Art Kane: the Big-Budget Photographer
Graphis, October 1998
In 1965, Art Kane took a memorable photograph of a little black girl holding a white doll. Brutal in its simplicity, the picture, published in a Look magazine photo essay, became one of the most bitter symbols of the civil rights movement. Twenty two years later, I was art director of Parenting magazine and needed a photo for a piece on racism. I called Art Kane and asked him if he would consider reshooting that famous image as a cover. I was nervous. Asking Art Kane to repeat himself was like asking George and Ira Gershwin to rewrite “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
To my surprise he said yes.
Tall, handsome, and still looking youthful at 62, Kane was a legendary New York artist, a photographer with the charisma of a movie star. And indeed, like a star, he always had an entourage — assistants, stylists, reps, hair and makeup artists, casting agents, gofers, and prop people. To take one picture, he hired a small crowd.
The Parenting cover was no exception. Soon, I found myself quibbling with an army of strangers about the choice of the model, her outfit, her pigtails, and whether or not we should pluck her eyebrows and remove her tiny gold hearings. Then I watched in disbelief as the hair stylist gave the doll a chic haircut.
But who was I to complain? Kane was one of the few photographers who could create an artificial set-up for a photograph and make it look believable. Preparation was key. “My greatest joy in the whole medium is conceiving ideas and arranging all the preliminaries that go into the picture,” Kane once said. Image-making, more than photographing, was his business.
Born Arthur Kanosky in the Bronx in 1925, Kane had been a successful photographer for three decades, famous for his interpretative portraits of rock stars, artists, celebrities, and models. In the 1950s, he was known as a young and fearless editorial designer, first at Esquire and then at Seventeen magazine, where his layouts won numerous awards.
At age 27, he was the youngest art director of a major magazine, hiring some of the best photographers of his day, including Bert Stern, Richard Avedon, and Francesco Scavullo. In 1958, he switched careers to become a photographer but kept his art director mentality, always searching for ways to communicate ideas rather than simply take pictures.
The girl-with-doll reshoot
Some art directors loved to let him take the lead — Allen Hurlburt at Look and Robert Benton at Esquire — but others resented his dictatorial vision. “My dad didn’t speak much about the art directors he worked with,” remembers Jonathan Kane, who used to assist his father on shoots during school breaks. “He was The Art Director himself. In many instances, it was not a happy relationship. He never listened to them. So they would be frustrated, steal into a corner, not knowing what to do with themselves.”
I was hushed out of the way too. Forced inaction gave me plenty of time to watch Kane and see how he was going to pull off the image of the child-and-doll the second time around. Duplicating an icon isn’t easy, particularly one with a political message.
In 1971, photo-journalist Eugene Richard had done just that. On assignment in Arkansas, he had snapped the picture of a black child holding a white doll’s head to her face, as if it were a mask. Published in Life magazine, Richard’s disturbing photograph was almost frightening whereas Kane’s original image was simply poignant. “Your total life experience will ultimately pop out [in your pictures], one way or another,” Kane once said. I was curious to find out how his life experience — what he had learned during the last few decades — would influence the outcome of the reshoot.
Kane was known for never leaving anything to chance. He would draw roughs beforehand, test various wide-angle lenses, do research, and hunt around for the right location and the right props. “Art took two weeks to take one picture,” says Henry Wolf, who knew him well. They had met when Kane was at Seventeen and Wolff was the art director at Esquire. “He went out in the rain, stood on top of ladders, did the real thing.” But convinced that reality seldom lives up to its promise, Art Kane didn’t leave it at that. He manipulated his slides afterward, often turning images upside down and sandwiching them on top of each other.
“Once you have the audacity to extract an image from the living, breathing, totally dimensional world,” he would say, “you’ve eliminated the smell, touch, sound… In that sense, no photograph is the truth.” The only truth for him was his own experience.
”Kane didn’t photograph people doing their thing; he photographed them doing his thing,” wrote Tom Piazza, in American Photo. My first shoot with Kane gave me a chance to observe at leisure how a photographer imprints his own vision on film.
Alone on the set with the model and her plastic doll (when he was shooting, everyone had to hide), Kane stood squarely next to his camera and waited. He didn’t particularly enjoy kids, but he understood them. He felt that they were, like him, stubborn and self-centered. He had shot many children in his career. In fact, he was the only photographer of his generation and talent who stopped to look at them through the lens.
