend Andy Warhol, “Art beams his eye straight at his subject, and what he sees, he pictures.” Yet he is now almost forgotten.

Except, that is, for one photograph. This is the paradox at the centre of Kane and his work: his most famous picture is not only a typical, it was also his first professional assignment, for Esquire magazine in 1958. Certainly, he never took another one like it again. And, while it’s an undeniably great picture, it’s not actually a very good one. Or rather, its qualities are not aesthetic or visual but organisational and historical.

Now known as A Great Day in Harlem it’s a shot of 57 (mostly black) jazz musicians, outdoors, on a big set of stairs. It’s the subject of a 1994 documentary film and it’s the McGuffin of the Spielberg movie, The Terminal. But it’s not Art Kane. It’s documentary, whereas he was a dramatist and fabulist. “Reality never lives up to itself visually for me,” he said.

It’s black and white while he worked almost exclusively – and lusciously – in colour. It’s dull technically, in direct contrast to most of his work. In the early 1960s he made pictures which prefigured digital manipulation. By layering two or more Kodachrome transparencies, he created ‘sandwich’ images. Venice seeming to sink into the sea. Christ in an electric chair. A young man’s face behind a metal gate – an elegant, dramatic image for a story on the civil rights struggle.

Further, the Harlem picture is flat and wide and distant, while Kane loved – pioneered, even – the 21mm lens and its violent, disturbing closeness. “Edit out the little and ugly and emphasise the big and heroic,” he said. (It’s hard not to suspect that the lens and its extreme depth of field chimed with the turbulence of Kane’s internal state – he was bipolar.) Actually, there is one thing about the Harlem photograph that is typically Kane: the lighting. While his images were highly wrought, he rarely used artificial light. “It’s the only medium we have to work with,” he said of natural light. “In a sense, it’s God.” He flew Louis Armstrong to the desert for one shot, chasing the sun as it fell from the early evening sky. He tooka model to Cornwall, for a beach and a sky, then flipped the picture so it looked like she was flying, producing an image so exciting and powerful the New York Times did a Photo-shopped update in 2009 – a copy, a warm homage, only not as clear and vibrant as the original, made‘naturally’ in the camera and in the print lab.

On second thoughts, that picture also points to something else distinctively Kane about his Harlem shot – the lengths he would go for a photograph. Bringing together all those jazzers on one day, that’s a real Kane feat. He took Sonny and Cher underwater. He put Cream on a railway track. “I can’t shoot realistically. I need devices to break away from what we think is normal vision.” He killed a dove for peace. Well, had it killed for a picture – to represent the death of peace. (His ideas and images were often simple and sometimes simplistic. That’s the – freely-entered – Faustian pact of working in the mass market.)

He shot campaigns for just about everything, all the essentials of mid-20th century magazine and ad life, anyway. Cigarettes: Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Gitanes. Beer: Heineken, Löwenbräu. Cars: Volvo, Saab, Volkswagen. Airlines: United, TWA, American, Eastern, British Airways. He did fashion, commercially and editorially. He directed TV commercials. And he was ‘corporate design director’ for Penthouse-Viva International – a year spent making soft porn into art. Well, trying to.

He lived the life. Apartment in lower midtown Manhattan, country house in the Catskill mountains, studio above Carnegie Hall. Three marriages, three children. He wrote songs, lyrics, plays. He cast himself in one of his own cigarette ads, in a brown leather suit.

He died on February 21, 1995. He’d shot himself, on an ex-wife’s front lawn.


© Peter Silverton 2016

%d bloggers like this: