Newman and TrumanI approached Arnold Newman after his lecture at…

Newman and TrumanI approached Arnold Newman after his lecture at...

Newman and TrumanI approached Arnold Newman after his lecture at...

Newman and Truman

I approached Arnold Newman after his lecture at my alma mater, Ryerson University in Toronto, in 1990. I had been out of school for a couple of years but continued to attend the photo lectures there as they were always entertaining and inspiring.

I gave Mr. Newman my best pitch, including mentioning that I had recently had a sitting with Joel-Peter Witkin. He almost cut me off as he excitedly described his own Witkin portrait. He laughed with glee as he described how strange and wonderful the image was.

I pulled him over into some flat and even light, as was my way of dealing with brief and difficult circumstances, and shot a few frames. As he was then off for the airport he me his number in New York, so that I could call him for a proper interview.

I mostly asked him about pictures connected to politics and history – his portrait of President Harry S. Truman, and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer were both iconic of the men yet also very Newman.

Arnold Newman: I photographed President Truman for Life magazine, in a hotel suite in New York City. I probably spent thirty minutes with him shooting. At the end of that time when I was getting up to leave, I had to ask him, “Why did you drop the bomb, Mr. President?” He said “Young man, sit down” and for a half an hour explained all of the reasons for his decisions. They were no different than those given in the papers, but he took the time to tell me because I asked.

Chris Buck: It’s an impressive range of people, like Truman and Oppenheimer, that you have photographed.

I was assigned to do those…it’s like a snowball after you’ve done one important person. It’s worked out well. There are two things in our work, one is to be an artists, the other is to be a professional. You may be a great artist but if you can’t get people to work with you, you’re not going to get those kinds of assignments – so my shooting those people is a professional, not a creative achievement.

It must be a little intimidating to photograph someone like an ex-president.

I’ve learned to put that behind me. I am more concerned about the circumstances of a shoot. I worry about a lack of time, everybody fluttering about the subject, distracting him. I’ve learned…to demand, or request, a certain amount of time and cooperation. My main concern is the picture.

If I had asked Truman this question just before we began to shoot, “Why did you drop the bomb?” he would have sat down and started explaining it to me and I wouldn’t have gotten much done in the way of pictures.

With the J. Robert Oppenheimer shoot you mentioned that the editors wanted something dramatic.

Well, they thought it might be appropriate. The editors were expecting a Dr. Frankenstein type of environment, with heavy equipment and lightning – very mysterious and spectacular. I got there and found a very simple arrangement; he just worked with paper and pencil. Even with the atom bomb much of the work was done on paper. He was in what looked like a very casual office, like a writer’s office. What was on the papers was different; what was on his mind was different.

What was he like?

Very warm, I got along very well with him. I met him again, bumped into him on a train years later. I was on my way to Washington from New York, and he was on his way to Princeton. He asked me to come down to visit him. He said he’d love me to meet his son who was interested in photography. Stupidly, I never did.

Did you talk about his problems with the Un-American Activities charges that stemmed from the Atomic Energy Commission?

No! There are certain things you don’t do, particularly in a crowded train. When someone accepts you to interview them he expects you are going to ask questions like that but at other times it becomes a social thing. You don’t bring up that sort of thing. But there are times when you take the bull by the horns and ask a question like I did with Truman. 

Top Image: Arnold Newman by Chris Buck, 1990

Second Image: President Harry S. Truman by Arnold Newman, 1960

Bottom Image: Dr. Robert Oppenheimer by Arnold Newman, 1948

See full post here: The Chris Buck2015-08-18.