1927 - 2012
Hugh Bell, Hot Jazz Photographer, Dies at 85
Hugh Cecil Bell, career photographer and a New York native of St. Lucian decent, passed away in the wake of storm Sandy in New York on Oct 31.
An 8-year battle with kidney failure and a 2012 diagnosis of leukemia left Mr. Bell frail and unable to overcome the complications of a recent stroke. His survivors, including 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren, announced the death.
Bell studied Cinematic Art at NYU and frequented and photographed the dancehalls of the 50’s, capturing most of the legendary artists of the era’s most radical music form. Artists like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In 1955, Edward Steichen selected Bell’s “Hot Jazz” for ‘The Family of Man’ exhibition. Over 2 million photos were submitted and only 503 were selected. The exhibit showcased work from 273 photographers including Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Irving Penn. ‘The Family of Man’ was first shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and then toured 38 countries over several years. It is considered to be the most successful photography exhibit ever.
A child of Harlem during the great depression, Bell moved to the Village to pursue his vision and establish the multiple studios carrying his name. A chance encounter with the late documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock sent Bell to Spain, where he was able to capture everyday life in Ibiza of a time and place of serenity and innocence that cannot be regained. During these trips he was also able to capture Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall and matador Luis Miguel Dominguin. Despite objections from clients to work with an African American, Leacock always insisted on the inclusion of the young Hugh Bell. And as an act of loyalty and appreciation, Bell extensively documented the Leacock family over a span of 4 decades.
In later years Hugh Bell enjoyed a successful career as a commercial photographer, working for brands like Coca Cola. His photographs have been exhibited extensively in New York. They have been immortalized on album covers like “after hours with Sarah Vaughan” and in the pages of Avant Garde, Esquire, Essence and others, along with K.Abe’s “Jazz Giants” and “In Between The Raindrops”, a limited edition retrospective.
His work resides in the permanent collection of the MoMA and in several private collections.
“I never held a regular job,” he said, when asked what his proudest achievement was.
And he kept finding inspiration and shooting until his formidable physique betrayed him, well into his illness. He was loved by his family and friends and will be missed by many in the creative community.
Published in New York Times from Nov. 26 to Nov. 27, 2012.