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Behind The Lens: An Interview with Frank Stewart

Photography by Lawrence Sumulong for Jazz at Lincoln Center

News | Nov, 18th 2015

Intensely observant, frequently hysterical, Frank Stewart’s decades-long career as a photographer has produced defining portraits of jazz’s great artists, bringing us closer to the music in the process. In this interview, Stewart—now the senior staff photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center—talks about his development as a photographer and reveals stories from a life behind the lens.

What made you focus on photography?

One day when I was 13, my mother said, “We’re going to go down to Washington D.C. to be a part of this historical event. She took a camera: you know, one of those Kodak Brownies where you pop in a cassette of film. When you’re done shooting [the roll], you give it back to the store, they develop it for you, and a week later you get your 5x7’s. We went down there and there must have been a billion people [laughter]. There was like a million, it was very cordial. This was 1963, so it wasn’t like the Selma March over the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge where they were throwing bottles and firehouses hosing the people, it wasn’t like that. There was a lot of black and white people down there showing solidarity. So that’s what I took pictures of and it was the first time I had taken pictures… 

When I got those photographs back I could see what was good and what was bad, I could make a decision right away. I liked [photography] because it wouldn’t take you a week to come up with a failure; you could fail right on the spot. So that’s my [first] foray into being an artist.

How did your career as a photographer begin?

I really got into photography through some guys in [my] neighborhood. One guy in particular, his family owned the Chicago Defender and he was a photographer. His name was Bobby Sengstacke and he was all cool. [Bobby] had an assistant named Johnny Simmons, and he was even cooler. They would be taking pictures and walking around with their cameras and [I thought], “That’s hip, that’s really hip.” 

So one day he showed me some of their pictures—you know, they had a knapsack full of pictures and they were ironed onto a piece of cardboard, each one had their own cardboard backing, and I was like, “Man, this is great!” That’s when I knew that photography is something I wouldn’t mind doing… Later in life, when I got a track scholarship to Middle Tennessee State, I heard that Bobby and Johnny were teaching at Fisk University. Middle Tennessee State was 25 miles from Fisk so I would finish my workout every day and go audit classes at Fisk with where I could watch Johnny and Bobby work in the lab. 

Did you have any early mentors?

Early on I wanted to come to New York to meet Roy DeCarava after I saw his book Sweet Flypaper of Life. I had never seen the black form depicted in such a manner—with dignity, pride, and humanity. I said to myself, “This is a whole ’nother scene. This is another level of how to photograph people.” You always saw... André Kertész but when I saw [Roy] was the first time I saw a black photographer on that level. 

 So I came to New York and sure enough his name was in the phonebook and I called him… I came and I met him and I brought my little knapsack full of photographs and he looked at them. I said “Am I on the track?” and he said “Yeah! You in the track!” He was instrumental in getting me into Cooper Union where I studied a year with him and Gary Winogrand.

[Rob Gibson and and Jon Faddis on the tour bus reading a performance review. C. 1993]

Do you remember the first shoots you went on in New York?

Yea. Jazz photography was different; it was a way to document cats that never got documented. You know, the cats that were on the periphery that you never see but needed to be documented because they were on the scene too. Some of them would be on the scene then all of a sudden they’d go back home because they couldn’t make it. In New York, musicians come in every day and they’re leaving every day. Sometimes New York was too much for them. You’d hear about one of your boys dying in the bathroom and you can’t open the door because his ass got stiff. 

What is it like photographing jazz musicians?

Well the thing is, you are with these guys, but since you aren’t up [onstage] playing the music with them, you’re not sharing that whole experience. In a way, you’re not with them but you have a mutual admiration thing going.

[Pictured: Ahmad Jamal Live Performance Shot. C. 2013]

How did you make ends meet as a photographer?

When I was at Cooper Union I was driving cabs and I was working in restaurants mopping floors and on dishwasher duty. I also delivered food for a place called Doll and Dine. I had a Volkswagen with a stove right next to me. You’d put the food in there to keep it warm. That was cool in the wintertime but in summertime you sweated your ass off and all the windows had to be down. The stove was like a bomb and I thought at any minute it was gonna catch fire [laughter].

I never wanted to make money doing reportage photography. Right after I got to college I took a job at the Studio Museum and I stayed there for about 10 years, that’s really how I made money. I copied art for a living, did catalogues and posters and invitations. Eventually I got some photography grants. I got two NEA [grants] and that’s what allowed me to go down South and take pictures. I’d get on buses and sleep in bus stations on plastic chairs.

What about jazz makes it an interesting subject for photographers?

The thing about jazz and this medium is, since the beginning of jazz—what, 150 years ago, 125 years ago, something like that—the look and the medium has grown along with the changing jazz idioms. The first jazz musicians that were photographed were in large-view cameras, sometimes studios with daylight coming in. Or they had nitrate they would explode. But most of the time they took them outside, it’s very static, and the guys would get into a pose and they would keep it for a while and they’d shoot them like that. Then the film got faster, the cameras got smaller and they were able to take them into the studios and do strobe lighting. After that, the cameras got even smaller and the film got even faster. And they were able to go into clubs and actually get performances, so the look of jazz has changed the same way with the medium.

[The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis at Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti in Italy. C. 1996]

Do you have advice for someone who wants to photograph jazz?

First of all, they have to shoot with one lens, one hard lens, not a zoom lens. Start with one lens, usually it should be a 50[mm]. A 50 is like the normal way to see. Once you master that, you can branch off and do whatever you want to, zoom lens, wide angles, telephotos, but you have to master some part of the medium first. It’s like cats wanting to learn how to play “out” before you can play “in.” Sun Ra could play all the way in and all the way out.

Some people don’t want to be artists—they just want to make money. I’ve had a lot of young photographers come up to me and say, “How do I make a living? How do I make money?” I say, “I can’t tell you how to make money. I can tell you how to make a better picture, but I can’t tell you how to make money.” There are three things great photographs have in common. They either talk about subject matter, the medium, or the person that’s taking the picture. I always like my photographs to talk about me, and I always like to talk about how I feel about the world, so the great photographs talk about all three.

 [Wynton Marsalis warming up backstage. C. 2015]
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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