20th Century Photographers – Art Kane
Below is part of an interview by Grace Schaub that can found in the just published book 20th Century Photographers: Interviews on the Craft, Purpose, and the Passion of Photography.
To view examples of Art Kane’s work, visit www.artkane.com.
Art Kane (1925–1995) was well known for his editorial and advertising photography. He was a photographic illustrator who had the creativity to previsualize concepts, the artistic talent to sketch them out, and the photographic ability to deliver the finished project to the satisfaction of his clients. Kane’s photography appeared in LIFE, Look, Vogue, Vogue Italia, Stern, GEO, Harper’s Bazaar, and numerous other publications. He was especially talented in his photographic images of musicians, and his subjects included Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and the Rolling Stones.
Kane studied graphic design and painting at Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, and worked for many years as a graphic designer and art director for both Esquire and Seventeen magazines, the latter being a post he assumed at the astonishing age of 26. He worked there for six years and received awards each year for his art direction.
During that period he began to explore photography, and part of his exploration was study with the legendary Alexey Brodovitch at the New School in New York. He turned his passion and eye fully to photography after an assignment for Esquire dealing with the history of jazz. From there, his skills in art direction and his passion for the image launched his career.
His photographs are in permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and numerous other museums and galleries throughout the United States. His fashion and commercial work have a distinct style and approach that earned him praise and honors in both commercial and editorial circles, including the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) Lifetime Achievement Award, 1984; the Art Directors Hall of Fame, 1985; and Medals of Excellence Awards from several Art Directors’ Clubs in cities all across the country. Among Kane’s books are The Persuasive Image: How a Portraitist and Story Teller Illuminates Our Changing Culture (1975) and Paper Dolls (1984). The interview was conducted in Kane’s studio in New York City.
GRACE SCHAUB: What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
ART KANE: It has to do with concepts. I’ve never been particularly interested in just graphics. Having started out in the business as a graphics designer, one would think that would be my strongest interest. But I take my ability to compose a good picture for granted. I enjoy the challenge of being given carte blanche—it could be for ten pages of fur coats or five pages of wristwatches. I like applying my work to industry; that’s what it’s all about.
GS: So it’s the process as well as the product?
AK: Yes, I like the process, that is, the transformation from a blank page to the finished project. Its theater for me—I like to come up with the script, arrange it, produce it, organize it, and “click” the camera. The “click” part is usually the simplest and least challenging part of the process.
GS: Is the biggest challenge the preproduction?
AK: Yes, and practically all my editorial work has been preconceived, sketched out, and rendered by me.
GS: Does this apply to your advertising photography as well?
AK: No, it applies almost entirely to editorial and very rarely to advertising. When we speak of the major body of my photography most people know and remember, we are referring to my editorial work, although I do an enormous amount of advertising photography. In advertising, art directors exercise much more control because they are responsible to their agencies, and their clients have already approved specific ideas. By the time a photographer is called in things are pretty much spelled out. I function more as a renderer to provide the agency with a final product that has been conceived and developed mainly by the agency itself.
GS: Do you have some input?
AK: Generally very little here in America. It’s easier in Europe. I shouldn’t say that—it depends on the client. If you have a client like Calvin Klein and a relationship like he has with photographer Bruce Weber, it’s different. Obviously, there is a brotherhood there creating a vital and historic advertising campaign that has changed the face of American commercial photography. There are such campaigns where a single photographer is allowed to produce imagery that reflects his or her personal vision, and it’s mainly in the fashion world. You rarely see it in the automobile or “nuts and bolts” industries. It has to do with economics too, I guess. When the economy is down the advertising gets more and more boring because people are afraid to take chances. But in the fashion world where Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are making fortunes and the products are selling rapidly right off the shelves, they can be more flamboyant and can gamble. Most of the more adventurous images in American advertising are in the fashion world, whereas in France, Italy, and Germany you see it everywhere.
GS: Do you do much work in Europe?
AK: Yes. I go over there to shoot, and many times my clients come here to work with me. It has to do with where the dollar is at any moment in time. Now that the dollar is really low, I find I am doing much more work with Germany because the mark is very strong. I also work in France and Italy. I shoot a lot for Italian Vogue, where I’m given a great deal of editorial freedom. Recently, here in America, I have been given carte blanche by China Machado, the fashion editor for the new magazine, Lear’s. She was one of the great models and fashion editors of the sixties during the heyday of Vogue and Bazaar and is now pulling in a lot of photographers who worked with her at that time.
GS: Do you feel there are a lot of good photographers out there?
AK: What’s disturbing is, there are a lot of “good” photographers who are creating good images, and I’m equating “good” with “nice.” A lot of photographers are like robots. They become zombies. If you look in the sourcebooks, of which there are many, it’s hard to find a bad picture. It gives me a tremendous appetite for something terrible or something incredible. In other words, there are no surprises.
I’ve always been taught to surprise, and I miss that. It’s not as if we have a wasteland—there are magnify cent photographers, and many are newcomers who are doing fantastic work. But we have become a culture of abundance where quantity becomes the name of the game. I remember at a certain point in time there was a limited number of cigarette brands one could choose from—famous name brands. Then, almost overnight, the same companies stared coming out with thin cigarettes, light cigarettes, long cigarettes, menthol cigarettes; hard packs, soft packs, etc., etc. I thought, how the hell do they make any money? Aren’t they competing against themselves?
