Photo courtesy ASMP member Andy Batt
Interviews with ASMP Founder: Arnold Newman
Interview and transcript © 1993 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Arnold Newman was born in 1918. As a child, he studied art and painting. After high school, he attended the University of Miami at Coral Gables. But after a couple of years, he was forced to leave school for financial reasons. He moved to Philadelphia and went to work in a portrait studio, where he learned photographic techniques by turning out 49-cent portraits by the hundreds. In 1945, he moved to new York and did freelance photojournalism for Life, Look, Newsweek, TheNew Yorker, Esquire, Fortune and others.
A multimedia presentation of his images, well-known quotes, exhibitions and biography is on the PDN “Legends Online” Gallery.
Newman died in June 2006.
This interview was taped on April 1, 1993.
“I sort of started at the top.”
ASMP: Do you remember when you joined ASMP?
Newman: It’s easily checked; my membership number is 181. Eliot Elisofon and I had met in Florida about a year before. We had a lot of mutual friends and interests, and we’d both heard about each other, of course. The war was over, and he was down there on a story. He called me up and asked if he could use my darkroom. I said sure, any time.
In answer to that, he offered to cook dinner for me. I was living with my mother at that time — because who could afford money then for two separate apartments? I was not a mother’s boy — and he came over. It took me about three and a half weeks to clean up. I don’t remember what he cooked, but it was delicious, and we became good friends.
He said, “You belong in New York.” I had been thinking about it, and I’d had a big show in December ‘45 and January ‘46, called “Artists Look Like This,” at the Philadelphia Museum. Life Magazine gave me two and a half pages of publicity. And Bazaar and a whole bunch of art magazines and, I think, Photography gave me big stories. So by the time I came up [to New York] in the fall of ‘46, I was ready to work. Eliot took me in hand and said, “You have to meet everyone at Life. You should be working for Life.
Now, you have to understand, Eliot liked to put on a tough front. Actually, inside, he was as soft and generous as you could be. And, knowing that our interests in photography overlapped, he insisted on introducing me to all the key editors and the others at Life. Then he said, “You have to join ASMP.”
Also at this time, I became acquainted with Gene Smith, who became a very good friend of mine. He lived not too far from here, and he used to come over. He borrowed equipment from me; he was afraid not to return it. But you may remember the stories that he would borrow equipment and you never saw it again. He would either hock it or lose it or forget to return it. He was quite famous for this. But he was a great guy to be with, and he was really one of the greatest photographers of all time.
So the two of them signed my application for joining ASMP. If I recall correctly, it was in the fall of 1946. I now realize that I sort of started at the top.
“Wilson was very loyal to the few people that were his boys.”
As an aside here, when Wilson Hicks died, ASMP decided to put out a whole issue saying what a great guy he was. Well, my memory and a lot of other people’s memory was that he fought ASMP right down the line from the beginning, including threats and everything else for photographers who sided with ASMP. I was terribly upset with ASMP, and I insisted on writing a letter explaining that I couldn’t go along with this, that Wilson Hicks was not a friend of ASMP. He was an enemy of ASMP in the early days, and he remained one all through his career.
I don’t know why, but he just simply decided I was not one of his boys. He sent somebody to negotiate when I came to New York. I was offered $125 a day in the fall of 1946. They thought I had a big business going with my studio down in Florida and they were afraid I wouldn’t want to work for them. And they went from $75 up to $125 a day, I just sat there with hayseeds in my hair, decided not to open my mouth. That’s how negotiations went. I’ve been told by several people with Life that it was the highest day rate at that time. And also, I was offered the copyright on the page.
One thing I was naive about. I didn’t realize that I didn’t have a guarantee of how many days I would work. And I was told by Wilson that I couldn’t work for this magazine and that magazine and so forth. After about three or four weeks, I suddenly realized that I didn’t have the guarantee. Wilson wouldn’t answer my calls, so I went over and cornered him in the big bullpen there, and I said, “How come, Mr. Wilson, we never discussed how many days I was going to work? I’ve received phone calls from these other magazines, but I’m abiding by my word.” I don’t think I’d actually gotten the calls; I was trying to pin him down. And he looked down from his great heights, down his nose at me, and said, “If I were you, Mr. Newman, I would have accepted those assignments.” And he walked away from me.
