Monday, February 18, 2013

Arnold Newman: Early Work

Barbara, knowing that I’m a big admirer of Arnold Newman’s work, gave me a copy of “Arnold Newman: Early Work” (Steidl, 2008) for my recent birthday.  It’s a large format, beautifully printed book with duotone reproductions of Mr. Newman’s work from 1935 or so until 1941 when he settled in New York, had his first major show, and quickly became a big name.
Knowing that he worked in a portrait studio from his earliest days as a photographer I expected his early work to be portraits.  Not so!  Think Walker Evans or even Paul Strand.  Think Helen Levitt. Well, not quite – think Helen Levitt stopping to chat up her subjects, carefully posing them, photographing them with a 4x5 camera -- and still catching the spontaneity and sense of life that is in her photographs.  
Mr. Newman’s early work shows the same degree of consideration and attention to formal arrangement as his studio portraits.  How he managed to do this with street photographs is a mystery to me.  I suppose he set up his tripod, carefully selected his position and direction, composed all the stationary objects, and waited for the crowd to take the shape he wanted.
There are a few still life photographs of a violin maker’s patterns in the book as well as the justly famous photograph of a rack of violins.  The way he arranged the violin patterns foreshadows his use of materials from an artist’s environment as props in his portraits of musicians, painters and sculptors (Isaac Stern, Piet Mondrian, Jacob Lawrence, Isamu Noguchi).  The cutouts and collaged images in the book foreshadow his use of torn and reassembled portraits (Dr. Seuss, Paul Strand, Andy Warhol). 
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Newman twice.  The first was at a weekend workshop held at the downtown location of Yuen Lui Studios.  Mr. Newman and Wah Lui, son of Yuen Lui and an excellent portrait photographer himself, were friends.  The workshop was held in a cavernous upper floor studio graced with a high ceiling and a huge skylight.  It soon became evident that the secret to Mr. Newman’s portrait technique was largely his personal warmth and humor and his relentless attention to detail.  The highlight of the weekend was his demonstration of doing a standing dual portrait of Wah Lui and his lovely wife.  Accompanied by a steady stream of witty patter he spent about 20 minutes nudging them into the exact pose that he wanted, adjusting a couple of huge reflectors to put the light where he wanted it and getting the camera position micrometrically correct – and then 30 seconds or so to blast three double-sided film holders through the camera.  It was like watching a fine pianist play a Chopin ballade – no flashy technique, just every note in the right place and the right time.  And I’ll bet that if you had stopped him anywhere along the way he would not have been able to articulate what he was doing.  When he finished, the attendees applauded.
The second was at a lecture and reception at the University of Washington.  I don’t recall the occasion but I do recall that it also involved the painter and University of Washington professor Jacob Lawrence.  It may have been in conjunction with Mr. Lawrence’s retirement from the University.  Mr. Newman and Mr. Lawrence -- old friends; the famous Newman portrait of Jacob Lawrence was done in 1959 -- spoke of their art and poked witty, gentle fun at each other.  Both artists made it very clear that they worked in an intuitive way – playing with the materials and the process until it came out right.  Mr. Newman reiterated his famous aphorism: “After you say ‘It works.’ then you can discuss details.”  What neither of them said was that the foundation under their process was “good chops” -- skill internalized by of doing it until it is below the conscious level. 
Good chops for a photographer applies both to camera handling and to knowing which way to point the camera.  Arnold Newman: Early Works clearly shows that Newman had good chops as early as 1935.

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