I think of Arnold Newman in many ways. My memories are both visual and aural. A gray sleeveless sweater over a white shirt with pinstripes. The sweater straining to cover his belly, his eyes restlessly touching but not resting on a hundred items in the room. He strokes his stomach lightly with his right hand, unconsciously. "Oy," he heaves the sigh reflexively, half exhaling breath and half utterance. A sound used for punctuating statements of all sorts. "I guess I’ve done pretty good, for a little Jewish kid from New York or Philadelphia or Miami," (he used these locations variously depending what part of his rise to fame he wanted to stress). Or, almost whispering conspiratorially, "Did you know" that this one or that one, "was Jewish".Or, "Would you believe I paid $25 for each of those Westons", mispronouncing the name, saying it as though it were West and Or with the accent on the last syllable. Or, "Gus, what was the name of that collector that we met at ‘whatchamacallits?" And of course Gus would supply the name immediately.
I first met Arnold in 1980 when we were both teaching at Ansel Adams’ Yosemite workshop. One morning we all climbed onto a bus and drove to the High Country around Tenaya Lake. You can imagine Arnold, the man who is only really comfortable in New York, sitting on a log in the dense forest, sport coat over the gray sweater and shirt, looking around like a lost soul, while the students were examining the textures of tree bark, and views of the lake through the trees. He looked so out of place, so uncomfortable, his tush never finding a comfortable relationship with the log. I was more fluent in the forest, having lived on a commune in the Maine woods from 1969-74. I felt so sorry for him. He looked as if he was hoping that a taxi would come by and take him back to his room. What was a portrait photographer to do in that situation? I took him under my wing, spending the afternoon listening to him alternately telling stories and kvetching about a dozen things. That sort of defined our relationship. He was the same age as my parents and yet I often felt like his father or maybe a brother, offering advice, support, and commiseration.
A few years later when I was Director of the Museum of Photographic Arts, in San Diego, I asked him when and where he had had a retrospective exhibition. I assumed that he must have had one or several by then. He told me he never had. When I asked why that was, he told me that no one had ever asked him. On the spot I asked and on the same spot he agreed. I suppose we had built up a good deal of trust by then. The result was Arnold Newman: Five Decades. It traveled to 9 cities in the U.S., 5 in Europe and two in Japan. In the course of building such a show and catalog, there are hundreds of small decisions to be made. Each one was a negotiation. Now, I am fairly adept at these kinds of negotiations, but I had not then, nor have I still ever encountered a force like Arnold. I am not exaggerating when I state that I did not win a single negotiation, argument, or toss-up decision. He drove me insane repeatedly. But eventually I came to realize that this stubbornness, this never-give-in style, this…okay, I’ll say it, this manipulative personality is what made his work so extraordinary. Arnold walked into the homes and studios, the offices and staterooms of 10,000 of the 20th Century’s most powerful people with oversized egos, and each time he came out with what he wanted. In the great contest across the mediating camera, Arnold always won. He used a full bag of tricks. He bullied, he bungled and dropped things, he stalled, he told stories, he wore them down, and when they dropped their guard, "Bang, the picture was made and the unguarded face or the perfect pose was frozen. I arranged for and assisted him when he photographed Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel), and when he photographed Niki de Saint Phalle, I made the connections and schlepped his gear. He photographed my father, and he shot me twice, once in my office and once in his studio. Each time I saw different strategies, and devices. "Hold still, or I’ll kill you," he bellowed at me once, in a voice that could almost be taken seriously.
He always told the story that when I was being courted to take the job and create a museum in San Diego, Arnold was called by the Chairman of the Board who asked, "What do you know about Arthur Ollman?" Two days later, unaware of that first conversation, I called Arnold and asked him, "What do you know about these people in San Diego." He always claimed, not entirely incorrectly that he was the matchmaker.
Arnold never missed an opportunity to brag about his sons and his grandchildren. In fact, he manufactured opportunities to do so, even when it wasn’t entirely appropriate. As a result I feel like I know them better than I do. In his last years, his standard lecture and slide show ended with family snapshots, an endearing if not professional conceit, that everyone allowed him. I always loved stopping at H & H for bagels or at Zabar's for rugalach to bring to Arnold and Gus, so we could schmooze around the table, though I was hearing many of the same stories for the tenth time, often word for word, a telling of the tale, the way every culture passes along its history and wisdom.
He was forever insecure about money, and equally insecure about his next assignment or exhibition. Here was a man with two apartments, each a double floored artist’s apartment, he had the drawings for Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, a couple of hundred other pieces by almost everyone important in the past 75 years, and maybe 10,000 Arnold Newman photographs, (thousands unsigned, against my fervent directives that the easiest way to make a million more dollars to pass along to his heirs was to sign a hundred of these every day for a couple of months. This, of course would have meant addressing the possibility, no matter how remote, that he might be mortal.) He had several honorary Ph.D.s, and a thousand experiences with world leaders, any one of which would have been a claim to high status to any normal person on the street. ("Oh, didn’t I ever tell you? I spent a week with Charles DeGaulle, shooting for Life. We got along quite well. A nice guy. And did I ever tell you about the meals we had"?) All of this and still he was insecure about money and his place in the canon. And so it went, Stories and rugalach, stories and bagels. And the regularly repeated mantra, "I really shouldn’t have any of this. The doctor told me to lose a few, but, okay, one more won’t kill me."
One more story from a large reservoir of them in my mind. On March 25, 1989, Arnold called me early in the morning. "Oh, did I wake you? It’s 6:00 am? I always get mixed up…I thought it was noon there on the West Coast". This time there was no time to talk. I said " Arnold I can’t talk now. Leah has gone into labor and we’re leaving for the hospital in a few minutes!" Arnold…"Oh I’m sorry I’ll talk to you another time. But incidentally, are we including the Milton Avery in the show?" Me…"I don’t know, I can’t think about it now, I've got to get Leah into the car!" Arnold…"I understand! Absolutely. Oy did I ever tell you when our first was born, and Gus went into labor…" Me…"Arnold, please. I gotta run…Now!" Arnold…"Yeah. Okay…Gus was walking back and forth, pacing, and I'm completely farschimmeled, throwing clothes into a bag and…" Me…"Arnold!"...click.
There is a spot in my life, in my internal landscape, which is now empty where Arnold used to be, a place of maddening frustration and exasperation. But also a place of humor, camaraderie and real affection. For 25 years I laughed both with and occasionally at Arnold Newman. I value what he and Gus gave me and what he gave the world. He provided the evidence, perhaps better than almost anyone in the world, of the feet of clay upon which all of us, including the great ones stand. And by the way, did you know he was Jewish?
For his Birthday…March 3, 2007