Feb 15th '19
Over the past fifty years, Jon Naar has assembled a photographic body of work that has spanned street scenes to portraits to architectural photography. After getting his start as a professional photographer in Europe, at magazines such as domus, Naar took up practice in New York in the 1960s, working for the likes of Knoll International, IBM, and various New York publications. Naar’s special eye for zeitgeist, an existential sense of time and place, has made him a quintessential New York photographer. In 1972, he published one of the first books on New York graffiti, The Faith of Graffiti, which still stands as one of the great archival documents in street art. It also played a major role in solidifying the legitimization of graffiti as a form of art. Having developed close relationships with many of the creative people of his generation, Naar’s portraits of artists such as Andy Warhol, Josef Albers, and Barnett Newman have become iconic images. At the age of 97, Naar continues to shoot photographs on digital media.
colin tunstall: How did you start off as a “weekend photographer” 60 years ago?
jon naar: In the mid-1950s, I was a medical science editor in New York and wanted a camera for a trip to visit my parents in London. Prior to that trip, I decided that I’d better get myself a new camera. I went to the local Peerless Camera across from Grand Central, which was just a couple blocks from where I lived. The manager said I should try a Rolleiflex, which I did. He said to try it for a week or so, and I could always bring it back. I didn’t like the Rolleiflex, because it meant looking down, and I essentially look straight ahead. So I took it back and ended up getting one of the first single-lens reflex cameras, an East German Praktica, which reversed the image in the viewfinder. When I showed my first roll to a friend who was a graphic designer, she said, “You should buy another roll of film!” I took her advice as encouragement and shot a number of black-and-white pictures of street scenes in Greenwich Village. A year later, I showed ten of the photographs to a neighbor, Nickolas Muray, who was one of the great portraitists of the ‘40s and ‘50s. He said, “Jon, I’m a photographer, but you are an artist! You must meet André.” “André” turned out to be André Kertesz. When I showed him my photographs, I asked him if I should be a photographer. He said, “Cher ami, tu es un photographe déjà.” “My friend, you are a photographer already.” I didn’t realize at that time that Kertesz really didn’t like looking at other people’s portfolios, but he made an exception in my case. He and Muray inducted me into a professional group they had called the “Circle of Confusion.”
ct: That’s a great name.
jn: One of the members was Jacob Dessin, who was a photography critic for the Sunday NY Times.
ct: How old were you at this point?
jn:I was 36 years old with a new job as international marketing director for Pharmacraft Labs, who sent me to Mexico for ten days on a marketing job. This gave me two weekends of picture-taking that blew me away—especially the light, but the people and the culture as well. These photographs got me my first exhibition, which was in 1962 at the Coyote Flaco gallery in Coyoacan. After that, and the encouragement from Kertesz and Muray, I decided to become a full-time photographer. But I needed to save enough money so that I could live on it for my first year. We’re now in 1962. I had been head-hunted by Seagram—the whiskey company—for a job as an associate scientific director. But now I was really considering giving up that whole career and becoming a full-time photographer. Seagram sold that company and I got two weeks severance pay, and I decided that the next job I got would be a one-year contract. I got a contract with a German cosmetic company in Munich. It enabled me to live for my first year as a photographer without being dependent on income from photography.
ct: So that’s when your professional photography career started?
jn: It started on January 1, 1963, right after I finished the contract for this job I had. I took off my Brooks Brothers suit and put on blue jeans and a turtleneck sweater. Through a contact in New York, I had befriended one of Germany’s top graphic designers, Michael Englemann. He introduced me to Gebrauchsgrafik, Germany’s leading graphic design magazine, which published six pages of my weekend images. I then got an assignment from the Italian design magazine—domus.
