By Fred Camper
When Marvin Newman came to Chicago in 1949 to enroll as a graduate student at the now legendary Institute of Design, he intended to do more than just make good pictures. He hoped his photographs would help bring about social change, by “showing people who wouldn’t enter the poorest neighborhoods what is happening there. Many say, ‘Why should I help those people who don’t help themselves?’ But in most cases that’s not true. They couldn’t know because they’ve never ventured into those areas.”
Yasuhiro Ishimoto, who enrolled at the institute the year before Newman and became his lifelong friend, says he didn’t share Newman’s social vision. But he does say, “Making good pictures just for myself is not enough of a reason.” He adds that he once saw a car crash in which a child was killed but refrained from taking any pictures: “I didn’t want to take advantage of the situation.” And he acknowledges that most of his Chicago photos, like Newman’s, were taken in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Ishimoto is back in Chicago for a retrospective at the Art Institute covering 50 years of his photography, as well as for a show at the Stephen Daiter Gallery of photographs he and Newman made in Chicago between 1949 and 1953. They often went out shooting together, and they produced an extraordinary body of street photography, much of it taken in Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods. Newman says that their interests were “very, very similar. We both had a real love for photography.” And he thinks that sometimes one can’t tell his street photos from Ishimoto’s. The exhibit at Daiter groups them unpredictably, and it is often hard to tell who took which photo if you don’t have the checklist.
On a recent afternoon the two men sat in the Daiter Gallery discussing their work and the years they spent together in the city. Asked to articulate the difference between their styles, Ishimoto says he can’t, then says it stems from their different personalities. “I myself am not trying to do it differently,” he says, “but it happens.”
Newman is enthusiastic, talkative, and emotive. Ishimoto is reserved, taciturn, almost contemplative. Trying to connect artists’ personas with their work is always tricky, yet it’s hard not to find their personalities in their photographs.
Newman more often shows facial expressions. “I was trying to show in the face of a person what they were thinking,” he says. He also often structures his images to reveal the narrative that accounts for the subjects’ positions. He has a humanist vision that places character and action at the center of attention, even when no person is present. For instance, a 1950 Chicago image showing rabbits for sale on the street, which can be seen at Daiter, centers on the dark barrel from which they’re hanging and the hand-printed sign advertising them above it–all of which tells us something about life in one neighborhood.
Ishimoto’s images tend to be more formal, and he doesn’t hesitate to fill much of his frame with the empty space of a stretch of pavement, the wall of a building, the sky. Two 1960 Chicago images on display at the Art Institute show a young boy playing on a mound of dirt, and in each one most of the frame is filled with shadow-covered dirt and a sky that grows darker at the top, enclosing the image. Ishimoto’s faces are sometimes revealing, but more often they’re distant, almost cipherlike. His compositions seem less intended to explain the action than to explore mixes of light and shadow and texture. Yet his images too describe very particular lives.
Ishimoto was born in San Francisco in 1921, but when he was three his parents moved to a farm on the Japanese island of Shikoku. When he was about nine he bought some candy that had a box camera as a prize, and he took his first picture with it, of his grandmother. “I didn’t shoot much,” he says. “There wasn’t much film. The person who lived behind our house told me how to make chemicals and develop it myself. The film was very, very slow. I didn’t have a darkroom, so I covered a tray with my coat to keep the light out.” This worked, but when he tried to develop film shot with his father’s Kodak box camera the light admitted by the coat fogged the much more light sensitive film.
When Ishimoto was 17 his parents sent him back to the U.S. to study agriculture. Their farm, like most Japanese farms, was small, but they hoped someday he might manage a large farm in China, which Japan had invaded. But before he completed his studies, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II. Ishimoto was sent to an internment camp in California, then transferred to another camp in Colorado, where he spent most of the war. “If I say it this way a lot of Japanese won’t like it,” he says, “but I was enjoying it. I had nothing to lose. I was young, they fed us pretty good food, I had a lot of time to myself. If you worked at plain labor you got, I think, $12 a month. If you had a little bit of skill you got $16 per month. Doctors, teachers, or firemen all got $19 a month. This was the highest, so I started working as a fireman. You were in the station for 24 hours, then spent 24 hours doing nothing. But in the camp there were no fires, nothing to do–always a holiday. Later there was a silk-screen shop in the camp, and I learned how to make prints.
