Widely known for his engaging photographs of jazz musicians, Hugh Bell (1927-2012) used his talents as a skilled portraitist, his understanding of the vicissitudes of human emotion, and a Henry Ossawa Tanner inflected exploration of human qualities to capture the vulnerabilities and strengths of his subjects in a way that only a scant few have been able to do.
After graduating from New York University in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Cinematic Art he frequented and photographed the dancehalls of the 50’s, capturing most of the legendary jazz artists, including 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 for the exhibition 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.
As 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. 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.
A career spanning well over 60 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”. A limited edition monograph “Between The Raindrops”, was published in 2006 of Hugh Bell’s work.