Chuck Stewart was a prolific American jazz and album cover photographer. Stewart had an archive of about 800,000 negatives when he died on 20 January 2017, and at least 2,000 album covers.
Chuck Stewart (1927- 2017) loved jazz but couldn’t play an instrument. So he bought a camera. He photographed jazz legends, such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, and Eartha Kitt.
His photographic technique was to frame his subjects in black, as if to prevent the eye from being distracted by anything but the singer or musician.
“There was a certain warmth and intimacy to his work,” the jazz historian Dan Morgenstern said in an interview. “Photographers weren’t always welcome in recording studios, but he was. Producers and engineers accepted him. He was not the least bit intrusive. He would never snap a shutter in the middle of a take. He was the extreme opposite of the paparazzi.”
Charles Hugh Stewart was born on 21 May 1927 in Henrietta, Texas, to Hugh Paris Stewart, a chef, and the former Anne Harris, a domestic worker. The family later moved to Tucson, Arizona.
He used a Box Brownie Six-16 camera, which he received for his 13th birthday, to take pictures of Marian Anderson, the African-American contralto, when she visited his school. A year earlier she had sung at the Lincoln Memorial after being denied use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the hall. “When I got the pictures back from the drugstore, everybody wanted some,” Stewart told WBGO. “I made $2. That was during the Depression. I got a quarter-a-week allowance. So $2 was a lot of money.”
He took piano lessons for eight years, at his mother’s insistence, but the only thing he could successfully play, he said, was Bach’s Minuet in G.
Stewart graduated from Ohio University in 1949 and became an assistant to his fellow student, Herman Leonard, at his studio in Manhattan. Leonard, a distinctive photographer of ‘noirish’ images of musicians, introduced Stewart to the jazz clubs in Harlem and on 52nd Street.
Drafted into the Army, Stewart found worked as a military photographer, and afterwards returned to work for Leonard and took over the studio in 1956 when Leonard went overseas to photograph American actor Marlon Brando during the filming of “The Teahouse of the August Moon” in Japan. Leonard died in 2010.
In 1964, Stewart joined John Coltrane as he recorded the album “A Love Supreme” at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. With a Rolleiflex camera, he photographed the rehearsal as Coltrane, with his saxophone, led the pianist McCoy Tyner, the drummer Elvin Jones and the bassist Jimmy Garrison. Stewart took 72 photographs. These were undeveloped for 50 years.
Looking at a sheet of the rediscovered work with a reporter for Smithsonian magazine in 2014, Stewart singled out one that showed Coltrane sitting at a piano, lost in thought. “I was looking for a decisive moment,” Stewart said.
“If you say Count Basie, a thousand photographers might have photographed him,” Stewart said in an interview with the Newark radio station WBGO in 2016. “I want my pictures to say, ‘These pictures are by Chuck Stewart.’”
He did not find it easy to describe how he had created his most distinctive work. Carol Friedman, a friend and fellow photographer, said he had distinguished himself through his relationships with the artists. “If you look through Chuck’s images,” Friedman said in an interview, “what is immediately apparent is that his subjects have let him into their inner sanctum. They like him and they trust him. Whether he’s documenting them at a recording session or capturing them in the privacy of his own studio, he knew how to defer to the moment in time that unfolded before him.”
Photograph: Chuck Stewart by Chester Higgins Jr. (top)