AUGUST 4, 2010
When I was first studying photography in school, our instructors would show us the work of prominent photographers to help us learn about lighting, composition, and individual style. During my portrait class I was captivated by the work of Arnold Newman.
Working primarily on assignment for magazines, Newman carried his camera and lighting equipment to his subjects, capturing them in their surroundings and finding in those settings visual elements to evoke their professions and personalities. His style was dubbed “environmental portraiture,” and it set a new standard in the post-World War II age of picture magazines. Newman photographed numerous celebrities — artists, musicians, athletes, and politicians. He felt, however, that even if the subject is not known, or is already forgotten, the photograph itself must still excite and interest the viewer.
A few years later, when I began my career as a news photographer, I found that an inordinate number of our assignments were made up of environmental portraits — often because we weren’t given the time to spend with the subject so that we could photograph them actually doing whatever it was that made them interesting. The challenge that my colleagues and I faced was to keep from letting our “portraits” devolve into snapshots of (as we would call it) “here I am with my thing.”
It’s not always easy to learn from the greats, yet to develop your own style without merely copying their work. In Newman’s words, “Too many people think they are being original when they are copying other people who copied other people. They really think if they put a little twist on it they’re original. This kills me.” What I’ve found to be an equal challenge to developing an individual style is to not get stuck in it — to keep evolving and growing.
All this is on my mind because I went to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, ME, yesterday to see an exhibition of Newman’s photographs. The show was comprised primarily of images of artists who had lived, worked, or taught in Maine — people like Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and Paul Caponigro. A great deal of the work had been produced in the years since I left school and so was new to me. Newman died in 2006 at the age of 88, but he was still actively photographing during his 80s. He claimed that true artists never retire. What I was fascinated to see was the progression in his work, becoming almost more mysterious. I’ve posted a couple of images (photographed in the subdued lighting of the gallery) that illustrate this. Newman’s photo of Berenice Abbott, although not one of his earliest images, is still done in what I think of as classic Newman style. But his portrait of photographer Mary Ellen Mark took me by surprise. Mark’s face is almost obscured by a stream of light coming in from a window. The only other element in her “environment” is the top of the back of a chair. No cameras, no photographer’s studio. Similarly, a portrait of the painter Alan Magee showed him in a wooded setting with the shock of a hand reaching in from outside the frame toward Magee’s face.
I came across an interview which quoted one of Newman’s writings from the early 1980’s. He said, “Although my approach has become popularly known as environmental portraiture, it only suggests a part of what I have been doing and am doing. Overlooked is that my approach is also symbolic and impressionistic or whatever label one cares to use.”
The theme of developing individual style and yet keeping it fresh hit home again later that afternoon. I was listening to the radio and heard a segment about a musician I am not familiar with, jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz. He was described as one of the pioneers of “cool jazz.” At age 82, Konitz is still cutting records and playing in nightclubs. (As Newman would note, a true artist who hasn’t retired.) During the interview, Konitz said that when he plays clubs or festivals, his goal is not to repeat what he did that felt nice the night before — that he tries to “build a new row of meaningful tones.”
The interviewer then talked to New York Times jazz columnist Nate Chinen about Konitz. Chinen said Konitz’s early career was defined by his refusal to play alto like Charlie Parker, the dominant saxophonist on the scene when Konitz got there. He noted that while the level of his craft hasn’t wavered since the 1940’s., the challenge of his late career is not to play like another storied musician.
“Now, as he’s into his 80s, said, Chinen, “the greater specter for Konitz is himself and how to avoid the danger of habitual gestures, you know, your own personal clichés. And I think that, in an interesting way, has been the spur and the motivating factor for him.”
I think that phrase is profound — “the danger of your own personal clichés.” It challenges me to identify them in my own work and to figure out what may be my own new “row of meaningful tones.”