When artist Otto Neals took a seat next to me at a street renaming ceremony in honor of the late Elombe Brath Saturday in Harlem, he had a copy of Breuckelen with himself on the cover and it caught my eye. I thought it was the latest edition of the art and culture magazine published in Brooklyn, but it was an October 2014 edition.
Breuckelen is an extremely attractive, coffee-table sized magazine and it was even more alluring with Neals on the cover. Later, I began reading it, mainly interested in the works by Neals, but I was soon drawn to an interview with Hugh Bell. For several pages, Bell, a photographer who died in 2012, related his experiences coming of age in Harlem and beginning a long career as a photographer who was particularly interested in capturing images of jazz musicians.
Three of his photos—Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Bobby Timmons—are featured in the magazine, and thus began my pursuit of the man and his art.
Hugh Cecil Bell was born June 22, 1927, “in some hospital in Harlem,” he told the magazine’s interviewer. “I am not sure which one.” Both his parents were from St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and he said his father worked in the court after arriving in New York City. His mother “lived the life of middle-class West Indian woman,” he said.
Bell attended George Washington High School and later studied two years at City College before transferring to NYU, where he majored in film and began to work in television doing commercials. A chance encounter with documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock put him on a solid professional path as a photographer. After a brief stint as Leacock’s assistant, Leacock arranged for him to travel to Spain on an assignment, with a side trip to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza. “I’m not sure what year that was,” he said, although it was probably in the mid-50s.
His job in Spain was to photograph bull fighters, most notably the great Luis Miguel Dominguin who was often in the company of such celebrities as Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and Ernest Hemingway. This assignment was very lucrative and Leacock kept Bell with him, despite the less than endearing comments from his racist friends.
Bell had been dispatched to Spain because of the rivalry brewing between the major matadors, and there was an expectation of a showdown between them. Bell said that he was the only Black photographer there. From his work in Spain and Ibiza, he compiled an impressive portfolio of pictures, which helped him to land other assignments from such prominent publications as Esquire, Ebony, Avant Garde and Essence. With a stream of steady gigs, he was able to open his own studio in Greenwich Village.
Then came a prestigious opportunity to work with the legendary Edward Steichen and his “The Family of Man” exhibit. One of Bell’s photographs, “Hot Jazz,” had won a prize in Popular Photography magazine, which brought him to the attention of Steichen. “He was curator of the exhibit,” Bell recalled, and the exhibit was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art. “I didn’t attend the opening, nor did anyone else.”
Bell said his contribution to the exhibit that included such famous photographers as Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Irving Penn did not bring him the success many thought it would. In fact, to make ends meet, he took a job as a cameraman on local television shows.
When he wasn’t working in a television studio, Bell was in search of the next jazz concert or nightclub date with major jazz musicians. Among his favorite performers were vocalists, none more fascinating than Billie Holiday. He said she could be a “tough woman” so he had to be aware of her moods and when to shoot.
When asked if he ever participated in the Civil Rights Movement, he said he hadn’t because most of that took place down South. On the issue of race, he said with his photography, “I am more interested in the art of it than the theme, such as the Civil Rights Movement.”
He added, “My theme was, ‘Am I shooting a good picture?’”
His portrait of pianist Bobby Timmons in the heat of a solo is indicative of the intimacy he could bring to a moment.
Bell rarely had an exhibit of his photographs as that was never a concern of his. In his way of seeing things, he said, “Either they liked my work or not.” Photography for him was three words: “point of view.”
As for his legacy, he told the interviewer he hoped his “work had some kind of effect on people.”
For more than seven years he battled kidney failure and in 2012 he was diagnosed with leukemia. These debilitations made the challenge of a recent stroke all the more difficult to endure.
Bell died Oct. 31, 2012, at a time when Hurricane Sandy was damaging the region. He is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.