Photo Courtesy Chester Higgins Jr / Smithsonian Museum of American History; Art Courtesy Nicholas Barnes & Ann Basu
Music / Obituaries

Art and Soul: Remembering Jazz Photographer Chuck Stewart

You can almost hear the photograph.

It’s an image of Dinah Washington, taken in 1963. Draped in a thick fur coat and armed with a heavily annotated score, she is shown in profile: her eyes tightly shut, her mouth open wide. The shot is as loud and colorful as the “Queen of the Blues” herself, bursting with Washington’s charisma and strength, her signature hard-hitting rhythms and aching harmonies, and her raw, powerful voice. The photographer, of course, is Chuck Stewart.

Charles Hugh Stewart, revered for his photography of thousands of musicians and his chronicling of the American jazz movement, passed away on January 20, 2017, at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey. He was 89.

Stewart devoted more than 70 years to his craft, which he once described as the “unveiling of the soul” of his subjects. Indeed, soul abounds in his portraits; even his shots of the era’s biggest stars, among them Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra, capture an extraordinary combination of intimacy, personality, and charm.

The depth of character revealed in his photographs is as remarkable as the extent of his portfolio, which encompasses over 800,000 negatives. Featured on 2,000 major album covers, his oeuvre made him as much a part of the jazz world as the artists themselves.

It all began with a Box Brownie Six-16 camera, Stewart’s thirteenth birthday present, and an opera singer, Marian Anderson. When Anderson came to visit Stewart’s junior high school in Tucson, Arizona, Stewart decided to photograph her performance and sell the prints to teachers and students. It was a pastime that would become his profession.

Stewart went on to Ohio University, then one of the few schools in the United States to offer a collegiate photography program, and following his graduation in 1949, he briefly served in the army as a combat photographer. By his account, Stewart was the only African-American to shoot the atomic bomb tests in 1952.

After his service, Stewart accepted an invitation from college classmate and fellow photographer Herman Leonard to work as an assistant at his Manhattan studio. Leonard gave Stewart his start in the music industry, providing him with connections to New York City record companies and Harlem jazz clubs. When Leonard moved to Paris in 1956, Stewart inherited the studio. In the years to come, he would carry on Leonard’s legacy, and create one of his own.

Stewart became known for featuring his subjects in dramatic relief, positioned against a black backdrop or framed by their instruments. The eye of the viewer, prevented from wandering, must linger, observe, comprehend. The experience is intensely personal, for the images seem to disintegrate all boundaries between viewer and subject. It is from this shared visual space that Stewart draws his power.  

Although photographers were not always welcome in recording studios, Stewart was never turned away. He was courteous, unassuming, and quiet, only shooting between takes and quickly putting his subjects at ease. He sought to portray the artists as favorably as possible and excelled in identifying and representing their distinctive qualities, an ability that earned him rare access to the celebrities of the time, as well as their respect and gratitude. According to Carol Friedman, one of Stewart’s great friends and admirers, it is “abundantly clear” in his photographs of James Brown, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Tito Puente, and countless others: “his subjects loved and trusted [him].”

Stewart’s specialty was jazz, but he also shot sports stars, fashion models, actors, comedians, and street scenes. However, as an African-American photographer in the 1950s and 60s, Stewart was limited in the range of employment opportunities available to him. He was repeatedly denied larger advertising offers that paid ten times what he made for an album cover, and ultimately found himself confined to spheres of photography that he had perhaps outgrown. “If my colleagues were white,” Stewart said, “they moved up. I was stuck in this genre.”

Nonetheless, Stewart achieved tremendous success. His photography has appeared in books (including one of his own, Jazz Files) and noteworthy periodicals, such as Esquire, DownBeat, Paris Match, and The New York Times. In 2008, the Lincoln Center featured an exhibition of Stewart’s work, entitled Looking at Music, and today, a collection of his images form a permanent part of the Smithsonian Museum. Stewart has also received several honors, including the Milt Hinton Excellence in Jazz Award.

A glimpse into the nightclubs and concert halls of the 1950s and 60s, Stewart’s photographs reflect the spirit and culture of jazz in America. Yet evident in his hundreds of thousands of images is not only the essence of the musicians, but that of the man behind the camera lens as well. What’s certain is that there is a bit of his soul, too, embedded in each one.

Chuck Stewart is survived by his daughter, Marsha; two sons, David and Christopher; seven grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. His wife, Mae Bailey, died in 1986.

A selection of Stewart’s work can be viewed here.