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Thursday 25 June 2015 at 6.30 pm, Palazzo Santa Margherita in corso Canalgrande 103, Modena, sees the opening of “Art Kane. Visionary”, curated by Jonathan Kane, Holly Anderson and Guido Harari, on display until 20 September 2015. Organised and produced by the Galleria civica di Modena and the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena in collaboration with the Solares Fondazione delle Arti of Parma and the Wall of Sound Gallery of Alba, this major retrospective dedicated to Art Kane, 20 years after his death and in the 90th anniversary of his birth, features for the first time in Italy some 100 photographs – both famous and previously unknown – that contributed to shaping the visual imagery of the second half of the 20th century. Part of the exhibition will be given over to the portraits and the well-known photographs of the leading musical icons of the Sixties, another no less consistent section to social commitment (especially the fight for civil rights of Afro-Americans and Native Americans, religious fundamentalism, Vietnam, the nuclear nightmare of Hiroshima, consumerism, growing environmental decay), to existential visionary reflections created from the ‘sandwiching’ of several slides (a pioneering technique in a pre-Photoshop age), to the photographic illustrations of texts by Dylan and the Beatles, fashion, without forgetting the evolutions of American society, all captured with such an original and visionary gaze as to conquer honours, prizes and the front covers of the most prestigious magazines around the world. “I want to communicate the invisible elements in a personality,” said Art Kane, summing up the whole of his poetics in a few words. In the words of Andy Warhol: “I think of Art Kane as being strong, say, like a pumpkin sun in a blue sky. Like the sun, Art beams his eye straight at his subject, and what he sees, he pictures – and it's usually a dramatic interpretation of personality.”

"Art Kane was my idol – remembers Franco Fontana – almost a mirage for me, as I admired him from afar. Then I met him in ‘77 in Arles, and we became ‘colour’ buddies, linked by an unforgettable relationship of friendship and intimacy. He was a man of great genius, of great intelligence and creativity. Driven by the impossible myth of an eternal youth and a continual rebirth, he took his life by the horns: he even wanted to make it into a musical. He went around New York on a Velosolex, and one evening he took me to the legendary Studio 54, where he turned up dressed as a cowboy from head to toe. He loved women and he photographed them with a degree of sensitivity and eroticism which I greatly appreciated. He loved Italy, which he visited on several occasions, also for a number of workshops that I organised. Hypercritical with the students, he would lay into them ruthlessly, provoking them and encouraging them to dig ever deeper into their own subconscious.”

Art Kane is the legendary photographer that at 10am on one August day of 1958 immortalised some 57 jazz greats on a sidewalk on 126th Street, in Harlem, unaware he was creating the single most significant image in the history of jazz. This photograph is universally famous as ‘Harlem 1958’, and it won him the Art Directors Club of New York gold medal. The image was so powerful that it inspired a book, a 1994 documentary which was shortlisted for the Oscars (“A Great Day in Harlem”), and more recently a film by Spielberg, “The Terminal” (2004), starring Tom Hanks.

Kane’s lens captured the greatest artists of all musical genres, from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, Cream, Sonny & Chér, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, turning them into countless icons, like, one out of many, the memorable shot of The Who wrapped up in a Union Jack. But Kane was much more than this. He was one of the true masters of 20th-century photography, whose visionary images have influenced the social conscience of many generations, leaving a mark on world’s culture. Kane’s photographs are today in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Art Kane (1925-1995) worked for fashion, publishing, producing celebrity portraits, travel reportages, and treating the nude with an implacable and innovative gaze. Like for his contemporaries, Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) and Helmut Newton (1924-2004), Kane’s work gravitated around three main elements: strong colours, eroticism and a surreal sense of humour. A standard bearer of that wild spirit which – above all thanks to him – came to the fore after the Second World War: inflexible, uncompromising and sentimental. Kane was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1925, (the Kanofsky's – that was his real surname – had to have arrived from Ukraine circa 1900-1910). He fought World War II in an extravagant contingent dealing with inflatable tanks designed to mislead the Germans. After graduating with full marks from the Cooper Union in 1950, and after having studied with Alexey Brodovitch at the New School, together with Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus, at the age of 27 he became the youngest art director in history for the magazine ‘Seventeen’. 1958 marked his consecration with the portrait of jazz legends on a Harlem sidewalk. Through his work, while the battle for civil rights and the Vietnam War raged, Kane responded to the conscience of the period in which he was living, giving a popular expression of it, showing a great ability to communicate with the public at large.

In a period in which camera technology – still analogical – was proceeding at breakneck speed, the 35mm format was a liberation for Kane: “I love the ritualistic aspect of the medium, the embryonic sense of losing myself in the magic window of the viewfinder, the incredible gratification of finding myself in the temple created by me. I looked ridiculous with my jacket over my head because nobody would cover up like that when shooting with a 35mm, but I just loved that sense of alienation, of being totally removed from the outside world, as if I had my own little theatre available to me.” 30 years prior to Photoshop, armed with nothing more than a lightbox and a magnifying glass, Kane invented the ‘sandwich’ image, placing two transparencies in the same mount. Developing this technique beyond all limits, Kane became an outright pioneer of photographic narration, which he carried out also through the use of metaphor and poetry, substantially transforming photography into illustration. Kane took the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties by storm, creating new standards for commercial photography, fashion and celebrities portraits, nude, with a wild use of 35mm cameras, wide angle lenses and hyper-saturated colour films, his images endowed with his surreal humour and high erotic charge. Kane also made a fundamental contribution to the main fashion magazines of his day, and was behind numerous surprising advertising campaigns for both the fashion and the beauty industries. Very much attached to Italy, he came here on several occasions to take photographs and to stage a series of workshops.

Over the course of his career, Kane received prizes from almost all the photo-design organisations in the United States, including: the American Society of Magazine Photographers, Photographer of the Year, the Newspaper Guild of America, the Page One Award, the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Medal for Distinguished Achievement, the Cooper-Union, the New York Art Directors Club. In 1984 Kane received the American Society of Magazine Photographers Lifetime Achievement Award and was granted major forms of acknowledgement from numerous American institutions and companies.

Art Kane was an illusionist – writes Guido Harari – a master of photographic Impressionism who to this day elicits emotions and distils ideas”. Venice still threatens to disappear, rockstars always announce some Brave New World, solitude in the internet age is even more cosmic, civil rights still have to be renegotiated constantly, environmental degradation pushes us ever more rapidly towards extinction, and Kane, ever so amazingly current, already projected all of this in a fantasy world that seems to amplify today’s reality. In a few years, he revolutionised photography, discovering new techniques and customising others, so as to free it of its presumed ‘truthfulness’. Kane’s photography is pure energy, powerful imagination: “Reality never lives up to the visual expectations it generates,” he once said. “Rather than simply documenting it with my photographs, I’m interested in sharing the way I feel about things.”

All of Kane’s images are permeated with his irrepressible passion for life, for his fellow man, for popular culture to be interpreted through symbols. These are thinking images that always communicate his highly personal point of view on racism and war, on mysticism or sex, on fashion or music. No concern for ‘style’, his is an intuitive approach to photography, disarming in its simplicity, brought to life by a breathtaking variety of ideas, unlikely angles, unique locations, saturated colours. Nothing appears like we would expect: images suggest, provoke, confuse, but it’s the viewer who must complete the picture.

The Fifties also anticipated the colour revolution that Kane picked up on right away, knowing well, as a former art director, how to compose his visions and most of all how to edit them. His ferociously surgical editing has left very rare outtakes in his immense archives: “I immediately understood that photography can also be an act of rejection, where it’s up to you to decide what is to be left out of the picture.”

Kane honed his skills working with such historic long-gone magazines (except “Esquire”) as “Look”, “Life”, “Esquire” and “McCall’s”. At the time they would pay him fabulous amounts of money in order to publish his photographs as long as they would “eliminate small and ugly to emphasize big and heroic”. This would push Kane on his visionary missions even when fashion, and particularly Diana Vreeland, the powerful ‘Vogue’ editor, came knocking at his door. Depth of field, heavy distortion produced by the 21mm wide angle which was invented right at that time, selective focus achieved with 180mm and 500mm telephoto lenses, Kane’s visual vocabulary would also incorporate images that were often conceived to be looked at upside down or even ingenious montages of two transparencies in the same mount: his so-called ‘sandwiches’, of which this exhibition features numerous examples. “These sandwiches are poetry to me in order to escape photo realism. Like in life, things happen, but they’re not necessarily dramatic until you step back and capture their essence based on your memory. Memory is extraordinary. When you’re bold enough to isolate an image from the unidimensional living world, you've got rid of any sense of smell, touch, sound, and any peripheral vision too. For this reason no photograph is the truth, no matter how realistic it is, or how standard the lens you've used is. All photographs are lies, because we’re always editing. In our daily vision we capture one thing at a time, but our eyes keep constantly moving and combine all the elements.”

Wall Street International

21 May, 2015

Editorial