RIP Photographer Hugh Bell

Hugh Bell
Copyright Chester Higgins Jr.

Last week I was informed that legendary photographer Hugh Bell had passed away on October 31, 2012.

Those who know me know I don’t take words like “legendary” lightly. You may not have heard of Hugh Bell, yet despite his relative anonymity within photography history, this title is well deserved.

Hugh Cecil Lancelot Bell was born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants from St. Lucia. Bell studied at NYU and upon graduation was invited by Edward Steichen to participate in the infamous and simultaneously controversial 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Although he photographed fashion and still life for several American magazines, it’s Bell’s jazz work of the 1950’s and ’60s that he’s most notable for. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine had an internship with Bell at his NYC studios. I had the privilege of visiting his studio and upon entering was immediately struck by a photo of Billie Holiday (below) hanging on the wall. I thought how amazing this man must’ve been to be able to get so close to the larger-than-life singer!

Billie Holliday, 1957
Copyright Hugh Bell

Hugh Bell got close to Billie and a whole host of musicians. In the midst of all that jazz, Bell was comfortable and ready to shoot. What’s most noticeable about his photos are their tight compositions. Like the title of one of his most iconic photos, “Hot Jazz”, you can imagine Bell sweating it out in these hot jazz clubs. The musicians would call with melodic notes their instruments and Bell would respond with his: a camera.

Duke Ellington, 1973
Copyright Hugh Bell

Bell captured the varying intensities of jazz. In each of his close ups you see (a) genius at work. Some may argue that jazz is best experienced through sound, but Bell certainly showed us that the essence of this uniquely American art form could also be felt through photography. I certainly hope to see his archive of work in a retrospective somewhere soon… Rest in peace, Hugh Bell.

Hot Jazz, 1954
Copyright Hugh Bell

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