I think the key to creative photography, or any artwork, is to be yourself.
ct: This was color photography, right?
jn: Yes. It was for a profile on the creative people of my generation in Germany. Lisa Ponti, the editor of domus, told me that I could have sixteen pages if I gave her good reportage. My first task was to go through the Iron Curtain—on week one of my new career—into the Czech Socialist Republic to photograph a West German jazz band called the Munich All-Stars. I then traveled around Germany photographing architects, designers, painters, artists, writers, and jewelers. Lisa Ponti ended up printing 23 pages, mostly in color. My reportage was then seen by just about every art director in Europe, the United States, and Japan. I came back to New York in June of 1964 and established myself as a New York photographer. One of the first designers to respond my domus reportage was the great Massimo Vignelli, who had been hired to redesign the image of Knoll International—everything from the logo to brochures and advertising. Vignelli assigned me to photograph the brochure for the new line of chairs by Charles Pollock. I had the idea of putting the Knoll furniture into an empty office building with the tag line, “Your furniture is ready before your office is even finished.” Vignelli loved the concept. I went up on the 32nd floor of a construction site on East 54 Street. With help from the construction workers, we managed to get the chairs up there. I even put them in the picture to add a little “reality.” Vignelli loved the picture, but the president of Knoll hated it. He said it was messy. I was about to say “Fuck you, I don’t need this kind of crap.” But Vignelli said that we should be diplomatic. I then went on to do the first of twelve brochures and ads with Vignelli. They’re now collector’s items.
ct: I’m sure they are.
jn: I also took some of the chairs into the street in front of the Seagram’s building. I took another set of Pollock chairs to Harry Bertoia’s studio in Pennsylvania near the Knoll factory. I took another set to the Yale campus and, again, I used this idea that the chairs are ready before you move in. They never actually used my famous black-and-white photo, Pollock Skyline, but that was certainly one of my favorites.
ct: Reference to design is definitely a theme in your work. And what’s interesting is the wide spectrum of design that is interpreted, from downtown to uptown. I think that’s a unique thing. Then you have some off-the-hip, candid photography, but also some more staged photography as well as studio photography.
jn: Through the Knoll work, I got in touch with IBM and photographed 20 of their buildings around the world. I pioneered the use of the 35mm camera in interior design photography. Interior design photography in the mid-60s was done on view cameras. And I resisted, although I did eventually get a view camera. But a single-lens reflex camera enabled me to capture that existential, zeitgeist feeling—the human use of architecture. You couldn’t photograph people in buildings easily with a view camera. Plus there was the fact that I just didn’t want to be lugging that heavy equipment around. You couldn’t get big cameras into the places I wanted to be photographing.
ct: Tell me about how The Faith of Graffiti came about. It has become a classic book in the world of street art.
jn: The word archival comes to mind. I have become an iconic figure in the world of graffiti, because of that book. When I shot Graffiti—as when I shot Knoll furniture or IBM buildings—I was concerned with the zeitgeist, how people are walking past the event. I don’t want to just do studio shots of graffiti tags. I have mothers and children, I’ve got trucks and cars, so that when you look at a Jon Naar graffiti photograph, you know from my photograph not only exactly where in Brooklyn that picture was taken, but what month, what time of day, and again the zeitgeist that I captured.
ct: How did Norman Mailer get on board?
jn: The producer of the book, Larry Schiller, phoned me from the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1972. He was a Life Magazine photographer. He photographed Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe.
ct:Is he the one who hired you for the job?
jn: Schiller said, “I love your pictures, but no one has ever heard of Jon Naar. How would you feel about having Norman Mailer write an introduction to your book of photographs?” I said it was okay, but Pentagram will be unhappy because they had conceived of a book with my photographs and no text other than the graffiti tags. After considerable arm-twisting, Schiller got Pentagram to agree. And I knew Norman Mailer, because were involved in the anti-Vietnam War draft resistance together. I had helped him with a big standing-room-only event at Town Hall in New York, burning the draft cards and all that stuff. I was very comfortable with Norman. He received $35,000 to write a sixteen-page introduction to my book. I got $3,500 that I split with Pentagram. I was okay with Mailer’s name on the cover, but I was pissed off that Pentagram’s art director, Mervyn Kurlanky, had put his name on the cover in front of mine, implying that he had taken some of the photographs. That said, Mailer’s name got me entrée into every publishing house in New York. It opened the way for me to get eleven more of my books published on a variety of different subjects.
ct: How did the Saturday Evening Post cover image come to life?