Then I realized the whole idea behind the new regime was mass marketing. The idea is that the product is so inexpensive to produce, instead of putting all the profits into one basket, why not spread it out? And the cumulative profits are enormous. This is happening everywhere—it’s made for video. Newly released films open up, and a few weeks later come out as videos.
GS: How does this relate to the photography industry?
AK: Mass marketing has to be promoted massively, and massive amounts of images are needed. There is a vulgarity about the enormity of images; it has become abusive. I love photography, but when I turn the pages of most magazines looking for images that satisfy me, I get pissed off because there is no payoff. There are very few images that command my attention.
GS: What would you suggest?
AK: Slow down. Give me less.
GS: But it’s increased business for photographers.
AK: Yes, there are greater demands for pictures. You go along with what’s happening; you adjust as long as you have an outlet for what you do.
GS: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
AK: I’m working on a personal project for the first time in my life that is black and white, which I’ve never been associated with before. I’m shooting on the streets, in restaurants, bars, and clubs. It’s an essay on what people choose to do with their spare time, or for kicks.
GS: How’s it going?
AK: I’m building up an impressive body of work. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before.
GS: More journalistic?
AK: It’s journalism, but personal journalism, along the line of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and William Klein. In a way, it’s kind of an extension of Klein and Winogrand. It’s not staged; it’s all out there.
GS: That’s a very different approach from your editorial and advertising work. Are you comfortable with it?
AK: Very much so—more than with anything. I shoot so fast, I’m gone before they know it—like lightning. Sometimes I shoot right from the hip. I’m working with a totally automatic camera— the Canon T90 with a built-in motor drive.
GS: Do you prefer it to your older, less automatic cameras?
AK: It has its purposes. I used to hate automatic cameras—to me they represented the beginning of the end. If you live long enough, you go through certain stages and become romantic about certain things. The more experience we have, the more romantic we seem to get. Some of us just cling to the past with such severity we don’t allow anything to happen in the present. You get stubborn and grumpy about certain things, and the new technology becomes, “Damn these new cameras.”
GS: But it seems automated cameras changed your mind?
AK: Last summer in Sicily I was teaching a workshop, and one of my students had a new and totally automatic camera. He said, “Try it.” I held it and said to myself, “What do I have against this new technology?” I thought about it—Does it really turn me on to cock the shutter with my thumb? Is my idea of paradise to take a light reading with a handheld meter? By the time you’ve taken the reading the light may change anyway. It’s different in the studio where you have a great deal of control. But imagine the freedom you have when you don’t have to be anything but the “wolf on the prowl,” so to speak. And there’s nothing for you to do but “eat”—you don’t even have to prepare your meal.
GS: You see it, and you shoot it?
AK: I just walk into a crowd and find myself shooting like a boxer throws a punch: “POW.” I really feel like I’m in a boxing arena, and I’m actually assaulting—and it’s all strobe.
GS: Direct flash?
AK: Yeah, right in their eyes.
GS: People must love that.
AK: Some people get pissed off, and others enjoy it. You get different responses. Some guy might say, “Hey, don’t do that again, Mac,” in which case I don’t. But at other times they’ll say, “What are you doing?” And I’ll tell them, “I’m working on a book” . . . “POW” . . . “POW” . . . “POW” . . . and they’ll say, “Oh, really, can we have . . .” and I say, “Of course,” and continue to shoot . . . “POW” . . . “POW” . . . and before you know it I’ve shot ten pictures of them. It’s amazing, it’s like a dance—it’s choreography. It has produced a new kind of vision for me, totally unpredictable and a total surprise too, because it is unlike my other work.
GS: How did you get started in photography?
AK: I started as a graphic designer. I studied painting and graphic design at Cooper Union in New York City. That’s all I was interested in. When I graduated I became assistant art director at Esquire, then the art director at Seventeen. I was an art director for eleven years.
In 1957, I began fooling around with a camera and studied with Alexey Brodovitch, and that did it. He was my guru, my mentor, and one of the greatest influences on my life. He gave me enormous encouragement. In 1959, I took a two-week vacation from my job as an art director at an ad agency to do jazz portraits. The experience was phenomenal, and I quit art directing and began spending all my time taking pictures.
GS: Was it a difficult decision?
AK: A little scary at first because we had two kids, but we worked through it. On the other hand it was easy, because if there is something in there that wants to come out, as I said before, you just open the door. I opened my door, and it became easy. It’s like you don’t even do it—it comes out and says “Thanks a lot,” and you go.
I think the best things you do always evolve in the simplest way. If you have to struggle to achieve, then something is wrong. But if it’s there it just wants to be released, and you get the message. There is something tapping at you, and it was at that point in my life that I said, “I want to take pictures, and a certain kind of pictures,” so it was not very difficult.
The difficulty is in maintaining your position, because once you hit the top there is nowhere to go but down. It’s staying up there that becomes an incredible chore. Sometimes, you just have to let go and intentionally drop it, otherwise you’ll go nuts just hanging on to that pinnacle. The ascent is nicer than the descent.
Excerpted from 20th Century Photographers: Interviews on the Craft, Purpose, and the Passion of Photography. by Grace Schaub, edited by George Schaub © 2015 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved