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David Mathews interviews the master portrait photographer in New York

Arnold Newman Photo: David Mathews

Arnold Newman is now 83; he has been a professional photographer for over 60 years, and in that time he has met and photographed some of the most famous, infamous and powerful people of the 20th century. Indeed, on my first visit I was treated to a slide show of some his most famous images. As each one came up on the screen, he would recount memories of the shoot, adding snippets of information about the person or how the shot was achieved or what influenced the structure of the picture. For example, his photograph of Alfried Krupp, the condemned World War II Industrialist, was lit in a particular way that revealed Newman’s rather sinister vision of the man. Often he would refer to his friendship with the person being photographed. Artist Piet Mondrian became his friend and a particular influence on his work, and he is proud to own several of Mondrian’s sketches.

The studio is on the ground floor of a quite ordinary building on 67th Street that was originally built for artists. Arnold’s apartment is just a couple of doors away. Having lived and worked in the same building for over 50 years, he recollects having purchased the property at "rock bottom". The studio has no photographic display to tempt clients, there is only a small label next to the bell in the lobby that gives a clue to the existence of the studio.

The studio perhaps 10 metres square, had a very high ceiling, and windows down one side. There was a workbench, lots of flats, background panels, and posing boxes; relatively speaking the working studio space was quite small. A bank of rather ancient looking, yet functional, electronic flash brollies with modelling lights supplied light. These were fixed in position, as a standard lighting set, and controlled by an equally ancient control panel on the opposite wall. The darkroom which is upstairs along with the main office and workroom, is small, and ideal for one person. It has a wet bench down one side, and enlargers down the opposite side. Again, the equipment is perhaps 30/40 years old, but the enlargers are fitted with modern high quality lenses. It reminded me of the darkroom I used when starting out as an assistant in the sixties. Although I did notice a computer in the corner of the workroom, little concession has been made to new technology. Everything is hand printed and finished. The negatives, I was assured, were stored in a bank vault, not on the premises. Arnold added, that this was primarily to protect the social and cultural value of the work, rather than for any financial concern.

Newman says that he is interested in people, not because they are famous.
It started off with magazines asking him to photograph them, although he also did images for himself. He says it fascinated him because of what they did in their lives – be it a painter, a scientist or politician etc; and "what kind of standing they had in the eyes of the public, in the sense of, do we like their work? do we accept their work and so on?"

He believes that you have to train yourself into what makes a good composition, even if it is a momentary thing, you must automatically recognise it. Newman admires the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, which he says "is so beautifully put together". He tells the story of going around with Cartier-Bresson on a couple occasions while he was shooting. "He would just walk around, looking around, then he would just go ‘snap’, and he would have that picture framed perfectly".

When you started photography, did your parents give you encouragement?
They absolutely encouraged me, which was unusual for Jewish parents, in the middle of the depression… I read somewhere the most successful men were encouraged by their parents.
Did your parents want you to move to New York?
Well I jumped about a little bit, I was born in New York, raised in Atlantic City, and finished High School in Miami Beach. I did an Arts course at Miami Beach University; I wanted to be a painter. But during the depression nobody could earn a living as a painter… I was offered a job in Philadelphia with some friends who had just finished studying under the great Alexey Brodovitch (later to become a celebrated Art Director of Harper’s Bazaar). Then two and a half years later I came north, and I was advised to see Beaumont Newhall who was the only curator and historian, at that time, that we knew of… He discovered me. Then that same day I went to the Museum of Modern Art and they sent me over to see Steiglitz, who took me in. And the next day, Ben Rose my childhood friend, who became a well-known photographer, and I, were offered a two-man show at a commercial type gallery.
That suggests that you considered your work as Art.
Of course!
At that time were you already photographing well-known people?
Well at that moment, June1941, I got discovered, I had that show in a Gallery just off Times Square, everybody in town came, and I was a big creative success, but it was a financial disaster.
What were the images?
I have a book out called "Arnold Newman" by Taschen... it has right from my very first picture I took – a mother and a child (1938). I was offered a job in one of those studios in a department store, and I got tired of doing the same pose. A guy could be the President or the owner of a Company, and another man could be working on an assembly line, and you couldn’t tell the difference – who was who. I said this is not the way to take portraits, and I started experimenting with the artists, because they were my heroes, though I did all sorts of people. Then the war came along.
Do you still have all the negatives from the early time?
We have just mislaid two negatives, so we are going crazy trying to locate them. But the point is, I wasn’t concerned (at the time) if it was art or not, I just wanted to take the best dam pictures that I could.
So who were your heroes at that time?
Oh there were a number of them... when I was a painting student my heroes were from all over the place… they range from cave drawings to Picasso, Mondrian and so on, who I got to know… of course we had a lot of American painters and they started to hand me prints in exchange for my work – I have the original drawings to Mondrian’s "Broadway Boogie Woogie", two little 9 inch drawings in black & white and charcoal.
You are considered to be the father of the environmental portrait?
I did a lot of abstractions, still lives; I did a lot of advertising when my kids were growing up… I was a photojournalist, now I’m a historian – my work is in so many history books, I’ve been at it for 62 years.
How do you react to the phrase "father of the environmental portrait"?
Well I get a little embarrassed, I didn’t aspire to be a public figure or anything like that. I don’t look for (fame), although I have eight honorary Doctorates including one from Bradford, England. The Ritz named a bar after me! It’s fun, but it’s not my aim, I am glad people recognise my work, but I am now overwhelmed by paperwork!
Do you find you are now working more on your archive of work, instead of on the new work?
Too much of that, but it is keeping us afloat and in comfort. I am selling prints that I did right in the beginning, to galleries, at prices, that one print would sell for more than I made in the first two years altogether. Like any other artist that’s how we earn our living, by selling the reproduction of our work.
How much "control" do you have over this?
As strict as possible, Getty (Getty Images) are the people who handle the reproduction of our work. But you have got to have pictures they want.
Has you wife influenced you in your work?
Until recently she worked side by side with me, she is not far behind me, and I’m 83.
Do you think the status of photography and the photographer has changed?
I think that Princess Margaret when she married Snowdon, helped change a great deal of the snobbery. It was true here in the United States, life became so successful around 1936, that a Life (magazine) photographer became important. Too many photographers now, think that they are the above hoi polloi.
When you are commissioned to photograph somebody especially of the rich and famous, what goes through your mind?
Well, I want to know as much as I can about that person.
Do you think of a single image?
I can look around and I can see pictures no matter where I am. It’s a matter of knowledge, instinct, years of training and everything else, although my painting prepared me for a lot of them.
When you go on a shoot do you have a plan "B"?
I have a plan – based upon desperation!! I carry two or three times the equipment that I need. If the job is in New York or Manhattan then I might go a couple of days before to see what it’s all about and I can prepare not only physically and technically, but creatively.
When you go to a location how aware are you of the light?
I try to make it (the image) so believable, that people accept it as reality. I took lots of equipment to photograph a writer who wrote about loneliness. I walked in, and there was a single light up there, he stood there, and I said my god I don’t need anything else. That was one of the most successful pictures I did that year.
Do you mix with photographers?
Oh yes, I enjoy being with them like I enjoy being with painters. I have a big collection of other people’s work – a museum collection, I’ve even bought a few pieces because I loved them so much. I don’t think of them as a collection so much, as something to enjoy.
What photographs do you like?
I just love good pictures, and they can be so different. From Coburn not only the sentimental pictures but also his abstractions. Caponigro, the farm security administration, – I could go on and on. When my wife and I were young and in love, I got two Julia Margaret Cameron images. What did Julia Margaret Cameron invent? Nobody seems to recognise it! She invented something terribly important! What? She invented the close-up!
Your work is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
I had a big show there, and a book, then I had a show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. I think I am the only photographer to have both.
What is a good photograph?
Well I don’t know, perhaps it’s something that pleases almost everybody.
But it has to have a certain technical expertise?
Well we take that for granted, then again there some people didn’t have technical expertise and still turned out powerful photographs, like Weegee. Bernice Lambert never made her own prints neither did Cartier-Bresson, he had a man printing for him all the time.
After 62 years in photography, what’s next?
I have a show coming up in Paris and I have ideas that I want to do in photography. I also want to start on my memoirs, which I think is important because there are a lot of misconceptions as to how I started. Sometimes I don’t believe how well known I am.
What’s your reaction to digital work?
It’s the future! Right now, some of the images superficially do not seem sharp when you get close to them. I have a feeling that it’ll eventually replace traditional methods, but film will always be better, maybe!

