Remarks by Greg Heisler at the Arnold Newman Memorial, February 2007
So here’s the plain truth: I simply wouldn’t be here today but for Arnold, and of course, Augusta. And I don’t mean here at the National Arts Club. Here, as in: My Entire Life. I’d not be enjoying the career I have here as a photographer, especially at the level at which I’m privileged to experience it. I’d never have met my beautiful Australian bride; I’d have stayed in Skokie and married a Nice Jewish Girl instead! And I wouldn’t have my two incredible daughters who bring light into my life every single day. I’d have none of this, were it not for him.
Nine months. The gestation period of a human fetus. Also, perhaps not so coincidentally, my entire tenure at the Arnold Newman Studio. I remember sitting in the Eames Interview Chair for the first time, and thinking, “This is my real Bar Mitzvah: ‘Today I am a Photographer.” It proved to be the ultimate crash course in the practice of photography at its highest level. It certainly wasn’t about being groovy. Unfortunately, it was never about all the pretty models, because there weren’t any. (If anything, there seemed to be a definite bias toward overweight, balding white men.) It wasn’t about networking, marketing, or locking in the next job. It wasn’t about being seen with the right people in the right places. It was never about competing with anyone else. In fact, at least from my 21-year old perspective, it was as if no one else existed. It was all Arnold, all the time. It was The Newman Show. It was a profound introduction to what photography can be when it’s really all about the photographs.
Just one small example: It’s a common cliché to see the film director squinting, his hands tromboning in & out before his face, cropping and framing the world through the inverted “L’s” of his thumb and forefingers. It’s an act that, by its very nature, assumes the field of view to be always less than what the eye sees. I never once saw Arnold do that; I couldn’t even imagine him in such a comical pose! He’d have had to pull his hands back behind his ears for some of his images! You see, his eyes didn’t just look straight ahead, they’d take in everything, lending many of his images an uncanny sense of peripheral vision. Because every lens was a portrait lens in Arnold’s hands, yet his pictures never looked “lensy.” It was from him that I learned how to tame and effectively employ the unwieldy, chaotic view of the wide-angle lens. His incredible, unerring eye for translating these spatial relationships into the two dimensions of the photograph is still unmatched. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard uncomprehending art directors, and worse, photographers, express their dilemma: “If we show the whole scene, the person will be too small; but if you go in closer then you won’t see where they are!” And these are visual people!
Most importantly, though, his impact on photography in general, especially portrait photography, absolutely cannot be overstated. Period. Every single environmental portrait tips its hat in acknowledgement. But just look at most of the contemporary portraiture published in magazines and hanging on gallery walls. Almost every picture consists of a static rectangle with a person smack dab in the middle! The environment may be present, but it’s there as simple context, or as decoration. They’re generally taken with medium-to-long “portrait” lenses that could just as easily been aimed a bit this way or that with little consequence. Such a casual approach was never evident in an Arnold Newman portrait (or any Arnold Newman photograph, for that matter). As Jay Maisel says, “You must always be aware of and responsible for everything in your frame.” A smidge either way, closer or farther, would’ve destroyed the delicate balance he seemed incapable of not achieving; it seemed truly to be his innate wiring. His subjects were often NOT centered in his frame; it is precisely their scale, position, attitude, and relation to other elements that charged the picture with such compositional tension. His “decisive moments” were rarely about telling gestures, facial expressions, or peaks of action. For Arnold, they occurred in a spontaneous concatenation of geometries or even a serendipitous swirl of smoke, giving the image already in his mind’s eye its fullest expression.
Arnold & Yiddish
I grew up in a Jewish home, but I was not so familiar with Yiddish. I’d hear my grandparents speak it a little but not so much my parents. Mine was the kind of home where my grandma’s signature dish was her matzo ball soup but my mom’s were her spaghetti and lasagna. So I really didn’t pick up on Yiddish expressions, especially their juiciness and expressiveness, until my immersion in the Newman Studio culture. But I learned fast. In alphabetical order, here are some of my favorites. The affectionate patina of my memory may have compromised the accuracy of their recollection, but hopefully the general flavor is unharmed. For those of you who may be less familiar with their meaning, I’ve tried to put them into some context for clarity.
Bupkis, as in: “Arnold’s paying me bupkis.”
Bissel, as in: “That print’s a bissel too light.”
Boychick, as in: “So, boychick, you’re leaving? Gus and I will miss you.”
Chozzerei, as in: “Umbrellas? Strobes? I don’t go for all that chozzerei !!”
Chutzpah, as in: “You’ve got a lot of chutzpah to come in here for an interview!”
Dreck, as in: “That fashion stuff’s a bunch of dreck.”
Fecockteh, as in: “This fecockteh shutter isn’t working again.
Futz, as in: “Well, then don’t futz with it unless you know what you’re doing! Take it to Marty!”
Fresser, as in: “I know I said I’d treat you to lunch, but I had no idea you were such a fresser.”
Gevalt, as in: “Gevalt! You’re still in the bathroom? What’re you doing in there?
Gonif, as in: “That so-called dealer was nothing but a gonif !”
Kibitz, as in: “I didn’t come here to kibitz with you; now get back in the darkroom!”
Klutz, as in: “EASY with that light stand! Don’t be such a klutz !
Kosher, as in: “Spotting a print is one thing, but retouching’s just not kosher.”
Kvetch, as in: “Oh Arnold, stop kvetching!”
Kvell, as in: “You wanna see Gus kvell? Just ask about our grandchildren!”
L’Chaim, as in: “To my beautiful family, L’chaim !”
Macher, as in: “Marvin? Oh, he’s a big macher at Columbia Pictures.”
Maven, as in: “Oh, so now you’re a maven? Just print it darker!”
Mazel tov, as in: “Mazel tov; now that’s a print!”
Megillah, as in: “Oh, and stamp it on the back. Just use the megillah !”
Mensch, as in: “Now Frank Zachary, he’s a real mensch.”
Meshuggener, as in: “Not like all those meshuggener art directors!”
Mishigas, as in: “With all their layout mishigas.”
Moiyl, as in: “Your hand shakes so much when you spot those Stravinskys; it’s a good thing you’re not a Moiyl !”
Nachus, as in: “Satisfaction you can get from your work; nachus you get from your children.”
Nebbish, as in: “That last kid you interviewed; he’s too much of a nebbish.”
Noodge, as in: “I’m not a noodge, but when, already, will you be finished with those prints?”
Nosh, as in: “I’m hungry too, but you can’t nosh in the darkroom.”
Nu, as in: “Nu ?”
Oy, as in: (grunting as he gets up from his chair) “O-o-o-o-y-y-y !”
Oy Gevalt, as in: “Oy Gevalt!, whatever that means!”
Ongepotchket, as in: “Your bleaching looks all ongepotchket; you’ve got to be more careful.”
Pisher, as in: “When I hired you, you were just a pisher.”
Plotz, as in: “Arnold’s gonna plotz when he sees how much printing paper I’ve wasted.”
Potchkeh, as in: He always potchkes with that computer; I hope he knows what he’s doing!”
Ruggelach, as in: “Here, you have such a sweet tooth, try these ruggelach with your coffee.”
Schlemiel, as in: “That schlemiel left the slides at K&L again.”
Schlep, as in: “Hurry! We must get going! I’d schlep these cases myself, but I have such a bad back.”
Schlock, as in: “There’s art and there’s schlock.”
Schlub and Schmatte, as in: “You look like a schlub in that schmatte; go buy yourself a new suit.”
Schmaltz, as in: “I hate that schmaltzy look; that’s why I don’t like filters.”
Schmooze, as in: “You can’t just sit there and schmooze on the phone; we have work to do!”
Schmutz and Schpritz, as in: “Get me a tissue; there’s some schmutz on the lens. Give it a schpritz first.”
Schnorrer, as in: “I gave him one print, and now he wants another? I told you he was a schnorrer.”
Shiksa, as in: “So you married a shiksa?”
Shpilkes, as in: “Arnold, you’re giving me such shpilkes that I’m getting an ulcer!”
Shtick, as in: “Never confuse shtick with style.”
Shvitz, as in: “Oy, I’m shvitzing under this dark cloth!”
Tchotchkes, as in: “He calls himself a collector. Did you see all the tchotchkes in his house?”
Tsuris, as in: “You think you’ve got tsuris? Just read the newspaper.”
Tuchis,as in: “Move your tuchis. We’ve got a plane to catch.”
Yenta, as in: “I got stuck on the phone with that yenta.”
Zay gezundt, as in: “Zay gezunt, Greg. You’ll do just fine.”