Frank Stewart was born in Nashville, Tennessee and grew up in Memphis and Chicago. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and received a BFA in photography. Stewart has had numerous solo and group shows at Cooper Union Gallery, Washington Project for the Arts, Studio Museum in Harlem, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the International Center of Photography, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Stewart was a member of the first team of North American journalists invited by the government of Cuba to photograph there in 1977; he was also invited by the Los Angeles Committee to photograph the 1984 Olympics. He has been granted two photographic fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a New York Creative Artists Public Service Award, and a 2002 NYFA fellowship. He was honored as Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1975, at Kenkeleba House in 1987, and at the Light Work Gallery at Syracuse University in 1989.
He currently serves as Senior Staff Photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center. His exhibition “The Changing Face of Jazz” is being shown at Leica Gallery New York SoHo through January 4, 2015, which he discusses below.
Q: Can you provide us some background on “The Changing Face of Jazz” exhibition?
A: Changing face refers to the fact that the image of Jazz has always changed its look with how the medium progressed through its technology. Meaning, as the cameras became smaller and the film became faster the images went from the studio to the clubs, etc. Now with the new advances it has gone from analogue to digital and the look has migrated with it. It’s not a retrospective in the since of images that span my career. It just spans the last part of my shooting film and changing over to digital.
Q: What kind of work do you do in your current position as Senior Staff Photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center?
A: As senior staff photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center, I work within the framework of our mission: performances, education and advocacy. I basically interface with every department like touring and concerts, public relations, marketing, development and education. We have two concert facilities – The Appel Room and Rose Hall – and we have a nightly Jazz Club – Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. There’s a lot of work here.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: It seems like photography has always been a part of my life. In the beginning my first apartment only had an enlarger, a table and a mattress. Sometimes, I think this is all I still need to be fulfilled. The most fascinating thing about the medium to me is the way a camera sees the world when it’s in my hands.
Q: Your statement that “The most fascinating thing about the medium to me is the way the camera sees the world when it’s in my hands” is provocative because it implies that a creative process is occurring that is not entirely under your conscious control, that you are, in a sense channeling some larger unconscious vision. Do you agree, and can you say something about how this works in practice?
A: The thing that interests me most about photography is its ability to change reality in a way no other medium can. It’s the particular way a camera describes light on surface. This fact is one of the tenants of its intelligence. In doing so, it maps the territory it describes.
Q: Where did you shoot “Blood on the Fields,” and, aside from the warm color, why did you choose that title? What does this image mean to you personally and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: The title “Blood on the Fields” comes from Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize winning oratorio about slavery. It was taken in Rose Hall, House of Swing, Jazz At Lincoln Center (JALC) in 2013. This photo was taken at the end of the piece when the musicians are coming off the stage. What I was trying to do here is marry the background with the musicians and their instruments. Also trying to convey a sense of the intensity the performers were conveying.
Q: One of the things that really makes “Blue Nite” such a compelling image is the combination of a nearly monochromatic blue background punctuated by spots of warm light, and strong figures silhouetted against it. It is a masterful composition that was apparently shot at a jazz performance, but what’s actually going on here and how did you achieve this amazing effect?
A: “Blue Nite” happened when they are going on stage and there is a wash on a scrim just before the actual stage lights go up and there is still that magic light that seems to mimic twilight. Here you have a baritone sax and bass clarinet driving the composition in the foreground with silhouettes of musicians filling the frame in the background. The instruments are accentuated by strong highlights that reminded me of “The Starry Night.”
Q: “The Bow” is a compelling and well-composed concert performance picture. Where and when was it taken, how did you manage to get the timing so perfect, and can you provide the tech data?
A: The JALC orchestra was on tour in Europe and this particular night we were in Modena, Italy. This scene took place in an opera hall that is a couple of centuries old. After about the fifth encore, I was able to go out on stage and get behind the drums so as to use the cymbals along with the hall to compose the frame around the performers. It was taken with a Leica M4 with an Elmarit 28 mm lens.
Q: The dynamism of the image entitled “Wynton Marsalis Stomping the Blues” is incredible. It really conveys a visceral sense of his presence and intensity. Do you think you really had to have a deep understanding of who he is and what he represents to capture an image like this, and how do you manage to press the shutter release at the right instant?
A: “Stomping the Blues” refers to a book by the same name, written by Albert Murray. This is a tome all Americans should have in their library. It talks about aesthetics, style and mythologies of a blues vernacular. Here again, we are at the end of a performance and the audience has been whipped into a frenzy and they are ready to relieve themselves of whatever blues they had that day. I have positioned myself at the end of the stage just in case they happen to come my way. As luck would have it, they did. The camera was a Leica M4 with the 50 mm Summilux.
Q: What do you think you accomplished with this portfolio?
A: I think what this body of work does, if nothing else, is show the different look of two distinct ways of photographing – analogue and digital. I don’t know at this point if there can be an argument for which is better. Only that there are now two languages to be used for this conversation.
Thank you for your time, Frank!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Frank on his website.