“After the Battle of Midway we were permitted to have cameras, so I got one and started photographing. There was a friend of mine who was an amateur photographer. He knew how to develop film, how to enlarge and make prints. He had a camera but no enlarger, so he made one using a ketchup container for the light box and the bellows from a folding camera to hold the lens.” Ishimoto says that photographing scenes in the camp, his first real experience as a photographer, gave him something to do.
He was released from the camp in 1944 and wanted to go to New York to study, but because he’d received military training in his high school in Japan–as had every other student–he was banned from living on either coast. Chicago was the next largest city and it was “on the way to New York,” so he came here. He quickly found work in a silk-screen shop that made posters for Bell Telephone and other companies. The money was good, about $600 a month.
Ishimoto also continued to photograph, “as an amateur, a hobby, just for fun.” A friend of his suggested that he join a camera club, one of the informal organizations that provided darkroom access for a small fee. With the help of a recommendation from well-known photographer Harry Shigeta, whom he’d met through a friend, Ishimoto joined the Fort Dearborn Camera Club, a group still in existence that Shigeta cofounded in 1924. Soon Ishimoto entered a photo he’d taken of a large crowd of camp inmates in the club’s monthly contest. The judge criticized it, saying it wasn’t a “good picture.” Ishimoto now thinks the criticism was probably accurate, since he hadn’t even got out of the car to make a better composition. But back then he was shocked by the judge’s harsh words. He went to Brentano’s to search for books that might help him prove himself to the judge, and the first one he chose was Gyorgy Kepes’s Language of Vision. From then on, he says, “almost every month I was getting the top prize.” The second book he bought was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion, and soon viewers of his photographs were asking him if he’d gone to the Institute of Design, which Moholy-Nagy had founded in 1937. That inspired Ishimoto to show his portfolio to Harry Callahan, the institute’s best-known photography instructor.
At the time when Ishimoto joined, most camera-club members still followed the decades-old tradition of pictorialism, a romantic–some would say manneristic, even degenerate–style in which photographers imitated the look of various types of painting. Despite the books he’d read, Ishimoto was still in the grip of pictorialism. Years later Callahan remembered seeing Ishimoto’s portfolio for the first time and wondering, “What am I going to do with this guy?” The Institute of Design, with its various strains of modernism, was then pushing photographers to explore the unique nature of their medium rather than to imitate another.
Newman too had been influenced by an aesthetic very different from that prevailing at the Institute of Design–the socially conscious uses of photography advocated at the Photo League in New York, to which he’d belonged briefly in the late 40s. Born in New York City in 1927 to a family of Russian Jews who’d been in the bakery business for four generations, Newman was the only son and was expected to continue the tradition. His political consciousness was formed during the first years of the Depression, when he remembers his family, enthusiastic Roosevelt supporters, discussing how tight money was and the cutbacks they were forced to make in their business. He also recalls, “Discrimination against the Jews and anti-Semitism was part of my upbringing.”
Five of Newman’s uncles were motion-picture projectionists–one was even a founder of a projectionists’ union–and he’d often seen movies with them as a child. He took art courses in high school, where he made figurative sculpture, then went on to Brooklyn College. At first he didn’t do well in his classes. “I wasn’t concentrating on my studies,” he says. “I was doing all these sports.” He was asked to leave. Instead he started taking art courses, which he was sure he would do well in: “I was absolutely proficient.” Soon he was on the dean’s list.
But sports did make him more sympathetic to the plight of minorities that suffered discrimination. He often competed against African-Americans and quickly saw that sports served as a kind of all-around equalizer. “You have to prove that you’re better,” he says. “You can’t assume that because one person’s skin was one color or another that he can do something better than someone else.”
Brooklyn College’s art program was very influenced by the Bauhaus, the legendary school that interlaced fine art and design until it was closed by the Nazis. Several former students taught at Brooklyn; Newman believes that only a few other U.S. schools at the time were so influenced by Bauhaus ideas: Harvard, which had hired the former director of the German school, Walter Gropius; Black Mountain College; and the Institute of Design.
Not everyone at Brooklyn was Bauhaus oriented. Newman’s first photography teacher, Walter Rosenblum, was also involved in the Photo League and encouraged his students to photograph in the streets. Newman soon discovered that looking through the lens sharpened his vision. “You start to see what’s relevant and what’s not relevant–what you’re going to press the shutter on and develop and process,” he says. “You can see a hundred things, but there’s the one thing you want to finally have as the document that points you to where you want to go.”
