Frank Stewart is the ultimate storyteller through his photographs. His images are currently at the Phillips Collection until Sept. 3 in the exhibition, “Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present.”
Occupying the entire third floor at the Phillips and divided into eight small galleries, Stewart’s work will impact viewers immediately. Five Stewart pieces are also in an inaugural exhibition at the museum’s satellite location in the Phillips at THEARC in Southeast, D.C. Both museum locations capture Stewart’s travels throughout the U.S., Africa, Cuba, and Haiti, taking us through his exploration of people of African descent.
“I’ve been to Africa, maybe, 15 times in my life,” Stewart said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Informer. “Where did the culture come from? How did the culture become the culture? How did this magnificent culture come to exist? How do you come through slavery and become this culture that everybody in the world admires and takes from us all the time?”
The collection goes back to some of Stewart’s first photos.
Using a Kodak Brownie Camera at age 14, Stewart took pictures at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The film was processed at a drugstore.
Viewing his early photos, it’s clear Stewart understood composition at a very early age.
Stewart’s portfolio reveals that he has spent a lot of time examining people and their expressions. Some of those faces belong to celebrities, but many do not. There’s a couple together but looking in opposite directions showing obvious tension. A Black man with a photo of a cross and chain on his back next to where he was shot, giving a message of protection from God.
Stewart said he was surprised to capture Fidel Castro in a black-and-white photo.
From the celebrity realm, Stewart gives us Miles Davis in the green room before a performance taken when he freelanced for “Ebony” magazine. Also in this exhibition, you see how Stewart captured jazz giants, pianist Ahmad Jamal, drummer Roy Haynes, pianist Marcus Roberts, drummer Art Blakey, pianist Walter Davis, Jr. and many more.
Stewart may be best known as the senior staff photographer for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) for 30 years. He traveled with the Wynton Marsalis-led orchestra documenting performances and candid scenarios.
“I originally met Wynton in New Orleans when he was 14. He was with his Dad Ellis and his brother Branford,” said Stewart. “Then in the 1980s, I started a book about him after I asked to go on the road with him for a weekend, and the rest is history. We got to be best friends. When he became artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he took me in with him.”
Stewart has a lot of images from countries, states and neighborhoods. Faces tell just as much as landscapes. Traveling to Ghana, Stewart caught a chief’s granddaughter gazing directly into his camera. It is the type of photo that mesmerizes the viewer.
Other powerful images include Children in Cuba on their bicycles and a woman looking A similar reaction came from images in Cuba with children on their bicycles and a woman looking out a window. Some of the most impactful images from Stewart were from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, presenting another view of the devastation.
With “Frank Stewart’s Nexus,” the photographer gifted the museum with three of his masterpieces. They include “Clock of the Earth, Mamfe Ghana,” “Miles in the Green Room,” and “Stomping the Blues,” a photo of Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO. Plan to spend more than one visit at this exhibition. It is a lot to take in and a delight to absorb.
Visit the Phillips Collection website to learn more about “Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present,” on view until Sept. 3. https://www.phillipscollection.org.