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Meet the Artist: Harry Newman

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On view at Mulberry Street Library in the Great Room is Harry Newman's photographic series, de-composition. Newman has presented in group and solo shows in New York and California, and his images were recently acquired for the permanent collection of the Dave Bown Projects. His most recent show, Last Woods, was presented in September 2010 by the Open Space Gallery in Brooklyn. This is the first exhibition of his latest series, de-composition.

Trained in science, Newman studied at MIT but has spent most of his life working as a writer. His poetry has appeared regularly in national journals, including most recently Ecotone, Rattle, Asheville Poetry Review, and The New Guard. His plays, translations, and performance pieces have been presented at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Public Theater, Cincinnati Playhouse, and other theaters around the country as well as in the Netherlands and Germany.

Newman grew up in Miami, Florida and has lived in Stockholm, Sweden; Utrecht, Holland; and in several US cities. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

from Last Woods series, by Harry Newmanfrom Last Woods series, by Harry Newman

Q & A with Harry Newman

NYPL: Have you shown your work before?

Harry Newman: Yes, I had my first show last September. The photos came from a series of walks and one to two day hikes I took in New England, Massachusetts, and the Catskills. It dealt with the natural world and how we relate to nature. I took photos of ground cover and other things overlooked and neglected.

What was the inspiration for this project?

It started last winter. I wasn’t outside taking hikes anymore, so I started photographing small indoor plants, like the African violet. I’m not a horticulturist, but I became interested in plants about five years ago. I liked the way the light caught the plants, and the way flowers became smaller over time. My impulse to explore and look at things as they exist comes from my scientific background.

What are some of your techniques?

I always use natural light, often through an open window, sometimes with a built-in flash. I’m extremely lo-tech, it’s almost comical. A lot of photography today is more about the technology than the outcome. I am the tortoise. No flowers were harmed during the making of these photographs. I have played around quite a bit with lighting, including some unorthodox things like using table and floor lamps. But I always use flash in the photos. They can't happen without it, there's no possibility for shadow or the kind of clarity they require. As for natural light, keeping the window blinds open and such, because I'm working at such shallow depth of field, the light in the greater environment (the room) doesn't have as much of an effect on the photo. Working in natural light -- i.e. with the blinds open instead of complete dark -- may give a slightly warmer quality to the photos and it's certainly more pleasant for me.

Tell me a little about your work as writer, and how does it inform your artwork?

For me it’s about the tone, not the subject matter. I’ve done writing for theater, and I’ve worked as a translator, a poet, and a journalist. The photographs are a lot like the poems, they have a dark melancholy, a tragic quality to them, but they are also about tenacity. There is vibrancy to the life left in the flowers, even as they are dwindling. It hints at a philosophical appreciation for what life really is. It’s not intellectual, and it speaks to something outside my own agency.

How long have you been involved in photography?

About three to four years. I was up in the Catskills writing when I started. It was secluded, and I took long walks in the woods. I noticed the muddy, empty river bed below my feet and how it looked so abstract, like stripped posters on a wall. I started seeing compositions. I sent some of the photos to a friend in California, and she encouraged me to take photography seriously as an artist. So I started submitting work to galleries.

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

My stepfather had a darkroom, so I’ve been around photography for a long time. I like the Western photographs of Tim O’Sullivan, and Edward Weston. I also love Sally Mann and Edward Steichen. The landscapes of Edward Burtynsky are remarkable. Sebastião Salgado’s photographs are emotional, and also very political. Hiroshi Sugimoto -- his seascapes are extraordinary -- or Gary Winogrand, his eye for composition is quite remarkable -- and current people like Todd Hiro or Brian Ullrich.

What are some sources of inspiration for de-composition?

The images have a painterly aspect that suggest Flemish painting, whose subjects sometime include decaying food and meat. I like to stick with a lower end camera; the outcomes often live in a boundary between painting and photography.

What do you think of digital photography?

I wouldn’t be taking pictures otherwise. It allows someone who knows nothing about photography to explore the medium. And there are no nasty chemicals involved. I don’t have a color printer. I don’t manipulate subjects; I will change my angle of shooting to accommodate the subject.

So what’s next?

I have a backlog of de-composition photos taken since May I have yet to review thoroughly. Most of those I'll likely reject. There are a little more than a hundred  de-composition iterations photos I'd like to do more with. They have a disorienting effect in relation to the de-composition photos. It is as if the image itself is decomposing. It takes the idea of decomposition to a different, more conceptual level.

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I like the photograph because

I like the photograph because it reflects nature's beautiful light. The questions and the answers were interesting. Inspirational!

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