I was then reminded of something that Arnold Newman had said to students a few days before – "You can take a picture outside, on a porch, or in a doorway, of a mother and a young baby, and any of those photographs – even the blurred or out of focus, would interest nobody except maybe the parents or grand-parents. But it takes a much better photographer to take a photograph of that same mother and baby to interest the whole neighbourhood. And there’s still a third possibility. It takes truly a great photographer, to take a photograph of that same mother and infant, to interest the whole world; and that’s what we call an artist. Can you interest the whole world with your photographs? Not just your friends, not just your teachers. You are going to have to work your backsides off, and you have to keep looking and looking. You have to look until your eyes begin to blur, and then you may be able to understand what makes a good photograph."

Arnold Newman clearly believes in the traditional craft and values of photography, and that photography is an Art. He recognises that there are a lot of "wonderful visual artists" now working with computers. However, he thinks that it is just another technique, in principle, no different from film in a camera. He says "What is there, what you create, the kind of image you create, is the most important thing. Today, too much emphasis placed on the subject matter. Now any kind of subject matter is fine, that is entirely up to you. But, if that is all that interests you, you haven’t put a picture together. I don’t care if it is two people making love, or a whole bunch of people killing each other, or if it is a famous person. What difference does it make if it is not a good photograph?"

Whilst many of us can tell stories about the photographs we have taken, in the case of Arnold Newman, these stories relate to people who are, or have been important well known world figures, particularly within the arts, politics and science. After over 60 years as a photographer and so much public attention in his work through exhibitions and books (he has published 13 books), one might expect a certain level of arrogance and self-importance. Not so, he was the consummate professional, modest about his success, yet clearly a businessman. He was enthusiastic about his influences, and passionate about "good photography". My lasting impression of Arnold Newman was of someone who lives and breathes photography, and enjoys his status as an artist. Of someone who has embraced the world of painting and Art, and that this has fundamentally influenced his life and his work. And, of someone who has enriched society with his images. I also take away a quotation, learned whilst in conversation with him "Remember, we don’t take pictures with a camera, we use our hearts and minds".

Original Photos of Stravinksy and Georgia o'Keeffe by Arnold Newman to order click here

Among his best-known portraits are those of Max Ernst, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keefe, Igor Stravinsky, Alfried Krupp, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. The 76 photographic portraits of eminent Britons that Newman made for the National Portrait Gallery in London were published in the book The Great British (1979). Many other portraits are collected in the books One Mind's Eye (1974), Faces USA (1978), Artists: Portraits from Four Decades (1980), Arnold Newman: Five Decades (1986), and Arnold Newman's Americans (1992).

"Arnold Newman" is published by Taschen, 276pp., 240ills, price £24.99, ISBN 3-8228-7193-1. The book contains an essay by Philip Brookman, and most of Newman’s famous images from the "Mother and Child" (1938) to Bill Clinton President of the United States (1999)

© David Matthews 2001
David Mathews lecturers on photography at Falmouth College of Arts in the UK

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