Frank Stewart is not just a photographer; he’s an artist. While many people know him for his jazz photography, he has also taken images of art, joy, love, and people’s environments in Africa and Cuba to the Caribbean and New Orleans for three decades. Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present, his first museum retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, displays the breadth of this work. Interactive activities with Stewart, including a portfolio review for photographers and a meditation session, will complement the exhibition, opening June 10 and continuing through September 3.
Co-curators Ruth Fine, former senior curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art, who first met Stewart in 1999, and poet, scholar, and professor Fred Moten envision the retrospective as a visual autobiography of Stewart’s life. Alongside his captivating images, the exhibition will include some of his old cameras and photographs of him and fellow artists of the Kamoinge Workshop, a New York-based collective of African-American photographers. Stewart wrote the label for each picture on display with the aim of telling a complete narrative of his life.
As a result of the lack of Blackness he encountered growing up in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, Stewart used his camera to capture the history and evolution of Black culture.
“I always wanted to go to Africa to find out the roots, and then I wanted to go to the Caribbean to find out how it got codified and then New Orleans to see what it ended up as in terms of music,” Stewart told Hyperallergic.
His talents have earned him several awards and unique opportunities. He was the first photographer artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and photographed the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics and the Democratic National Convention for the Chicago Defender, among historic events. Stewart was one of the first photographers to enter communist Cuba under the leadership of former president Fidel Castro. He was the senior photographer of Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the concert hall and orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis, from 1990 to 2020.
Stewart’s artistic view on photography stems from his early days studying painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1962. He transitioned to photography after realizing he could see his failures faster and improve more quickly.
He took his first photos in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with his mom’s Kodak Brownie camera. Shortly after photographing the march, Stewart encountered The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, which transformed his life and perspective on photographs and would later lead him to move to New York to study under DeCarava, Joel Meyerowitz, Arnold Newman, Jack Whitten, and George Nelson Preston at the Cooper Union in 1971.
“What I got from Roy [DeCarava] was the love for Black folks that he had, and it showed in his work,” Stewart said. “I was hoping that the same kind of love and empathy I have for Black folks was showing in my work, too.” Inspired by DeCarava and Hughes’s major collaboration, he and his Kamoinge brothers published The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family in 2004.
After graduating with a BFA, Stewart met Romare Bearden, whom he worked with for over a decade. “Everything I got from Bearden was osmosis, just by being close to him. He would say a certain thing, or he would tell me some stories, or he would show me what he was doing, and that influenced how I constructed my frames,” he said.
Stewart used the lessons he gleaned from these major figures to take stunning and profound photographs that speak to his subjects’ humanity and emotions. “Juneteenth ’93, 19th of June Celebration, Mexia, Texas” (1993), a close-up black-and-white image of a man and a woman dancing, their faces hidden and their limbs interlocked, showcases his ability to portray musicians as well as the intimate moments experienced by the audience. “Smoke and the Lovers, Memphis” (1992), taken in Stewart’s hometown at a restaurant where the owners knew his whole family, allows the viewer to feel the calm and familiarness of being in a homely atmosphere. A black-and-white photo titled “Radio Players Series (Or The Bus)” (1987), part of his LIFE magazine series Youth in Harlem, shows the tension of Black love. The image depicts a young couple wearing button-up shirts and wide-leg pants sitting on a bus looking in opposite directions in a way that thoughtfully brings the viewer into a moment of intimacy.
Stewart’s image-making and career reflect the extensive impact that music has had on his work. On weekdays, his mother played rhythm and blues; on Sundays, she only played gospel. His photograph on view titled “Stomping the Blues” (2004), of a performance of Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio about slavery and its aftermath Blood on the Fields, depicts musicians playing trumpets and clapping their way off stage as well as audience member’s reactions. The image embodies Stewart’s mission to compose an innovative image while capturing the feelings of everyone in the room. Beyond his jazz work, Stewart aimed at everyday musicians’ lives, ensuring that their stories were not overlooked.
“Very few musicians got documented back in the early days, except for the famous ones,” he said. “For every famous one, there were 10 or 15 guys who were trying to play the music, and those guys needed to be documented as well.”
Like his photos of musicians, Stewart’s other images transport the viewer to different cultures and moments. In “Clock of the Earth, Mamfe, Ghana” (1998), three women form a triangle holding a basket on their heads as they walk in the early morning to get water as a woman walks ahead and a boy runs off in the background. The stillness and quietness of the image portray the essence of a morning in Ghana. “Bicycle II, Cienfuegos” (2004) taken on the southern coast of Cuba is a black-and-white image that shows Stewart balancing form and space to emphasize the ethos of places unknown to him. “Goree Island Painter” (2006) illustrates Stewart’s ability to balance color and pigmentation. Against the bright orange background of the Slave Castle, a museum and memorial dedicated to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade in Senegal, a Black man turns away from the camera, so that only his back is visible. The backdrop enhances the Black man’s skin tone, achieving Stewart’s goal of creating a metaphor for slavery, and sparks the emotions of the pain and suffering enslaved Black people faced. His compositions and attention to detail capture the ethos of places unknown to him.
Stewart is currently focused on photographing the catastrophes caused by climate change and its environmental impacts. His image “Katrina: Hammond B-3, 9th Ward, New Orleans” (2007) depicts the damage to a keyboard due to Hurricane Karina. The instrument’s color and texture and the image’s composition illustrate the sadness and damage caused by the storm, which destroyed more than 100 churches in New Orleans; only 11 survived.
“Back in the day, it was all black and white, but now everybody’s shooting color and digital photography. Everybody’s got a camera now, everybody’s a photographer,” he said. “I’m trying to be an artist. So I hope that sets me apart from the average person with a camera.”
Editor’s note 6/12/23 10:40am EDT: A previous version of this article referred to Ruth Fine as former director at the National Gallery of Art; she was the former senior curator of special projects in modern art. The article has been corrected.