After he got his degree, Newman spent part of the summer before he was to start as a graduate student in product design at the Institute of Design hitchhiking across the country. When he got back to New York his father told him he couldn’t pay his tuition because he had to pay for Newman’s younger sister’s wedding. His father thought he would stay in New York and work in the bakery. “I just said good-bye and hitchhiked out to Chicago,” says Newman. “I told [school director Serge] Chermayeff what my problems were. He said to start school, and you’ll pay us when you get the money. I had to find a job very quickly, and the first week I was here I started parking automobiles in a lot at Michigan and Delaware. It was a job where you could get tips and do well if you were very fast. There was a very affluent clientele in that area–tips could occasionally be as much as $5.” Later he would work for Hull-House, which used his photos in fund-raising brochures and slide presentations.
Newman and Ishimoto remember the Institute of Design in the early 50s, then located in the 1892 Romanesque building at Dearborn and Ontario that now houses Excalibur, as a very special, very intense place. Art historian Peter Selz writes in the catalog Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 that director Moholy-Nagy “saw the school as a place where artists and poets, philosophers, scientists, and technologists would work together to create a more vital civilization.” David Travis, the Art Institute’s curator of photography, who’s preparing an exhibit of photographs by Institute of Design students and faculty for 2002, says the school’s “idea of design was not just nice graphics. It was this larger idea of organizing the world visually, and the photographers did it with an understanding of how light works.” He says Newman’s and Ishimoto’s work is significant in part because they viewed their subject matter through a sensibility fostered by the institute, “the idea of balancing shapes and forms against each other.”
Newman says that by the late 40s, just after Moholy-Nagy’s death, “you had a fantastic mix of students, people coming from far away to go to that school simply because of what the school was. And you had this fantastic group of teachers who had also come from all over the world. You could say it was a golden era. One reason is that there were a lot of students who might never have been involved in this school otherwise,” by which he means veterans who were eligible for student aid under the GI bill. The photography teachers included not just Harry Callahan–Newman and Ishimoto’s most important instructor–but Gordon Coster and Aaron Siskind. R. Buckminster Fuller also taught there in Ishimoto’s first year.
Most of the students in the school were from outside Chicago, says Martin Hurtig, a classmate of Newman and Ishimoto who has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago for many years. “It had a national reputation more than a local one. A lot of the veterans who were there had graduated from college in another field. Many of them were very sophisticated–in some cases I had the feeling that a lot of them were brighter than some of the teachers.” He remembers that when he talked to Chicagoans he got one of two responses to having gone there: “Oh, you mean the New Bauhaus–oh wow, that place!” Or “Oh,” followed by some dismissal of the school as not really teaching fine art because of its design orientation.
Hurtig says the school’s curriculum was quite different from that of most other American art schools, which tended to have a beaux arts approach stressing figurative work. At the Institute of Design all students began with a foundation program, centered on intensive courses in two- and three-dimensional work, that met five and a half days a week. In some ways, Hurtig says, the program was highly structured, “extremely demanding and highly analytical.” But it could also be loose and playful–students might spend a month or more making photograms or folding paper into three-dimensional shapes. The idea, says Newman, was to get students thinking “completely creatively,” seeing beyond the ordinary or expected uses of materials. It was “a way to look at things like you’ve never seen them before, to really give you the eyes of a child. So many people in this society are programmed–this opened you up to all possibilities.” Ishimoto calls it “a very free way of doing things.”
Hurtig thinks the approach to materials at the Institute of Design was quite different from that at the School of the Art Institute back then. For example, rather than trying to carve a piece of wood into a figure, students would be encouraged to ask questions about the nature of wood itself and the tools they might use to shape it. “We were to take the various power tools–table saws, all kinds of electrical tools–and consider the nature of the cuts each might make,” he says. “We weren’t trying to replicate an existing 17th-century form. We were trying to find out what was characteristic of that tool and how did that tool produce a certain kind of impact on the material? How could we shape materials consistent with the tool that we were working with?”
There was a utopian ethos at the school, no doubt in part a carryover from the original Bauhaus, but also supported by students such as the returning veterans who, Hurtig says, were “making up for a lost period in their life. There was a very strong belief in the social significance of Moholy-Nagy’s philosophy of the school–the idea that there could be something significant about design, that it was more than just commodity producing.” The older students especially, he remembers, “were doing a lot of things, writing poetry. It was an extremely heterogeneous group, not a bunch of students just going through their course work. They were constantly challenging the faculty.”