Since the 1965 Look shoot, he had produced and directed a short film on games children play for the U.S. pavilion in Montreal’s World’s Fair, taken countless pictures of kids with the American flag, and shot a multicultural tribute to babyhood for Johnson & Johnson. His most provocative baby pictures to date was a group portrait of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention cuddling with two dozens naked infants (at one point all the kids started to urinate, Kane recalled. “It was like the fountains of Rome”).
Kane used gentle coercion to get what he wanted from his sitters. Robert Benton, who later became a filmmaker, developed his directing technique from watching Kane at shoots. “I learned from him that you don’t tell people what to do,” he explained.
Hidden behind a screen, peering through cracks, I witnessed Kane’s waiting game. He didn’t make a move until the child got bored, and, restless at last, was ready to shed a good-little-girl behavior. Then, all he did was look at her with his big-white-man eyes. Instinctively, she held onto to her doll a little tighter, her body language saying “Don’t you dare take it away.” That’s what he had hoped for. A gut reaction; a swagger; the eye contact with someone unafraid to stand her ground. Not a 1960’s waif but an 1980’s brat; not an oppressed kid—a confident one.
In my 15 years as an art director, it remains one of my favorite covers.
Living in a male ghetto
For Kane, photography was a way of life, not a way to make a living. He took only assignments that gave him a chance to try something new. And as soon as the client expected him to do things one way — perhaps repeat a particular wide-angle technique he had perfected — he would come up with something else.
“He has probably turned down enough editorial commissions to keep several photographers busy,” noted Allen Hurlburt. As if being picky about assignments was not enough, Kane was also a ruthless editor of his own work. “I’ll throw away anything that’s obvious,” he once said. In his studio, remembers Jonathan Kane, there were garbage bins full of his slides. “Others photographers would have killed for the pictures he threw away. Had he not edited his work, his estate would now have 60,000 slides instead of the 10,000 we probably have now.”
Always busy and always up to something — on weekends he would rearrange the furniture — Kane never seemed concerned about his financial future. “We all had big budgets back then,” says Henry Wolff, who, like Kane, switched from art direction to photography. “Until the mid 1980s, we never had to worry about fees or expenses. Clients would throw money at us.” Even though Kane didn’t treat art directors like VIPs, they still continued to pay for his extravagant expenses. “And the people were so nice,” adds Wolff. “The supported the photographers to the tune of millions. You never had to haggle.”
Sometimes in the 1980s, the old-timers say, things changed. According to Wolf, it was imperceptible at first. One day a client might casually say, “This time, we have to be just a little careful. We can’t over-do it.” No one thought anything of it. Soon most photographers began taking these slightly-less-padded assignments, even though trying to curb their expenses was a new experience.
In the 1960s and 1970s, affluence had shaped the culture. Much of Kane’s pictorial legacy is a reflection of a time when everything was made possible by an influx of money — everything, from the youth rebellion, which he documented through elaborate portraits of musicians and rock stars, to the sexual revolution, which he celebrated with provocative images of young women.
Even his less commercial photographs — his photo-essays on racism, his numerous travel pictures, his lyrical photo-illustrations — were commissioned by big-budget magazines such as Life, Vogue, Look and Sports Illustrated.
But the rapidly shrinking budgets were not the only phenomenon challenging Kane’s life and work. Much more insidious was the fact that art direction was no longer a male ghetto. A number of influential women were now shaping the visual content of magazines, and they were easily offended by the long-standing sexist attitudes of big-time photographers like Kane.
“He didn’t know that he was a male chauvinist,” says Richard Kelly, who assisted Kane in the 1980s. “He could not understand even if you tried to explain it to him.” Kelly remembers having lunch in Paris with Art Kane, Bert Stern, and David Bailey. “They were talking the good-old-days, the money, the women. It was unreal. Even I was offended.”
Kane’s photographs of women are not as shocking today as they were a decade ago. Compared with some of the overtly degrading images of women in the latest fashion magazines, Kane’s unapologetic delight in the female body is surprisingly refreshing. It’s a throwback from the time when teenage girls didn’t starve themselves in order to look like models, when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was not a cynical marketing event, and when sex and violence were not one and the same.
“It’s cool,” exclaimed a young student photographer who recently stumbled upon Paper Dolls (Grove Press), a book of Kane’s most memorable erotic pictures. He had never seen such poetic images of women.
