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“Chuck Stewart, one of the most prolific and admired photographers in jazz — an intimate chronicler of many of its icons and milestones, including the historic recording session for John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme — died on Jan. 20, 2017 in Teaneck, N.J. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his daughter-in-law Kim Stewart, who has handled the licensing of his images in recent years.
Over a distinguished career that spanned more than 70 years, Stewart shot countless artists in profile and at work, capturing resonant and unguarded images that also tell the story of the music. By his estimate, he shot the cover images for more than 2,000 albums, including a large portion of the Impulse! catalog. He also contributed photographs to a range of publications, including Esquire and the New York Times.
“In my portraits and improvisational shots, I’ve tried to unveil the soul of the artists I photographed and communicate the essence of their craft,” Stewart wrote in his official bio. “That’s why they trusted me: James Brown, John Coltrane, Candido, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Quincy Jones, Machito, Max Roach, Frank Sinatra, and many more. You know their names, but few people have known and photographed them as I have.”
Charles Hugh Stewart was born in Henrietta, Tx. and raised in Tuscon, Az., where he received a Box Brownie camera as a gift on his 13th birthday. It wasn’t long before he put it to professional use, photographing the great opera singer Marian Anderson during her visit to his school. He sold prints to teachers and his fellow students for two dollars apiece.
He attended Ohio University, one of the only colleges in the country to offer a fine arts degree in photography. It was there that he met the older photographer Herman Leonard, who fast became a mentor and friend.
Stewart served in the Army after graduation, working as a combat photographer; he was the only African-American to shoot the postwar atomic bomb tests in 1952. After his service, he accepted an invitation from Leonard to work in his New York studio: “I did a lot of the grunt work, where I learned to set up a shot, and understand what the photographer tries to translate to an audience.”
Eventually Stewart inherited the studio, carrying on Leonard’s legacy in his own language. His images often incorporate darkness as a backdrop, setting up the subject in dramatic relief. Last spring a gallery exhibition of his work ran at WBGO, and he spoke with Doug Doyle about his life and career.
He has also exhibited at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and published a collection called Chuck Stewart’s Jazz Files, on Da Capo Press. Among the honors he has received are the Milt Hinton Award For Excellence in Jazz Photography.
He is survived by a daughter, Marsha Stewart; two sons, David and Christopher; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.” - Nat Chinen - Obituary for WBGO
Some of Chuck Stewart's most famous photos of jazz musicians are now on display in the WBGO hallways. Stewart, born in 1927, is best known for his portraits of jazz singers and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis, as well as artists in the R&B and salsa genres.
Stewart's photographs have graced more than 2,000 album covers. Stewart, who lives in Teaneck, NJ, talked about the process of shooting a star musician:
“When you went to a recording studio, you could take pictures on two occasions. One, when they rehearsed everything before they made a take. And after the take, when they were listening to the playback to determine if whether they were satisfied or if they had to do it again.”
But his photographs were not just about music, he captured the images of great athletes as well as historic moments.
When asked how taking photos has changed since his heyday:
“The digital thing would have put people like me out of business, because I had to know every aspect of what I was doing. My eyes said there is the picture the picture is here. Once I take the picture, how do I improve upon it if I have the time? Then I go into the dark room and improve some more. The final result is a picture I want people to see.”
Stewart takes great pride in his technique and his legacy:
“I wanted all of them (photos) to say that’s Chuck Stewart. Because in the first place, if you were to say Count Basie, there must have been a thousand photographers that have photographed him. Well I wanted my photo to say, this is a picture Chuck Stewart took of Count Basie.”
Doug Doyle’s in-depth interview with Chuck on WBGO can be heard here.