I left there nonplussed. A few weeks later, I bumped into Bernie Quint, one of the assistant art directors, who said, “Why aren’t you working for me?” I told him the history, and he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get an assignment.” I thought, if the managing editor won’t give me an assignment, how can he give me an assignment? He’s only an assistant art director. Well, I found out later. Wilson Hicks, though he gave people the impression that he was the managing editor, was only the principal assignment editor. He had a number of people who liked him and whom he stuck by, including Gjon Mili and a few others.
But Ray Mackland was there, and I started getting assignments from Ray. My first assignment for Life was Eugene O’Neill. And, had I fallen on my nose for those first few assignments, that would have been the end of me. But I even made cover — I don’t know if it was my first cover — on a story that wasn’t supposed to be a cover story, but I just loved the picture and took it. And from there on, I was in on that group.
A few years later, it got to a point where Wilson Hicks was let go. But until then, he was the absolute enemy of ASMP. He fought everything; he forbade the men who were on staff from joining ASMP, and a whole bunch of other things.
So when ASMP came out on that, I said, “Absolutely not.” They saw my letter and asked my permission to reproduce the letter as written, on my letterhead, which I gave them. I eventually found out that Gene Smith also wrote a letter to that effect, but Gjon Mili talked him out of it. They’re both dead; nobody can confirm. But that is what I heard: that Gjon said, “Don’t rock the boat, what’s the point.”
And after it came out, Gjon Mili got mad at me. We bumped into each other in Washington at a museum opening. And he pointed a finger at me and said, “I’m not going to talk to you ever again, Arnold. But I’ll talk to Augusta [Newman’s wife].” And I could understand. Wilson was very loyal to the few people that were his boys. Everybody else could go to hell.
“I discovered during that year that I earned more money working for other magazines.”
ASMP: In ‘55, when I met you, there was a minor strike, a boycott.
Newman: It was not minor. It was a major strike. Ten of us; all were ASMP members, but we didn’t drag ASMP into it.
All of us had the rights to our pictures for any further use, including books. Without letting us know, Life turned it over to Dutton. I remember, I wandered in one day to Ray Macklin’s office. He leaned back at his desk and said, “Arnold, I think you have a problem.” He said that they’d just sold the pictures for Arts and Skills and Dutton had made the first book. And very badly: They just chopped up and sawed it apart to get rid of the Life logo, and a half-page appeared only as half a page, instead of at least rearranging the pages to make it look like a real book. It looked like a scrapbook of some pages out of the magazine.
Ray knew that I owned the rights for my pictures and he saw my hackles go up. And he said, “I know. I couldn’t persuade them. They went ahead and sold it.” Meaning, fine, go ahead and collect. But he knew they did wrong and something had to be settled. I called a couple of people at Life and got nowhere, and then I called the other photographers, and that’s how it started.
Now I’ll read what I had written for 10,000 Eyes. [This book was produced by ASMP for the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography. Out of print, but sometimes available from used book dealers such as R. Shantz. Newman wrote the foreword. -ed.]
“A key victory nearly forgotten and often overlooked was a non-ASMP act. In 1955, Life published nine essays, Arts and Skills in America, and sold them to Dutton as a book. Five of the essays were shot by staffers or were handouts. The problem was, they conveniently forgot that the other four were shot by three freelancers: Gjon Mili, Brad Smith and myself. We naturally requested the additional payment for this unauthorized use. In settlement, Life offered remuneration with the stipulation that we sign a contract, also sent out to all their other freelancers, that required us to give up copyrights, reducing or wiping payments for reissues. Our hard-earned rights were threatened, as control over (and indeed the very loss of) our negatives, our work, was at stake. All hell broke loose. Seven other top freelancers refused to sign and, in effect, ten of us went on strike.”
We just simply said we wouldn’t work for them anymore. Their attitude was, if you didn’t work for Life, you weren’t a photographer. At that time, the only other magazine (which I’d already begun to work for) was Holiday. And there was Bazaar, Vogue and one or two others that didn’t compete with Life.
ASMP: But Look was around.
