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Book Review: Arnold Newman - At Work

Arnold Newman: At Work. By Roy Flukinger.
Published by University of Texas, 2013.
 
Arnold Newman: At Work
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Arnold Newman: At Work
By Roy Flukinger. Photographs by Arnold Newman.
University Of Texas Press, Austin, 2013. Hardbound. 296 pp., 107 color illustrations, 8x9-3/4".


Like many children of the depression, Arnold Newman grew up to become something of a pack rat. "I'm a saver," he explained in a 1991 interview. "I don't throw anything away. I'm too attached to the damn thing." This trait characterized Newman throughout his life until his death in 2006. Some of what he had saved in the course of his 88 years surfaced during his lifetime, but most remained hidden. His photographic legacy was built on the controlled release of finished work.

After his death Newman's vast archives were transferred to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas for study and preservation. Now 7 years later the bulk of it has been sifted through and mixed into a wonderful new book by Roy Flukinger, Arnold Newman At Work. This is a behind the scenes look into the mind and work habits of a photographic giant. For Newman fans the book will be required reading, but the audience isn't limited to them. It has enough visual variety and historic background for the general interest reader, and especially for any student of photographic process or photographic ephemera.

Arnold Newman: At Work, by Roy Flukinger. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2013.

Although he was credited with pioneering the style, Newman resisted the term "environmental portraits" or even "portraits." He preferred the label "pictures of people." It's not clear how broadly that term extended, or if it was meant to include the general populace. For whatever reason his subjects consist almost exclusively of power players and A-List celebrities. He shot only people who'd made something of themselves. This was possibly just a byproduct of his commercial assignments, since when working for Life, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines, the focus was on fame. Whatever the reason, the results were a relative Who's-Who of mid-century newsmakers, artists, generals, executives, actors, politicos, and so on. But one wonders, where are the commoners? Where are the average pedestrian encounters photographed by his contemporaries Penn, Avedon, and Rogovin? They may be somewhere but certainly not in this book. Perhaps Newman needed a strong power of personality to meet his photographic ideas halfway. An achiever in his or her natural setting -- subjects were generally photographed in their environments -- carries quite a bit of baggage even before the camera has been set up, presenting the sort of challenge that kept Newman on his toes.

Arnold Newman: At Work, by Roy Flukinger. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2013.
Arnold Newman: At Work, by Roy Flukinger. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2013.

In addition to being a pack rat Newman was a notorious perfectionist. He savaged his contacts ruthlessly, and afterward he was an exacting printer --"I can spend half a day just getting up to the first print," he says in the book. He nearly drove his assistants to tears with his meticulous demands. Perhaps the two traits are related. Newman's compulsive need to refine and narrow may have been driven by the sheer amount of material he generated. It was the only way forward. Thus he treated his negatives more as film director than as a photographer. The footage was mere raw earth. To find the diamond buried inside required hours of editing, cropping, darkroom manipulation, and sometimes outright abandonment. If his contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson preached the principle of Do Not Crop, Newman took nearly the opposite approach. Virtually every photo he printed was cropped in some fashion, sometimes diagonally or radically, but always precisely. The crayon marks visible on his many contacts in the book are as sure and exact as any architect's drawings, showing a compositional sensibility more commonly found in graphic design than photography.

Arnold Newman: At Work, by Roy Flukinger. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2013.

Taking Newman's cue, Arnold Newman: At Work displays a sharp and intuitive sense of layout, seemingly modeled after an extremely eclectic scrapbook. No two pages have the same design, keeping the reader's eye entertained and active. The sheer variety of material is overwhelming. There are samples of letters, contact sheets, crop marks, fixer stains, drawings (Newman was quite a talent), maps, album covers, business cards, notes, licenses, datebooks, clippings, tear-sheets, journal entries, and all of the other assorted ephemera that make up an artist's life. Topping the mix are many examples of Newman's finished photos sprinkled throughout, sometimes near related contact sheets, and all shown in varying sizes and readiness for public consumption. 

Arnold Newman: At Work, by Roy Flukinger. Published by University Of Texas Press, 2013.

Ironically these are just the sort of items which Newman sought to keep private during his lifetime. After all he was a perfectionist. He wanted to put his best foot forward, or his best photo as the case may be. One wonders how comfortable he would have been publishing any of this material during his life. Oh well, it's too late now. The book bleeds beyond whatever creative crop marks may have bounded his oeuvre previously, and this new broader picture provides a rich context for understanding Newman. It's a book worth saving, and perhaps becoming attached to.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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