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An artist with a camera, Chuck Stewart, passes at 89

Herb Boyd | 2/3/2017, 4:40 p.m.
There is the photo of Eric Dolphy in deep thought, his bass clarinet resting on his shoulder. Another photo shows ...
Coltrane at Village Vanguard Contributed

There is the photo of Eric Dolphy in deep thought, his bass clarinet resting on his shoulder. Another photo shows a pensive John Coltrane with his wife Alice hovering in the background. And there’s Billie Holiday, elegantly captured in full song.

These were just three photos from Chuck Stewart’s vast collection that, taken together, comprises a pictorial history of the African-American experience. Stewart, who would have been 90 in May, died Friday “peacefully in his sleep,” according to his daughter-in-law, Kim Stewart, in Teaneck, N.J., at the Holy Name Medical Center.

Although it is certainly the gallery of entertainers that escorted Stewart to prominence, including a matchless array of album covers with such notables as Max Roach, Sarah Vaughan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dinah Washington and Charles Mingus, his camera focused beyond the borders of music and show business, and accompanied articles in a variety of magazines.

During a series of interviews in preparation for a documentary of his life, Stewart said he was a teenager when his mother gave him a Brownie box camera. Although he was born in Henrietta, Texas, he was a young student in Tucson, Ariz., when he took the camera to school. “It just happened to be the day the great singer Marian Anderson came to the school, and I took several pictures of her,” he recalled. “After they were developed, I made prints of them and sold them for two dollars apiece. That, you could say, was my beginning as a photographer.”

To continue his education in photography, Stewart attended Ohio University. “It was one of only two universities in the country that offered a major in photography and one that would accept Black students,” he explained to a reporter.

He was a student in college when he struck up a friendship with Herman Leonard, who had already established himself as a photographer in the music industry. With Leonard’s guidance and support, Stewart later acquired some valuable connections with record companies and soon he had a Rolodex of clients—Mercury, Verve, Impulse, Reprise, et al. The record companies placed a number of their performers in front of Stewart’s camera, and he put in pictures what they did in music and song.

A tour of duty in the military as a combat photographer during the Korean War enhanced his career, particularly when he was given the opportunity to be the only African-American to photograph Atom Bomb tests in the early ’50s.

Out of uniform, he was back with Leonard and a regular in the music studios of New York City. His native abilities were a boon in concerts, as Leonard and Stewart quickly mastered the right pose, the right angle, the right lighting. “I didn’t want my subjects picking their nose or doing something distracting,” he said of his style and process. “They had to be elegant or caught in the act of their performance.”

Eventually he inherited Leonard’s studio and many of his clients as he gradually became the “first call” photographer for a session or an album cover. “I cannot imagine anything greater than his portrait of John Coltrane,” said Carol Friedman, who was inspired by Stewart. That photo, she added, “hangs as a shrine” in her home. And she is not alone among those who have copies of the album “A Love Supreme,” a recording session documented by Stewart.

There was never a bad word about Stewart and his work with countless artists, many of them temperamental and easily uncooperative. But Stewart, always low keyed, affable and basically unflappable, kept them in focus on the set and in his lens.

Given the extent of his collection, the enduring attraction of his photos, exhibits were a common event in his busy life. Even so, there was time for the catalogs, brochures and books. One of his publications was “Chuck Stewart’s Jazz Files,” a Da Capo Press edition. And there were awards galore, and among his most cherished was the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography.

Along with Kim Stewart, who was a key coordinator of Stewart’s life, licensing his photos and managing the calls, he is survived by his daughter, Marsha Stewart; two sons, David and Christopher; seven grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

The funeral was Friday, Jan. 27, at Community Baptist Church, 224 First St., Englewood, N.J.