Newman: I don’t think it was a big factor until later. Now to quote again:
“Because this was limited to Life freelancers, it did not become an official ASMP issue. But we (Philippe Halsman, Jerry Cooke, Milton Greene, Cornell Capa, Lisa Larsen, Charles Rotkin, Mark Shaw, Gjon Mili, Brad Smith and I) were all members; some were officers and members of the board. The wrangling went on for almost a year.”
We absolutely refused to accept any assignments until it was done. As an aside before I continue, I discovered during that year that I earned more money working for other magazines than I did for Life, and it made me much more independent. I had already begun to worry that I had too many eggs in one basket.
“Alternate contracts were offered and refused, again and again. But, as Charles Rotkin recalls, the turning point came when Life, attempting to divide and conquer, claimed that they could do without five of us. Mili became furious and confronted his friend, Life’s editor-in-chief Ed Thompson, saying, ‘I think Kessel [Dmitri Kessel, a staff member] is going to have one hell of a time crossing any picket line I’m on.’ Life at this point gave up and offered us a fair agreement, restoring all our rights. What would have been a disastrous precedent for all ASMP members was avoided.”
“Who’s going to decide who’s creative?”
In other words, we were all ASMP members, but we purposely kept ASMP out of it because we were struggling enough as it is.
ASMP: There were legal questions.
Newman: There were. And I would like to add one thing on this.
“What was so wonderful was the sheer enjoyment of getting to know each other. ASMP became part of our lives. Best of all were the coffee klatches after each meeting to exchange real and tall tales of location dramas, custom nightmares and technical information. Most importantly, we learned from each other. There were no aesthetic, racial or economic barriers.”
I remember specifically — this was right at the beginning of ASMP — somebody getting up (and I seconded it) saying there should be absolutely no color bar, no racial barriers of any kind. All a man had to do was prove he was a working photographer, and that was it.
I will not name the person, but one of the top photographers asked me to start an organization of creative photographers. I looked at him and said, “It’s a great idea, but who’s going to decide who’s creative and who’s not creative?” Nothing ever came of it. It was an organization, regardless of the varying abilities of the members of ASMP. Even the so-called non-creative photographers contributed tremendously, not only in their memberships, but in these coffee klatches, which we learned more from than any magazine that was being published at that time. I mean, we had problems and nobody was publishing anything. We began to publish things, to put out some of the information.
ASMP: You mean old Bulletins and newsletters and things. We have all the old Bulletins.
Newman: Great; I’d like to take a peek at them someday. It was ASMP at its best.
“You’re going to have to get permission from his estate to dig him up.”
One night in early 1960 at a fully packed coffee klatch — it might have been ten or twelve guys there — one member observed in awe, “If a bomb fell here tonight, photographic history would be forever changed.” Lifelong friendships evolved over pastrami, danish and coffee.
At one meeting in the first year, 1946, Dave Eisendrath said, “Take care of your negatives and take care of your files, and they will take care of you.” And to this day, 50 years later, a tremendous amount of our income comes from our files. I don’t consider myself a stock house, but hardly a day goes by without a request for a picture of Kennedy, a picture of Giacometti. I think we had two requests today.
I remember one girl calling up; she says, “Well, we can get them photographed much cheaper than what you’re asking.” I told her, “That’s very nice, but you’re going to have to get permission from his estate to dig him up to do that.” You know how these researchers are: The world began with them, and Eisenhower or George Washington is still alive; they never read anything that they died.
“Why don’t you get a computer?”
I’m beginning to realize that Dave’s point is actually true. The nature of my work, the kind of people I photograph, is such that when my pictures appeared, I’d get requests. I’ve thrown nothing away. That’s why I have those files, back here and to the side, that go back 55 years. I have a system where I can retrieve anything.
ASMP: What’s your retrieval system?
Newman: Charlie Reynolds was here once to do a story on me. He was interviewing me, late one evening, and he asked, “How long would it take you if I were to ask you for a print? How long would it take you to get it out?” I didn’t understand what he meant. He said, “Well, I’ll be coming back on Thursday for another interview. If I named a print, would you be able to have it for me by Thursday?” It was then that I realized most photographers have no system at all. I looked at Charlie and said, “I’ll make you a bet. Name any picture. If it’s one I’ve ever done, within 60 seconds I can not only get the negative, but also the transparencies, the proofs and the prints.” He named somebody — maybe it was somebody obvious, like Kennedy — and I did it. Very simple.
