Photography has many genres, even more than painting, and most photographers achieve fame by focusing on one of them. There are technical reasons for this. Armed only with a bunch of brushes and a palette of colours, a painter can achieve a variety of effects — close-up, distance, soft or sharp focus, motion — for which a photographer needs a battery of cameras and associated paraphernalia in the form of lenses, films, lights and filters, and the technical know-how to get the best out of each.
There is also professional snobbery. Jobbing photographers who work across genres for magazine assignments are less likely to be taken seriously as artists. The distinction may be artificial (pun intended) but it exists, and it explains why New York photographer Marvin E. Newman has had to wait until the age of 89 for a monograph on his work to be published by Taschen.
Social documentary, travel, fashion, sport, even the funeral of JFK — Newman has shot them all through every sort of lens with every conceivable combination of film, flashbulb and filter. When I naively inquire, as a technopagan more used to interviewing painters, how he got that deliciously lurid green wash on his 1983 series of night scenes of Broadway, he replies: ‘You don’t get it, it’s what exists,’ before patiently explaining how different light sources have different colour temperatures and using tungsten film with the fluorescent lights of the theatre marquees brings out that green.
Oh, I see.
‘Theory really works.’
It works magic on the silver bodywork of the Bentley cruising slummingly along 42nd Street past a cinema advertising porno-horror ‘MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY’ with the teaser ‘To [sic] disgusting to watch! To [sic] bizarre to resist!’ In the back of the car, a passenger with a camera snaps the photographer. The image has all the hallmarks of a Newman picture: painterly colour, effortless composition and the written word delivering an ironic aside on the serendipitously captured moment. Easier when you have an inbuilt viewfinder. ‘People talk about looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. I’m looking at the world through rectangles, vertical and horizontal.’
Newman started taking commercial photographs for magazines fresh out of college, after Life bought a black-and-white series of Long Island beachscapes in 1953. Those minimalist monochrome images seem a world away from the seething colour of the Broadway pictures, and belong to an older photographic tradition. The Chicago Institute of Design, where Newman studied under Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, had been founded by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1937 as the New Bauhaus, and his early essays in black and white come out of that school. His schooling in colour was equally arty. An early teacher at Brooklyn College in New York was the De Stijl abstract painter Burgoyne Diller, who instilled in him the principles of colour composition: ‘Diller made me very aware of balancing a red square on the left and a blue on the right; a person on the left and two on the right.’
A quick flip through the book reveals another, more popular influence: film. Newman’s five maternal uncles all worked as union film projectionists: ‘I would go with them in the morning and help them carry films into the projection room and would stay there all day… The best training I ever had.’ It was a very liberal education. The 1930s gangster films he loved cast an obvious shadow over his early experiments with silhouettes, and his colour shot of two sharp young men out celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy in 1952 anticipates Mean Streets — the little guy on the right with the cigarette is clearly deciding whether to punch the Bronx-born photographer’s lights out. In retrospect, Newman acknowledges another cinematic influence: Busby Berkeley musicals. ‘I had this inclination to go up high and photograph down. Now they have drones.’
What he had for his classic 1958 shot of the New York Stock Exchange was a hole in the ceiling through which to observe the choreography of the traders circling the horseshoe-shaped desks like reelers at the Royal Caledonian Ball. He took the photo with a 21mm wide-angle lens (a Zeiss Biogon, since you ask) and Kodachrome colour, which was so slow it required a four- to six-second exposure. ‘Some of the figures are moving and you can see it, and it makes it just a little bit more interesting,’ he explains modestly. Beside his animated image Andreas Gursky’s digital montages of global stock exchanges, with all the advantages of modern technology, look clinically dead.
A lensman like Newman is never off-duty: ‘I walk around’ is how he describes it. During time off from commercial assignments he walked around scouting for potential subjects. Sent to Kansas City by Sports Illustrated in the mid-1950s to photograph the pro basketball team, he drifted into an old burlesque house where the music was live and the musicians unconventional. In one ghostly black-and-white image, the eye is drawn from the spotlit nude dancer on stage to the orchestra pit to find a grandmother in a flowery dress and pearls apparently moonlighting from her job as church organist.
Great photographers pick up fag ends less sharp-eyed scavengers have missed and get a smoke out of them. ‘What you’re always trying to do is show something to the people that they haven’t recognised or seen.’ Between assignments Newman reconnoitred unexplored territory, such as Coney Island out of season in 1953. For grey-faced New Yorkers desperate for some winter sunshine, the shuttered shopfronts function as windbreaks; in front of one advertising ‘PHOTOS WHILE “U” WAIT’ two men recline in a corner soaking up the rays, while a third man, getting the joke, stands to face the photographer with a smile. ‘It’s early morning, it’s cold out there — the quality of light, you can just feel what the atmosphere is. That’s what I was always trying to attain, and when you do it’s a great feeling.’
Newman admits this is his favourite shot, though he has to be pressed: ‘That’s getting into ego now.’ Is it ego that turns photography into art? Ego probably helps a photographer get a monograph before he’s 89. Among Newman’s sports photographs is a thrillingly informal shot of the young Cassius Clay in a Miami gym in 1963 draining a bottle of soda in front of a dusty mirror in which the photographer is also reflected. Left to the end of the book, it’s the only picture Newman muscles in on; otherwise he stays behind the lens. He sees no difference between commercial assignments and self-initiated projects because, as he tells Lyle Rexer in the book, ‘No matter what I shoot, I always photograph for myself.’ That is, I guess, what divides the artist from the jobbing hack: the artist pleases himself.
Marvin E. Newman is published by Taschen on 22 May.