John Stewart (1919-2017) lived a long and fascinating life. Born in London and raised in Paris, he was drafted into the British Army – a six-year stint, of which three-and-a-half were spent in POW camps on the River Kwai, which he survived thanks to his ability to learn Korean. It was only in 1951, after a long period of searching for a career, that he discovered photography. He went to New York with shots of Picasso, Matisse and Braque, and attended Alexey Brodovitch’s weekly classes.
Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar and the shaper of photography in America in the mid-20th century, offered him a contract on the condition that he became a “maid-of-all-work:” fashion, beauty, portraits, still-life. Once a week Brodovitch held classes for about 20 professional photographers in Richard Avedon’s studio in New York. He was a hard task master and nothing mattered to him outside of talent, imagination and originality. After a gruelling apprenticeship Stewart then set up the first of many studios.
In the mid-70s, Stewart first abandoned advertising and later editorial work, turning to still-life and devoting himself exclusively to producing his own images. Paradoxically, his years in Asia greatly influenced both his vision and his travels. Although he worked wherever he found his subjects, he favoured the studio with its set space and controllable light. In these images, Stewart strove to ‘make’ photographs rather than ‘take’ them and the results are far removed from his photo-journalist roots. Classical, intuitive and imbued with a powerful stillness, he manages to get beyond the surface, transmitting more than just the subject in each photograph.
The Fresson Process:
To help him in his quest to ‘create’ photographs rather than ‘take’ them, Stewart often used a 19thcentury process of making photographic prints known as Charcoal Printing. It is still practiced in Paris by the descendants of the inventor, Theodore-Henri Fresson, and uses pigments rather than silver salts which, according to Stewart, ‘allow for deep, powerful blacks and a kind of sensuality unknown in conventional painting.’