I keep a cross-index filing system, the same as they used to use in libraries. When Life came in and wanted to know my system — they’d heard about it — the girl put her nose up and said, “Well that’s the system we use at Life,” and walked out. She was real put out. But I’ve seen them lose an awful lot of pictures at Life, and we haven’t lost much here.
ASMP: How did you think of it?
Newman: When I was working for the portrait studio, offering 49 cents a portrait or $3.95 coupons, we had thousands of people that came through the studio. How do you keep track of all those people? Very simple: You have the name, and opposite that you have a number of a card with the date, size of negative, and everything you can think of. You can look it up.
So you see these are all numbered. It’s very simple, and I’m always surprised no one else has a system like it. Somebody asked me, “Why don’t you get a computer?” Well, it would take me years to put the data into the computer. What’s wrong with the information right here?
“I was his student by osmosis.”
ASMP: We’ve asked each photographer whether, if they had something else to do with their lives, they would have preferred to do something else. And to a man, they all said, “Oh, no, I love it.”
My background was in painting. And I really had a talent; when I came to New York, I started photographing and becoming close friends with a large group of the top painters. They saw my student work and the work I did immediately afterwards, and they suggested that perhaps I ought to go back to painting.
I took art classes at the University of Miami. They gave me scholarships, so I’m rather indebted to them; I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I was told by the head of the art department that, if I took any other classes, he wouldn’t give me the scholarship. He wanted me to concentrate on art. Eventually I had to quit; it was the depths of the Depression and, while wondering what to do one summer, I bumped into a friend of my father’s, who offered me a job doing photographs in Lit Bros. department store in Philadelphia.
I thought, well, at least I can go to art school in Philadelphia, after the day’s work is done. Now, I grew up in Atlantic City with Ben Rose, and he had already introduced me to a bunch of boys who were studying under [Alexi] Brodovitch. They had just graduated when I came in, because I’d only had two years of art. But after a few days, they invited me to go on out with them on an all-night shoot to Dock Street where all the farmers brought their produce in. I went down, and I thought it was great, and I started photography. This was in 1938.
By 1941, I wondered if I was wasting my time. I was working for an expensive studio down in Florida, where I got a better salary. So I asked the boys — Ben Rose, Saul Mednick, Ben Someroff — the whole group.
ASMP: They were with Brodovitch in Philadelphia?
Newman: These were the people; Irving Penn was also in that class. They had just finished studying under Brodovitch. They were known for a while as the Philadelphia Group. I used to kid Brodovitch that I was his student by osmosis.
“I often wonder whether I would have done as well in painting.
So, you asked me the question, would I do anything else? I still wonder, once in a while, what would have happened if I’d stayed with painting. But in ‘41, when I didn’t know what to do, the boys suggested that I come up north.
There was a chap by the name of Beaumont Newhall at the Museum of Modern Art. One afternoon, I came in unannounced, without an appointment, and — making a long story short — he discovered me on the spot. That very afternoon, he sent me over to the corner of Madison and 53rd, the American Place. And he called ahead, and that’s how I met Steiglitz, who took me in.
ASMP: Did Steiglitz show your work?
Newman: Yes, at Christmas time they had a show at the Modern, I think it was nine or ten photographers. It included people like Steichen, Strand, Ansel Adams — all big names, and two newcomers: Arnold Newman and Helen Levitt. And that’s how I made my debut on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. It was kind of hard to turn back from that.
Then I went home to go in the Army a year later. They didn’t take me, so I came back and that’s when Eliot grabbed hold of me.
My only regret is that I often wondered whether I would have done as well in painting, financially, as in photography. Because I did have a talent. Whether I would have grown in that, I do not know.
“If you were ahead of the times, you had to struggle.”
ASMP: But were you happy as a photographer?
