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A few weeks back, I was asked on The ASMP/ASPG listserve, what it was like to work with Arnold Newman. The response was highly positive and I felt there might be enjoyment gained but others than just those on the list serve. Here it is, I hope you enjoy!
Photo Courtesy of ©James Cook 2004
I first need to give you a bit of background. After leaving Cornell and moving to New York City I had applied to work with quite a few photographers and was offered jobs by Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz. I chose Dick over Annie, though Annie was VERY hot at the time doing all the Rolling Stone covers, and was glad I did. I came to find out that everyone had worked for Annie as she chewed up and spit out photographers quickly and I never met an assistant in New York whom lasted more than 3 months with her.
Avedon was the best & worst experience of my life. Everything in that studio needed to be perfect always. I never left the studio and when I did, I would come home and dream (or really have nightmares) about being at the studio. There are countless stories to tell but I want to get to Arnold. At that time I thought that I wanted to teach and was rather forthright about it. Avedon felt his studio was there to create little Richard Avedons and after 9 months we parted ways. At times I wish I were there longer but in truth, I learned greatly in my 9 months and went on to a series of diverse experiences that certainly exceeded staying longer with Avedon.
Having worked with Avedon — since I was one of the very rare few — opened many doors. I had my “hit list” of “GREATS” with whom I wanted to work and called on them every other week to see what opportunities existed. I chose that I did not want full time employment but wanted to freelance so I could work for an array of photographers and I did; Mapplethorpe, Horst, Bruce Davidson, Joyce Tenneson and many others. For nearly two years I called upon Arnold and always got the same response, “We have no openings at this time but please stay in touch”. One day I called and Arnold answered the phone. He said, “How good a printer are you?” I was actually a very good B&W printer and printed for Avedon, for Arthur Elgort’s book the Swan Prince and several others and I said so. He then asked, “How good a print spotter are you?” to which I replied, “I’m just OK but could probably be better”. He responded, “That’s an honest answer. Come in tomorrow!” and that is where it began.
First lesson learned, Always be honest and truthful, even if it shows your weaknesses. It is better than creating an illusion that you cannot live up to.
I came to the studio and met Arnold. He showed me the darkroom which had a poster on the wall of a B&W Enlarger set up in a Dungeon with shackles attached to the legs and I knew I was home. He wanted me to work full time but I didn’t want to so he said, “I will just hire you 5 days a week”. For the last 4 months that I lived in New York I worked for Arnold, largely printing but also shooting with him. I printed his Sidney Janis Gallery show that hung in late 1988. An interesting story of one of the prints in the show, I was printing images of the painter Francis Bacon who often did paintings showing decay and one print I let sit in the fix too long. It had bleached out in several places and look kind of interesting. Instead of hiding the evidence, I showed him my mistake and he loved it. We washed it throughly and went I went to the Sidney Janis Gallery’s opening, it was framed and hung as a “unique print”. Loved it.
Over the time I worked with Arnold Newman we shot sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen for a American Airlines, about a dozen different female art collectors for Town & Country Magazine, but one of the best was a shoot at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. This is the think tank that Einstein was at and to Arnold — he was an Artist and he mingled with Artists and to him — Artists were just Artists but SCIENTISTS, THEY WERE GODS! We spent two days setting up lights for a group shot that was truly about 30 separate portraits. The group came in and each had the exact place in the photo (where I had once sat for the lighting tests) and had been lit specifically for them. Sadly, I cannot find this image online as I would love to share. After the shoot we went to dinner with the great sculptor and very good friend of Arnold’s, George Segal who was a professor at Princeton. Arnold told me before the dinner, “We are dining with the great George Segal. You are at the table because I have an obligation to feed you but you are not to say a word. He is my friend and I am having dinner with him and you are to sit there quietly” which I did with great delight!
Arnold had a brusk way about him and a huge ego but, at the core was a big teddy bear with a heart of gold. No matter what I did, he had a better way. No matter how well I packed the car with equipment, he always “needed” to move things around as he always thought there was a better way. He was like the slightly annoying but loving Jewish grandfather. He drove you nuts but you loved him, nonetheless. He had an abundant love for his family but his heart and soul was truly Augusta. I never knew a man who loved his wife so much. She was an absolute angel and when she died I knew that Arnold would not last long and he did not, I believe two years exists between their passing. Arnold’s studio was in the same Brownstone as his apartment so life and work were invariably intertwined.
I will tell you this, when you work so closely with people, you become very close to them. I remember the multiple calls I received after moving back to Columbus when the phone would ring and it was Arnold saying, “Where are my brown shoes” and I would reply, “Arnold, they are in the small closet on the 2nd floor, third shelf up from the bottom, right side” and he would say “Thanks”. He was a wonderful man who I will forever miss and I feel uniquely fortunate to have worked with him. On my wall hangs a portrait of the great stop action photographer Harold Edgerton that Arnold took and I printed for the Sidney Janis show. Arnold had me print an extra copy and before I left New York City to return to Columbus he signed it “With Warmest Regards and Greatest Hopes for Your Future Success – Arnold”. It was an amazing few years in New York at a time in history when there were some great photographers living and working. I feel privileged to have been there then and those few months working with Arnold were certainly a highlight.