jn: I received the assignment in 1968 from Joe Sapinsky, who was the art director of the Post. He said, “Go find a run-down section of New York and shoot me a cover photo for a story called ’Will America Burn?’” Without any props or models, I went out with an assistant to East New York. We went to find the location, get local kids to help us find the posters, post them appropriately, and pose for the photograph. I shot vertically, visualizing the space for the text. It was a case of everything coming together existentially with a bit of imagination and ingenuity on my part. I gave the kids five bucks each. Sapinsky was delighted. I was satisfied to have “gotten the picture.” It was one of the last covers of the magazine.
ct: It seems like you have wonderful relationships with not only artists, but also art directors and creative types—from architects to product designers to photographers to painters. What kind of advice do you have for people who are trying to develop that type of career?
jn: Number one is that I’m self-taught. I don’t want to criticize photography schools, but the danger of studying photography is that you become a wannabe of whomever the teacher happens to be. I think the key to creative photography, or any artwork, is to be yourself. I recommend that younger people study anything but photography. I studied linguistics and political science. I think young people should go to museums and expose themselves to artwork. I was much more influenced by looking at Vermeer, or Rembrandt, or Seurat, or Edward Hopper than I was by looking at photography. I don’t mean that I didn’t look at photography, but I was never quite associated with it when I was younger. I hope to encourage the viewer of my work to see the world differently. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but this is an ability of mine that I discovered before I became a professional. However, I would never personally call myself an artist. I prefer a term that I picked up from the British design guru Alan Fletcher. He used the term “handworker.” When I became a photographer in 1964, I was inspired by him to consider myself a handworker and, as such, I could present myself to editors, art directors, and advertising people as somebody who did relate to creative work myself. It’s how I developed a rapport with Andy Warhol, whose portrait I did in 1965. It was Milton Glaser—who was re-designing New York Magazine—who assigned me to take that picture. Some art directors wanted to be on location and some didn’t. Vignelli, for example, saw the work I did for a couple of brochures and eventually said, “I don’t need to come.” That was a very wonderful relationship. Similarly, Milton Glaser was more concerned with re-designing New York Magazine, which was the color supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. He helped develop it into the standalone that it is now today. So Glaser’s art director simply said to me, “Just go photograph Andy Warhol.” When Andy saw the pictures I took of him on the red sofa—the one where he said he had filmed Blowjob—he said, “You know, Jon, this is the most beautiful portrait of me that I have ever taken.” I did a double take when he said that. I wasn’t part of Andy’s entourage. I didn’t do drugs, I was older and I didn’t need that sort of stimulation. Andy went on this whole thing about how he had taken that picture as the subject. He said he was going to tell everyone that he took that picture, but that I could keep the copyright of it. And it’s my bestselling picture. I’ve still got the copyright on it.
ct: In your long career as a photographer, what do you see as an important change that has taken place?
jn: Clearly, the switch from film to digital has been revolutionary. It has opened up an enormous range of opportunities for picture-taking. Furthermore, cellular phone cameras now give us more than three billion photographers out there and, even if most of them are not shooting great pictures, they do provide a significantly larger audience for what may be called serious work and the appreciation of photography as an important form of visual communication.
ct: Is there something you want to share about taking pictures on film?
jn: I shoot digital exclusively now, I have for the last ten years, but there was something about film, emotionally and intuitively. When I put Tri- X into my Leica M4 or Nikon FM2, I was aware: I am shooting black-and-white. Emotionally, I’m thinking, looking at you—or Josef Albers, or whomever—and I’m thinking, “Tri-X black-and-white.” And I’m aware that I’ve got 36 pictures on that roll. Whereas with digital, you’re not thinking “black-and-white,” or “Kodachrome.” This is a very important loss with moving to digital. I haven’t heard of many other photographers talking about that, but it’s a tremendously important loss.
ct: That’s fascinating. Do you think that your images changed in response over time?
jn:I tend to get very good response. Again, I don’t want to sound boastful. When I take a portrait, people very often say to me, “That’s the best picture of me I’ve ever had taken.” I can’t really explain it with any other word than “existential.”■