Arnold Newman's art


posted on 17th of april, 2012

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.

So said Arnold Newman of his art in the early 1980s. I can only imagine the frustration he may have felt at being stuck with a “label”.

It strikes me as odd, that it took one man to popularize an approach that seems evident. I mean, if you are taking a portrait of someone, it is in an attempt to reveal the person as much as possible. A portrait should be a statement about who the person is and the impact he or she exerts. And what better way to do that than to capture the surroundings and the “natural habitat” of a subject.

Obviously, that is easier said than done. Simply recording Igor Stravinsky sitting at a piano may not have had the impact that Newman’s portrait exerted without the daring composition he chose. In Newman’s portrait the pianist is confined to the bottom left corner of the frame and is dwarfed by the raised lid of a grand piano which takes up the rest of the picture. It is perhaps not a composition that would obviously present itself to most photographers, who would probably tend to give their illustrious subject the “center stage” and making him dominate. Obviously, a lot of thought went into how best to portray the man and his art. To me the picture speaks not only of the Stravinsky but the passion that dominates him.

There are no rules and regulations for perfect composition. If there were we would be able to put all the information into a computer and would come out with a masterpiece. We know that's impossible. You have to compose by the seat of your pants.

As a student I was fascinated by the concept of artificial intelligence, even though I have never been quite able to completely define “intelligence”. Is intelligence about how quickly you can learn and absorb new material? Is it about how best to deal with your environment? Is it about creation? A computer is faster and more precise when it comes to logic and calculations and potentially has limitless capacity to store information. But will a computer ever really be able to interpret the surrounding world and create something awe-inspiring? Perhaps, if it were possible to reduce all the complexities and wonders of life as mathematical equations. But is that ever likely to happen?

As an aside, if I were to be really pushed hard, I would probably end up saying that pet dogs are the most intelligent species on Earth. Think about it. They get free board and food, companionship and even manage to persuade humans to behave in the most ridiculous fashion. Hell, I know some people who will take their dogs for a walk and carry it in their arms! Ummm, and I thought that the idea was that the dog got some exercise. Are humans really all that intelligent?

That’s my little digression out of the way now.

The point Arnold makes is probably the one absolute saving grace of humankind. Humans appear to be the only species that actually creates for the sake of creation. There is absolutely no need, other than the desire to enjoy and appreciate things of beauty that humans work to create art. Certainly, some people make a pretty decent living out of their art, but on the whole there are probably simpler and less risky ways to do so (think accounting). No one is going to be able to persuade me that Van Gogh kept painting because he was convinced he was going to end up a millionaire!

The reason so many of us are not successful at our “artistic” endeavors is precisely because we cannot reduce creation to a set of rules. In photography or in painting we talk endlessly about the rule of thirds, and yet we always add the proviso “Rules are made to be broken”. I beg to differ, rules SHOULD not be made to be broken. In so called civilized society we have rules that say you must not kill, you must not steal, you must not harm others. Are these rules made to be broken? If so, why do we strive to exact punishment when these rules are broken?

In art, there are no rules. There may be guidelines or suggestions, but there are no rules because we cannot reduce the creation of art into a logical process. If art had to be created in accordance with rules, we would still be blowing coloured mud on cave walls and there would have been no Impressionism, Cubism or Pop Art.

I am always lining things up, measuring angles, even during this interview. I'm observing the way you sit and the way you fit into the composition of the space around you.

A photographer is always in a state of preparing himself for a given moment… we have only an instant in which to think and act.

But to even have the tiniest hope of producing art worthy of consideration (by whom?), you must let yourself be submerged by the needs of your art. In fact, you cannot even consider them as requirements imposed upon you. You simply have to live it. The process of creation is what you do all the time without even realizing it. A photographer is forever composing a picture, even when not peeping through the viewfinder. Everything a photographer looks at automatically becomes an element to be either included or excluded or placed just so in a composition, because when the moment comes there really will only be a fraction of a second to record it.

And my final two quotes from Arnold Newman require no comments, but are something that we all would do well to remind ourselves of (especially when thinking of buying the latest and greatest gizmo).

...a lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they'll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won't do a thing for you if you don't have anything in your head or in your heart.

We don't take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.


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Photo credits: Abdul Sami Haqqani.

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