Fifty-seven jazz musicians in front of a Harlem brownstone. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, holding naked babies. A black man’s face, superimposed over a steel gate. The images are iconic and often imitated. Art Kane was the photographer who pioneered the sandwiching of two or more photos into a single picture and incorporated symbols in ground-breaking ways, making his images tell compelling stories.
Kane had a house in Margaretville, Town of Middletown, Delaware County, during the 60s and 70s. His son and archivist, musician Jonathan Kane, will give a talk and slide show of Art Kane’s work at the Historical Society of Middletown on Saturday, July 21, at 7 p.m.
“My parents used to come up here and go skiing, probably even when they were courting,” said Jonathan. “They bought a Victorian on a hillside in 1963. I’ve been coming up from New York City since I was seven.” He now owns a house a bit farther west in Bovina.
Art Kane loved to talk, especially about how he set up shots. “I was interested,” Jonathan said. “I loved the work, and I’d hear the stories again and again. Most of them were worth remembering.” Those stories will fill Jonathan’s lecture, as he describes, for instance, the shooting of perhaps Art Kane’s most famous picture, “A Great Day in Harlem,” taken in the summer of 1958. “He’d been a successful art director before he went into photography,” Jonathan explained. “‘Harlem,’ which he shot for Esquire, was his first professional assignment.”
Setting up the shot took a while, and Count Basie, growing tired, sat down on the curb. Several neighborhood kids promptly sat next to him. When the set-up was ready, Kane’s assistant tried to shoo off the children. “My dad said, ‘No, they should stay.’ That’s why there’s a row of kids in the front of the picture.”
As a youngster, Jonathan attended some of his father’s shoots. “Frank Zappa made me feel welcome. I was nervous going, because I had gone to the Jefferson Airplane shoot. They were probably just stoned, but they wouldn’t even look at me. Fifteen years later, I’m a professional musician, on tour in France, playing a festival at Poitiers. I’m on the bill with Jimmy Carl Black, who had been with the Mothers of Invention. I told him how nice Zappa had been to me, and he said, ‘Why do you think they called us the Mothers, man?’”
Kane was probably the first to use an ultra-wide-angle lens in fashion photography. In one of his early shots for Vogue, he played with perspective by shooting the model leaning sideways, then turned the picture 90 degrees, so it looked like she was flying. Her extended hand and his own hand, reaching out from behind the camera, complete the striking image. “Diana Vreeland hated the picture,” reported Jonathan, “but she was overruled by other the editors. It ran in 1962, and then every fashion photographer started shooting with wide-angle.”
He also illustrated articles on political issues of the 60s, including one on apartheid. A naked black man — probably an Alvin Ailey dancer — posed crouched on his fingers and toes, wrapped in white twine.
“For 30 or 40 years,” Jonathan said, “you couldn’t pick up a major magazine and not find an Art Kane photograph. There are two or three you can describe to almost anyone in Western world between the ages of 20 and 80, and they’ll say, ‘I know that picture.’” ++
The Historical Society of Middletown presents “Marking Time,” a talk and slide show about Art Kane’s photography by Jonathan Kane, on Saturday, July 21, at 7 p.m., at the HSM Hall, 778 Cemetery Road, Margaretville. Admission is free. For more on HSM, see http://mtownhistory.org.