Newman: Oh yes. I mean, there was always the problem of earning a living, like all of us. Always the problem of the work one had to do to keep the studio open and to do the kind of work you really wanted to do. Because, like most people — or maybe unlike most people — I had a kind of thing I wanted to do for myself in photography. And sometimes I could do it for Life magazine.
ASMP: What was that?
Newman: Photograph what is now known as the “environmental portrait.” But it could be abstract; it could be surrealistic; it could be symbolic. The trouble with labels is they come after the fact and not before. Once a label of environmental portraiture was put upon me, then I tried to explain, “But not everybody’s photographed in their environment.” It’s impossible. Take a photograph like my Stravinsky picture. He lived out in California, but he was in town staying at a hotel, and what was I to do with him? So I dreamed up this symbolic picture. I didn’t think of the word symbolic, it just evolved from “oh, I’ve got an idea to photograph him that reflects his work.”
By the way, my best-known picture was commissioned by Alexi Brodovitch for Harper’s Bazaar and then turned down as a reject… . Everybody has that same reaction; nobody believes me.
ASMP: Doesn’t that make you happy?
Newman: Well, it proves that maybe I was ahead of the times. But in those days, if you were ahead of the times, you didn’t make a few thousand a week; you had to struggle. There was many a time I had to redo a picture. There were occasions when they said, “Well, this is interesting, but you can do it this way or that way.” So that was my only problem. But it was a great life and I really have no regrets. And as I wrote in 10,000 Eyes, it was a wonderful thing that happened to all of us.
“Being a photographer is a wonderful way of life. I’ve enjoyed it for over 52 years, and 47 now as an ASMP member. Let us not forget the photographs we made, the opportunities we had, the fun and satisfaction photography has given us. Relationships were formed and, not surprisingly, many editors became our close friends.
“Yes, ASMP had, and continues to have, the ‘names.’ Just look over our past and present membership. We did not just record events in the world; our members made and changed history, created new forms of history, and many reshaped our medium as an art form. Check this long international list of photographic books, magazines, exhibits and museum collections. We are there.”
Meaning ASMP. And when you think of it, we made an impression on the world, and particularly on photography. I think this should give us some form of satisfaction.
“People forget that we solved those problems.”
ASMP: What do you think of the ASMP today?
Newman: Truthfully, I have not kept up with the day-to-day affairs. At one point, I was very annoyed when a young member came up to me after I’d made a suggestion in one of the rare meetings I would attend. He said, “Why don’t you old fogies leave us alone to run this organization? Leave it up to the young blood.” I said, “Be my guest,” and walked out. It was a stupid kid, and maybe I was bored. But I would never revoke my membership, and in recent years I’ve been asked to do certain things. I was very happy to be part of ASMP.
See, the problem is — and this happens in every organization, including those where a lot of money is involved, like the co-ops here — if it’s not written down, or even if it is in writing, people forget that we solved those problems and they waste time and money going all over it again.
“Most photographers were willing to analyze their work.”
ASMP: We were talking about the influence of portrait photography. And Mili came back once from an ASMP meeting in Miami. He had heard Karsh say that, in his portraits, he felt he was showing the past, the present and the future. Gjon said, “Isn’t that an awful lot for one portrait?”
Newman: That’s ridiculous. Sometimes people say that you’ve caught the soul of somebody. Well, look, when all the priests, rabbis, ministers and psychiatrists can’t pinpoint what a soul really is, how the hell is a poor little photographer going to say we’ve captured the soul. It’s nonsense. We try to get the best picture we can of each person of that time at that period.
This is exactly the kind of intellectual discussion we used to have — although we told a dirty story or two — and we exchanged information about customs, and technical information. We did have intellectual interchange in these coffee klatches. And that is why, when Susan Sontag wrote her book On Photography, you’ll find no real photographer has ever said it was a good book. Writers wrote about her book and praised her, knowing nothing about photography. And that’s why very rarely do you see a photographer as a photography editor. The word-people are …
ASMP: Different medium entirely.
Newman: It is a different medium, and they don’t understand it. Susan Sontag, almost like it was her own original ideas and thoughts, began to say these things, inferring perhaps that photographers didn’t have the intellect to understand what they were doing. And I get angry, because all my life I’ve been discussing the same kind of questions that she had in this short chapter. I could show you where I wrote notes in the margins — the book is black with notes — this is full of shit, this is not original, we discussed this years ago. Most of the photographers were willing to analyze their work, because we were groping. We learned from each other.