Ishimoto says he found the institute’s curriculum fun and took to it “much more naturally” than people who had an art background. He adds, “The teachers were not exactly teaching you. You learned by doing.”
Certainly that was true of Harry Callahan’s students. A lifelong midwesterner, Callahan didn’t share the Bauhaus fascination with materials, though materials were important to him. “At one point Bauhaus people became very involved in photography without cameras,” says Newman. “Callahan used that, but he wouldn’t get caught in it. He didn’t want you not to do it, but he also didn’t want to stop you from going somewhere else. His idea was to let each photographer find his own way.” That’s what made him a great teacher, Newman and Ishimoto agree. When Newman was thinking of switching his major from product design to photography Callahan told him, “You have to make up your own mind. If you really have the feeling for it, go for it.” Newman adds, “What he would have been very proud of is that Yas went his way and I went mine. We didn’t try to duplicate each other.” Nor did they try to imitate Callahan’s work.
Newman and Ishimoto were both exceptionally hard workers. Hurtig says that Ishimoto had the reputation of “working 29 hours a day on photography.” Ishimoto and Newman had both been runners, and Newman says, “If there’s one thing about running, it’s that you have to drive yourself. It’s not a team sport–nobody else is going to run for you. You learn perseverance, you learn to use your body harder than the average person.” He remembers one year when he and Ishimoto wouldn’t sleep one night a week so they could spend more time in the darkroom. “You couldn’t get done what I wanted to get done without doing it that way,” he says. “We ate, we slept–everything we did was about photography. We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the fact that the Leica shutter goes this way and the Contax goes that way and the Rolleiflex has a circular shutter. We would sometimes print together and see what each other was doing and talk about print quality and technique. When you think back now, we were so narrow in a way. We would go over the lenses and go over the photographers–which one is better, which is worse. I remember we thought of Ansel Adams as not very good. We were so focused in our thinking–no one was beyond our youthful criticism.” Ishimoto says he liked Adams’s work at first but later changed his mind. “Ansel Adams is much more mechanical than [Edward] Weston,” he says. Both he and Newman preferred the “warmness” of Weston.
The two men crisscrossed the city in search of subjects. “Students who would do photo essays would often use the area around Clark Street,” Hurtig recalls, “which was at that time raw and rough edged, skid row”–and near the school building. “But Ishimoto was really roaming around. He would go into black neighborhoods, he’d go south. Suddenly you began to see evidence of a person who’s really looking, who’s really talking about something. It was like seeing things for the first time, seeing things that eluded others.” Hurtig recalls watching the student exercises Ishimoto did gradually become more personal. “In the third year he revisited those things and made them his own. And at a certain point he and Marv Newman would start to do things together, going out as a team looking at the same subject matter, each one approaching it from a very individual perspective. We all had work up, but it seemed as if Yash to begin with and then Marv would have their work up more and more frequently.”
Newman says he and Ishimoto started photographing together in part because they enjoyed each other’s company. But he adds, “Going into these neighborhoods, sometimes there was a little bit of danger involved. It wasn’t such a terrible idea to be with somebody else. Once I went into a poolroom alone and was photographing, and they thought I was from the police or something and came after me. I pretty much had to run for my life. I had told them what I was doing, and they had said OK–but then there were some guys in the back. The other time was very sad. Some young teenagers had stolen an automobile, and they tried to run me over. I was quick enough to jump into a doorway, but sadly enough, they killed a child just moments after they missed me.”
Ishimoto recalls that he once got into trouble while photographing on the south side. “I was focusing on a guy who was drinking in front of his house. While I was focusing he didn’t say anything, but after I clicked my shutter he came after me with a broken beer bottle to give him the film. I said, ‘After I develop my film I’ll give your portion of it to you.'” But the man insisted on having the whole roll right away, and Ishimoto gave it to him.
Other Japanese-Americans living in Chicago after World War II often felt discriminated against, but Ishimoto says, “I didn’t have much trouble at all.” Then he adds, “Sometimes they called me a Jap.” Newman jumps in. “I was with him some of those times,” he says. “They were mad at me too, because I was with him. I remember one woman who started to get mad at him–I think because her brother was killed in the war. She said some nasty things.” Ishimoto says that sometimes when he was out photographing people called him a spy. But Newman says people occasionally called him a spy too.
