By Nii B. Andrews.
The curator, Ruth Fine – who is putting together a 2023 block buster retrospective of the work of the photographer Frank Stewart, describes the ethos of his photos as follows, “concern with his cultural roots, far-reaching world-view, distinctive attention to formal concerns rooted in the study of painting, sculpture, and art history, and a deep investigation of the expressive potential of photographic processes.”
Since he graduated from New York City’s Cooper Union University in 1975, Frank Stewart has produced a huge and important archive of photographs.
Stewart has approached photography as a true art form through his use of lighting, composition and subject matter.
He has worked in black and white, color and with a variety of camera choices including digital. His photos have included African American culture in its many forms—art, food, dance, and music particularly jazz.
His jazz photos have made him especially famous.
“Frank loves black folks, but he focuses on timeless HUMAN fundamentals that only increase in value and intensity with time,” wrote the jazz composer and trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis. “He is a jazzman with a camera. Improvisational, empathetic, and accurate, all kinds of folks trust him and let him in.”
Having grown up in Memphis, music was an important part of the culture; that jazz should become a focus of his lens could then be understood since his stepfather, Phineas Newborn Jr, was a jazz pianist.
From the mid 70s when he started touring with the jazz pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal, Stewart has photographed every jazz great: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, and Marsalis; all of them both on and off stage.
Stewart explains that with jazz, “You are trying to improve on what you just played … you are looking forward to making something new all the time, and that’s what’s happening in photography,”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, known as JALCO, stays on the road about eight months a year.
For the last 30 years, Stewart has been the staff photographer for JALCO.
“One year we circumnavigated the world twice in one calendar year, around 1995, 1996 something like that. We’d be gone for three weeks and maybe have a week off. Or we’d be gone for two months,” Stewart says.
“I got to see a lot of different countries, cities, hotels. In fact, I did a whole series just on hotel windows. It’s called The Window Series. I’m still doing it. But now it’s in color.”
Stewart has photographed the Door of No Return in Cape Coast, Ghana and scenes from every day life in Mamfe.
He has spent almost all his working life in New York, but his upbringing in the segregated south of the US is reflected in his photos as he documents street scenes, vivid landscapes, and abstract compositions.