ASMP: That’s why Steiglitz, I found, did a whole set of pictures of clouds, and he called them equivalents.
Newman: That’s right, I used to discuss it with him.
ASMP: You discussed Steiglitz’ equivalents? Music would translate it better.
Newman: He never went into long philosophical discussions about equivalents, but he’d say something like, “Now, this is the one I like.” He understood that I understood what he was doing. And what the equivalents meant was something … I may misquote it, so I better not put myself on record. But it was the equivalent to other things, music and things like that.
“Only one problem with that.”
ASMP: You also told me on the phone that awards are very nice, but Ansel Adams had told you something.
Newman: Want me to tell you what he told me? Well, not long before he died — it must have been over drinks, he was a great drinking partner — he looked at me and said, “Arnold, you’ve reached that age and that status where they begin to wine and dine you and fetch you and hand you pieces of paper.” Meaning honorary doctorates. “Only one problem with that. You can’t make any money out of it.”
“If it helped us take better pictures, we would try them out.”
ASMP: Tell me about the kind of camera equipment that you used. Have you changed your method of shooting since you started?
Newman: I give a lot of lectures, and this question comes up. I explain to the students that a camera is nothing more than a box with a pinhole with a hunk of glass on one end, and sensitized material (which could include electronics) on the other end. Everything else is convenience. Now, I don’t know how true it is, but I recently heard a story about Eisie [Alfred Eisenstadt] where a couple of young photographers came up to him and asked, “How come you’re using that battered old Leica, when you can get one with automatic focus, automatic exposure and it will even wake you up in the morning and make breakfast for you?” He looked at them and said, “Yes, but will it help me take better pictures?”
ASMP: But what do you use?
Newman: My big camera is still a big camera, a 4×5. But I’ve used and I still have an 8×10, a 4×5, a two-and-a-quarter and a 35. Perhaps I neglected too long over the years to use the smaller cameras, which give me more freedom, but then, my kind of shooting is more building than taking. And it’s not better. It’s simply my way, because I’m the kind of person I am.
Most of the young people seem to get bewildered that I would like a Eugene Smith, which I have hanging on my walls. I have a lot of photographers on my walls: Jerry Aldman, Eugene Smith, Man Ray and so on. I would swap photos with all of them. They don’t understand how, if you work one way, you would admire somebody else who works another way.
When I came north, all I could afford was a Speed Graphic with a six-inch Gertz Dagor lens. And I started out with a camera that was in the family, which was a pull-out camera. But it was basically a view camera, because I was able to screw it on a tripod.
We used to talk about better cameras during those coffee klatches after ASMP meetings. We would exchange ideas and, yes, if it helped us take better pictures, we would try them out, whether it was a faster lens, a faster film or a better film.
“You wouldn’t believe how primitive photography was.”
And (I’ll use the euphemism) “a certain lab” in the early days used to put out a bulletin to their users saying emulsion so-and-so, you need a 10-R or a 5-B or a 20. If you had to use a 30-CC correction, don’t use that emulsion, as it was bad. Or it might give us a hint about reciprocity, which I had to discover for myself. Later, I asked, “Why did you stop sending out these Bulletins?” He said, “Well, a manufacturer came by and told us if we did it once more, we would no longer have —”
ASMP: You ‘re kidding.
Newman: No. The manufacturers changed their attitude, of course; they’re much better. But that’s the kind of thing: We even had to fight the people we were buying from. Just recently I read, “Ours is the only profession” — and this is where ASMP comes in — “that the buyer determines the price, not the seller.”
ASMP: I think it was ASMP’s Executive Director, Dick Weisgrau, who wrote that article.
Newman: That’s why ASMP was so valuable. We learned from other people. And then, of course, the insurance and exchange of information that was in the Bulletins, or the little magazine we put out, Infinity.
