In conjunction with Arnold Newman: Masterclass, on view October 23, 2014–February 1, 2015, The CJM offers insightful chats in the gallery with leading photographers and artists that highlight aspects of craft, creation, and Newman’s influence on modern photography.
San Francisco-based portrait photographer Vince Donovan, the co-founder of Photobooth studio and gallery, answered some of our questions about Arnold Newman.
What about Arnold Newman’s work has been most influential to your own creative practice?
What interests me a great deal is that, like August Sander (another of my heroes), Arnold Newman was a day-in, day-out, professional photographer. Portraiture was his job and he worked hard at it. It seems to me that the daily flow of work and the technical mastery that came from thousands of exposures freed him creatively. He knew what he could do, he did it all day long, and he never stopped pushing himself to do it better.
Tell us about your favorite photograph in Arnold Newman: Masterclass.
My favorite is not a final, published photograph, but one of the terrific proof sheets that are on display, the proofs for his famous portrait of Stravinsky. The image that we see in the negative, while technically perfect, is relatively straightforward. The crop lines, however, reveal to us how he keeps pushing himself, keeps taking risks, even after the shoot is over.
How do you think Newman would have photographed you?
What a wonderful prospect! I can't think of anything more thrilling. His environmental portraits are inspiring, but my home and studio are such as mess that I don't think I could even let him in the door. Nor is there much room for another big camera! It seems to me that one of his goals as a portrait photographer was to help get his subject's message out to the world—maybe even a message they didn't know they had! I'm not sure what my message is, but I'm delighted with the idea of him bringing it to light.
What do you think Newman would say about technology’s influence on photography today? (I.e. iPhone photo apps, selfies, Richard Prince’s Instagram-based exhibition at Gagosian etc.)
I'm not at all sure on this one. Photography evolved during Newman's lifetime, with innovations in cameras, film, lighting, and photographic styles. But in many ways the basic principles of photography didn't change at all from 1880 until 1990. The digital and informational innovations of the past twenty years, however, have given photographic imagery an entirely new role in human life and culture. The tools are different, the process is different, the conversation is different. But one thing has stayed the same: we are the same. Either as creators or as viewers of images, we are still human. We all want to go somewhere special and, big camera or small, digital or film, Arnold Newman could take us there.
What do you hope emerging artists can take away from the exhibition?
That Arnold Newman's significance emerges not from any one great picture, but from his work as an artist and creative force over a lifetime. He has shown me the importance of shooting every day, and of pushing myself however I can.
Who would you want Newman to photograph today?
Well, this is gonna sound screwball, but: if Arnold Newman were still alive today, I would want Vanity Fair to send him up to the International Space Station to take portraits. Those astronauts are probably the only humans who are public figures but not over-photographed. Their portraits would truly offer us something new. And what a technical challenge! How do you steady a large format camera in space? A tripod wouldn't work, unless it had little retro-rockets. How do you keep the dark cloth around your head so you can focus? And I can just imagine the cable release floating in front of the lens at just the wrong time (it's hard enough to keep this from happening in normal gravity). And how do you light your subjects? Bounce flash is not going to work in a cylindrical space the way it works in a studio. The ambient light from the earth is probably amazing in its quality, a planet-sized soft box! Or he might wait until the space station's windows (does it even have windows?) turn toward the stars, and the astronauts are lit only by infinite space.
Vince Donovan is a San Francisco-based portrait photographer and writer. He is co-founder of Photobooth, a studio and gallery that specialized in hand-crafted photographic techniques including wet plate collodion (‘tintype’), traditional silver gelatin, and Polaroid. He is currently working on Little Cities, a life-long portrait project involving non-profits and communities of faith throughout the Bay Area. Participants so far include Creativity Explored, Old First Presbyterian Church, and the San Francisco Welcome Center. The most recent installment, involving 97 individual portraits printed on high-quality silver-gelatin paper, is currently on exhibit at St. Paulus Lutheran Church on Polk Street in San Francisco.