Frank Stewart has been the senior staff photographer for “Jazz at Lincoln Center” since 1990, but his exposure to music and the jazz scene began long before that. Stewart was just eight years old and living in Chicago when his mother married Phineas Newborn, Jr., one of the best jazz pianists of the era. The family soon moved to New York City so his new stepfather could serve as Count Basie's opening act at Birdland. Later, Stewart was introduced to the vibrant jazz world of the 1950s when his stepfather brought him along to the jazz clubs including the Village Vanguard and the Five Spot. He says, “I got to know all the cats in Count Basie's band, the Count himself… I also met Miles and Monk.” While a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1970s, Stewart's Aha! moment occurred when he saw the book “Sweet Flypaper of Life” featuring photographs by Roy DeCarava and text by Langston Hughes. “I had never seen a book where black people were depicted in such a positive light.” Inspired by the content and tonal richness of the prints, Stewart reached out to DeCarava in New York. Seeing some of his work, the master said, “Yeah, you're on the right track” and got him admitted to Cooper Union. Stewart studied with DeCarava for a year, and learned that photography was like jazz — in its most exciting form, it could be an “act of improvisation and an immediate creation.”
Graduating from Cooper Union with a BFA in photography in 1975, Stewart's career took off; he traveled to Africa and Cuba, and met the painter Romare Bearden, which led to a book and work at a number of galleries and museums.
Frank Stewart's second exhibition at the Leica Gallery — his first was 18 years ago — is mesmerizing and revealing. The 42 images — which include both black and white and color — often feel like the music that has surrounded the photographer for a good part of his life — lyrical and soulful, sometimes moody, always artful. His image “Comics,” shot in Harlem in 1973, is different from the artist's other work on display; it's a classic street photograph, with a sax player on one side, a dog lying in the middle, three children on the right, and “Comics, bought and sold” scrawled on the wall behind them. Most of the other work in the show is from the 1990s and 2000s. In the black and white “Cuban bass player, 2005” , he captured a musician with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, lost in his music — you can almost feel the beat. Stewart's color work is an eyeful.
In “Blue Nite, 2009,” he uses the silhouetted neck of a saxophone as a framing device, with three musicians in the bluish background walking off the set. The highlights catch your eye and focus your attention. Very cool. So is the color portrait of sax player Stacey Dillard, his profile silhouetted against a magenta background. It's hard not to love the beautiful bokeh effect in Stewart's 1990 image of Dizzy Gillespie playing his famous 45- degree angled trumpet. I've seen a lot of pictures of him playing that horn but never one like this. And in “Smoke and Lovers, 1992” the music is from an old juke box; a couple is in the back booth whispering to each other as a man sitting in front of them quietly smokes a cigarette. It's a beautiful black and white image with a mood and rhythm that no doubt would have also pleased Roy DeCarava.
Frank Stewart Blues People Leica Gallery 670 Broadway 5th Fl Lower Manhattan - West Map 212 777 3051 us.leica-camera.com Feb 6 through Sat, April 18, 2015 Hours: Tues-Fri 12 to 6, Sat 12 to 5