And also, there was a kind of camaraderie. I remember John Rawlings. John was a top fashion photographer, and he was a very nice, down-to-earth guy — not like some of the fashion photographers I know today. We decided we would have a big show at the northern end of Times Square. We got the space, I think it was on the ground floor, and everybody ran over there. John had several assistants. But, being on the committee, he went over there with a whole bunch of us. He hammered nails and hung the pictures, and we did all the work by ourselves. And I think that was important at that time, because we had mutual problems — or, if not problems, mutual interests.
You wouldn’t believe how primitive photography was. When I got into it in 1938, somebody showed me the very first Kodachrome that they had shot. And I looked at it in disbelief. Here was real color. Of course, not until 1950 did they put out sheet film. And the studio I was using had a 5×7 camera, but it had a sliding back. You used a half of a 5×7 sheet. For 49 cents for one shot, that was the way we did it, half of a sliding 5×7 back.
And it was invented of course by Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky. And the story I got was, Kodak wanted to hire Charles Mees [Dr. C.E. Kenneth Mees]. To get him, George Eastman bought his company and brought him over to Rochester. And he suggested bringing these two boys in. And because their names were Mannes and Godowsky, Eastman said he didn’t want them. Well, that was standard in the ’20s, that kind of prejudice. Mees says no, we need them, and he insisted on getting them — and they saved Kodak, which was in trouble at that time. All they got was a small amount of money, their salary, because the patents belonged to Kodak.
The people I went to work with still had glass plates that they would print from when somebody’d reorder. I mean, 1938. Some members go back even further. But now I’m beginning to find myself an old fossil.
ASMP: It just changed so quickly within one man’s lifetime. John Szarkowski made a big point when he said, “The tool that you have to work with influences what you’re able to do.”
Newman: Oh absolutely. And he wasn’t the first one who said that.
ASMP: He wasn’t?
Newman: Oh, of course not. Everybody claims these things; we all knew that. I knew it the day I started taking my first picture, as a painter-turned-photographer. I took one look at the world around me and I knew instantly that I had to think in terms of what the camera would see, not what I would interpret in my mind and my brush. And don’t forget that that also came from the lessons I had as a painter, bumming around with the boys in Philadelphia.
“For the first time I saw a serious use of the computer.”
In 1974, when I wrote my book, One Mind’s Eye, they asked me to write a technical page. I wrote, “There are no rules for techniques, only solutions. Today’s darkrooms may be soon replaced with electronic consoles.” That’s how much we knew in ‘74. “Yet after 30 years, Steiglitz’ advice to me remains constant. ‘The only thing that matters is the finished photograph.’ ”
Last year I received one of those little booklets of the students’ work NYU puts out at the end of the year. The book was almost all about the students working with computers. Now mind you, we said this is the age. These are students, photography students. For the first time I saw, not the “gee, ain’t I smart,” or gee-whiz kind of photography, but a serious use of the computer in making a photograph, where it was acceptable. It used to be, “Let’s add on and see what you could do, because you never could do this before.” We did it; we double printed — when I say “we,” I mean all the photographers — air brush, God knows what we did. I mean this goes back long even before the Bauhaus.
“Did you ever meet him?”
When One Mind’s Eye came out, it made my reputation. Everybody kept coming to me and saying, “I didn’t know you took all those pictures.”
ASMP: Berenice Abbott told Mimi that people would come to her and say, “Dear, you didn’t take that picture yourself, did you?”
Newman: It’s the same as when people would come up to me and say, “I think it’s a marvelous picture of Eisenhower. Did you ever meet him?” …[laughter] …
“Every once in a while, things fall into place.”
One day I was on television, and in those days I had to bring my prints down [to the TV station] to be taped. It was still black and white, but they were just starting to have a little bit of color. We would put the photographs in a position in a big overhead camera. I looked up at the monitor, which was in color, but this was a black and white picture. And I look up and he’s fooling around with the colors, changing different grey tones into color hues. I said,
“This is the future.”
We actually have just a smidgen of control over our color right now, but it’s going to be improved, of course. I was a painter, and if you wanted to, say, just lighten it a hair in color here, but not up here or all over, you could do it. You can’t do that in color photography, and you can only get an approximation of color. Every once in a while, things fall into place and you get a very close approximation. You can’t get the exact color, even with dye transfers or any kind of thing. So photography is still only an illusion.