During the second World War he served in an unusual deception unit known as The Ghost Army, an incubator for many young artists. He became, at age 26, the art director for Seventeen Magazine, one of the youngest art directors of a major publication. He began to explore his passion for photography, eventually studying under the legendary Alexey Brodovitch. In 1958, he got an assignment that would launch his career as a photographer, when he assembled 57 legendary jazz musicians, for Esquire magazine in 1958 in Harlem. Eventually the Esquire photograph would became the basis for a documentary, A Great Day in Harlem.
His work was provocative, experimental, and playful, sometimes rejected by magazines for nudity or irreverence. Kane said of his portraiture: "You have to own people...grab them, twist them into what you want to say about them." He was quoted in the book The Nikon Image as saying: "I've always considered myself an illustrator, a literate photographer interested in producing images that reflect the essence of an idea...I wanted to interpret the human scene rather than simply record it."
Art Kane is credited in the book Stainless Steel Illusion for the photograph of John DeLorean with the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car that was the basis for the only magazine advertisement ever created by DeLorean Motor Company. In 1989, the Art Kane Photo Workshops were created in Cape May, New Jersey. They were week-long workshops with notable photographers.
In 1995, Kane, 69, committed suicide by shooting himself. He is survived by at least three sons, Nikolas Kane, Anthony Kane, and Jonathan Kane, the former drummer of Swans and for Rhys Chatham.