Newman at Work
In conjunction with the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass, which opens February 12 at the Ransom Center, University of Texas Press and the Ransom Center will publish Arnold Newman: At Work by Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger. The book provides a contextual overview of the Ransom Center's Newman archive, revealing unprecedented insights into Newman's process and creativity. Included among Newman's signature images are his contact sheets, Polaroids, and work prints with his handwritten notes. Below is an excerpt from Marianne Fulton's introduction to the book.
"On Assignment With Arnold Newman," is a 1957 article by Arthur Goldsmith for Popular Photography. It is one of the best-sustained descriptions of the photographer at work.
The magazine assigned Newman to make a portrait of artist-sculptor Alexander Calder, who is best known for originating the mobile. Goldsmith and Newman traveled to the artist's Connecticut glass-walled studio, but the photographer brought along a pair of folding light stands and two small floodlights, just in case. As he pointed out, when "you're shooting on location you're bound to bring something you don't need and leave behind something you do."
In the article, Goldsmith describes Newman's challenges and approach; he "likes to work deliberately and carefully, ‘building' his pictures on the ground-glass of a 4 x 5." Goldsmith adds that with Newman, "control takes precedence over convenience." Here Goldsmith is talking about Newman's preference for tungsten illumination over flash because it allowed him to see and adjust the light before he made an exposure (actually, at this time, Newman did not even own a flash).
The comment about control taking precedence echoes the photographer's own words about working with a portrait subject published in an interview with Goldsmith, "Arnold Newman on Portraiture," that appeared in the same issue of the magazine. Goldsmith asks the photographer about being "an advocate of complete control in photography."
In part, Newman responds: "It's a matter of being able to isolate mentally what is in front of you and controlling it if possible under the given circumstances. . . . Basically, I think photography is a matter of controlling what's in front of you to make it do your will. This, of course, implies the absolute mastery of your camera, your medium, your techniques, your ability to work with your subject and get him willingly and happily without any self-conscious feeling to fall into those [positions] that are natural. . . . This is a very complicated thing to do in portraiture, and it adds another dimension to all the other problems of photography."
To a question about the difficulty of maintaining control without destroying spontaneity, Newman says that, "I agree that there are some wonderful pictures made with a spontaneous approach. However, mine are of the more deliberate sort because of the kind of person I am. I don't say this is the only way; it's the way I work; it's the way I think and feel."
Newman's work is not based on preconceived notions. As he says, "My ideas are based simply on my observations of the man." In the case of a self-conscious sitter, for example, he sometimes will "deliberately take a lot of time until the sitter becomes either so relaxed or so restless he is unaware of the fact that I'm waiting for these things to happen—and then they begin to happen."
In another interview Newman added, "you show a certain kind of empathy, I don't want to use the word ‘sympathy' but empathy [towards the] subject; you sort of let them know that you're on their side."
Goldsmith continues in his description of Newman's session with Calder:
Newman was warming up to his work now, becoming absorbed in the problem at hand, establishing closer rapport with his subject, and able to forget the constraining presence of other people. He worked quickly: now crouching under the dark cloth, delicately tuning the front and back controls, popping up for air or leaning forward to make some imperceptible alteration of Calder's hand or shoulder—cajoling, joking, guiding. The high sunlit room was quiet except for Newman's low-voiced, intermittent directives: "That's good. . . it looks better. . . a little more. . .more. . . more. . . That's it! Good! Fine! Now hold it. Don't move."
Actually, the work of creating a finished portrait had now just begun. What happens in the darkroom can negate what has been gained during the shooting, in a creative as well as a technical sense. Newman's darkroom work is an exploration of the possibilities, a comparison of the results, and a final choice based on which print best interprets the subject as he visualizes it.
Newman and Calder agree on the best portrait. Newman notes that it's "the intensity of the face, a difficult thing with Calder, [which] has combined with the shimmering constellation of the mobile and brings off the composition and feeling which I intended to convey." The heavy bulk of the artist's head is counterbalanced by the intricate, almost twinkling pieces of his artwork. The geometry of Newman's prints can be intricate as in the Calder or bold as in the Stravinski.
Colleague Colin Ford would say: "Quite simply, Arnold Newman is the best there is—for formal portrait, prepared, composed, and executed with all the thoroughness and depth of an oil painting. He has shown the heights to which this kind of photography can rise."
Newman shot a tremendous amount of film; as he liked to say, "Film is the cheapest thing I've got. I generally finish when my film runs out or when the sitter's patience does—whichever comes first."
Working in Newman's darkroom was a demanding affair. He would look through dozens of test prints before he thought the quality and tonality correct. "I'm very exacting in my printing," he admitted. "I can spend half a day just getting up to the first print."
One assistant became a prominent photographer of President Kennedy and his family—Jacques Lowe. Lowe came to this country after hiding out in Nazi Germany during World War II. He worked with Arnold Newman from 1950 to 1951. Lowe said of Newman: "He's a brilliant photographer, and a fantastic technician, an unbelievable technician who would drive me very close to suicide with his demands." When printing Newman's work, Lowe would follow long lists of instructions for burning in or holding back elements in an image. "I mean it was a nightmare. And I hated him. And I'd go through 50 sheets of 16 x 20 to come up with one image." But, Lowe admits, "I'm a master printer. . . . I learned everything you need to know about photography, and respect for photography. So I learned that from Arnold, I've got to admit that."