Kane could have weathered his own chauvinism if his work had been more introspective, but he was so successful for so long that he never felt, like many of his peers, the urge to create images that had no commercial value. “Dad was too busy to do personal work,” explains Jonathan, “and his photographs were so profoundly editorial, he never even tried to have a gallery show.”
Photographer Duane Michals, who always admired Kane’s flamboyant style, believes that, for some reason, Kane did not consider himself an artist, “probably because he never found that private and intimate part of his work.”
So when the money began to dry up and the new (read “female”) generation of art directors moved in, Kane was caught off guard. Still a superstar in Europe, where he incarnated the American dream, he faded into oblivion at home.
“For a long time, Kane was an extraordinary prodigy, always exceptional,” says Milton Glaser. “He was a glamour figure in the graphics arts. He could do no wrong.” But the very people he had loved and celebrated all his life — young women — were now changing the editorial field and shunning men like him who didn’t support their sensibility.
“Like so many of us, he was unprepared for the second half of his life,” adds Glaser. “He had nothing to fall back on; no friendships, only ex-wives.”
But Kane could always fall back on his gift for story-telling. No one could take that away from him. He didn’t care about what he did, where he went, or who he saw — as long as he could get a yarn out of it. “Wherever we traveled on assignments,” recalls Richard Kelly, “there was always a great story to be told after the trip. Art saw humor in everything.”
A Great Day in Harlem
Toward the end of his life, Kane got to tell his best tale ever — the story of his first picture. In 1958, when he was working as an art director at an ad agency, Robert Benton, then at Esquire, gave him his first photo assignment: a cover story on the Golden Age of Jazz.
Kane, who claimed that he had never held a camera in his hands before, accepted the challenge. He ended up shooting four photographs, all memorable: Louis Armstrong sitting in a rocking chair in death Valley; a distorted refection of Lester Young; a picture of Charlie Parker’s open sax case next to his grave; and a group portrait of 57 of New York’s Jazz greats. This last picture, which for the sake of the story Kane said it was his first ever, is the one that would propel him into the limelight more than three decades later, when Jean Bach made a film about it.
No one knows exactly how the word got out in Harlem that Esquire was planning to take a group shot of Jazz musicians, says Bach, 80. “But the magazine had connections and Kane was a very hyper young man who man things happen.”
So, incredibly, such night creatures as Thelonius Monk, Count Basie, Dizzie Gillespie, Lester Young, Roy Elridge, and Charles Mingus showed up at about ten in the morning in front of an old brownstone on 126th street. One musician said that he “wasn’t aware there were two ten o’clocks in the same day.” The atmosphere in the street was one of a class reunion, with musicians embracing each other and catching up, while Kane, perched on a stoop across the street, tried desperately to get them to line up for a shot.
Mona Hinton, the wife of bassist Milt Hinton, had brought a 8-milimiter color camera and took a home movie of the glorious morning. When, in the early 1990s, Jean Bach began to research the history of the photograph, she discovered the making of a great documentary. Wirh interviews of Kane and surviving musicians mixed in with footage from the hand-held film, snapshots taken by friends, and outtakes of Jazz performances, she brought the excitement of that day back to life.
Nominated for an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Documentary, he film showcases Art Kane’s humor, his quick wit, his natural charm—and his talent for creating unforgettable images.
One week after A Great Day in Harlem was nominated, Kane decided to have the last word after all. As far as he was concerned, his narrative was completed. Although he had been manic-depressive for years, diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder, he had somehow learned to function in spite of his illness.
“As always,” says Jonathan, “his timing was impeccable. The film was a success, the time was right.” In a brutal gesture that horrified those who knew him well — but didn’t shock them — Kane put a gun to his head and ended his life.
His obituary in The New York Times only identified him as the photographer of the Harlem picture. “If he hadn’t been dead already,” says Jean Bach, “that would have killed him. No one cared to remember all his subsequent work. But he had tons of great stuff.”
Sometimes one good story is worth a thousand pictures.
1/11 - Opening spread of Graphis article: When I am 64, Life magazine 1969
2/11 - A Great Day in Harlem, Esquire 1959
3/11 - Jim Morrison, Life 1968
4/11 - Louis Armstrong, Esquire 1958
5/11 - Janis Joplin, Life 1968
6/11 - The Who, Life 1968
7/11 - Harper's Bazaar, 1970
8/11 - Blue Stokings, 1962
9/11 - The Mothers of Invention, Life 1969
10/11 - We Shall Overcome, 1965
11/11 - The first cover Art Kane shot for Parenting magazine: the remake of a lost photograph