Both men’s photographs of poor African-American neighborhoods treat their subjects with obvious respect. Ishimoto explains his attitude by referring to the Eta, Japan’s untouchable class. “Many Japanese don’t care for them,” he says, but his parents taught him differently.
Both men also photographed in wealthier areas, but Newman points out, “Rich people are not in the street as much as poor people are. Rich people go into their air-conditioned homes and just sit down. So much happens on the street in the poorer neighborhoods. People are outdoors because they can’t live in the houses that they’re in. I just saw them as people, but I know that when I went to New York with my portfolio I had picture editors ask me what my connection to the black community was. They thought I might have been married to someone or that a distant relative might have been black. I don’t know what they were thinking, but the question came up a few times.”
Newman’s photos touched nerves in the black community too. In 1956 he was preparing for a show at the New York gallery of Roy DeCarava, a pioneering African-American photographer. “It wasn’t the black revolution yet,” says Newman. “I showed them what I was going to hang in the show, and a few days later they called me and said, ‘Look, you can’t hang this picture.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And they said, ‘One of the girls’ pigtails represent the absolute stereotype of what white folks think of black people.’ They called her a ‘pickaninny.’ But many of the blacks in Chicago had come up from the south recently, they came right out of the fields. There were blacks in New York who were much more sophisticated and wanted to lose that image. We had a terrible argument about it. They said, ‘You have to take it out of the show.’ I said, ‘Take it out of the show and I don’t have a show.'” The photo stayed in. “In those days some blacks wanted to be white,” Newman goes on. “It’s hard today to look back at that time and say that was the situation, but it was. In the communities that I was photographing they sold rabbit on the streets, people heated their homes with cans of kerosene. There’s a picture of a woman carrying a kerosene can back in a snowstorm. That’s really what Chicago was like.”
Newman and Ishimoto made a film together, The Church on Maxwell Street, that also focused on an African-American community–an outdoor revival meeting that included music and dancing. “We had both been to Maxwell Street,” says Newman. “We decided on it because of the action and excitement. We were still photographers, and the first thing you think about is having something that has motion. This is really the reason we made the film together.” In the film, close-ups of tapping feet and moving hands combine with the music to produce a wonderful sense of rhythm. “We made technical mistakes,” says Newman. “The worst was that we shot the film at silent speed.” That meant they were unable to make a sound print at the time, but Ishimoto points out that because the slower silent speed uses less footage, the film was much cheaper to make. The two men also didn’t know much about sound editing and didn’t have access to equipment that would have allowed them to precisely synchronize the sound and action. As a result, the film was hardly ever shown publicly. Most of the sound track was subsequently lost, though a few years ago the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo wanted to buy a print, and Newman edited the surviving sound to create one.
Some differences between the two men’s work can be seen by comparing two photographs they took of the same event on one of their joint shooting sessions. Several images in the Daiter show stem from one such day. “I was doing a survey for a settlement house,” Newman says, “and I took Ishimoto there with me on a Halloween when they were having a contest to pick out who had the most interesting costume.” Newman describes one of his photos as “a close-up of two boys who are black, but they are also in blackface. They didn’t know that they were caricaturing themselves–they truly didn’t understand that. My photograph is a very studied portrait of the two faces very close. I worked with the boys.” He and Ishimoto generally didn’t pose subjects so much as wait for them to go into a pose or do something that they liked. “That’s when we snapped the shutter,” Newman says. “The configuration of the two faces is, I think, perfectly composed.” One of Ishimoto’s photos shows a young girl looking directly at the camera, her cheeks puffy, her figure at an odd angle, the child behind her in heavy makeup. The picture certainly reflects the human drama of the moment, but it’s also a study in vertical black and white forms. Newman’s photo is trying to tell a story, encouraging the viewer to think about the social implications of two black boys in blackface; Ishimoto’s subjects are enigmatic, which pushes one to concentrate on the design of the photo.
Newman returned to New York soon after graduating. “When we had talked about it,” he says, “Ishimoto and I had agreed the only place to become a really well known, successful photographer was New York.” Making a living selling prints was impossible for a photographer then. “Callahan couldn’t,” Newman says. “Nobody could.” In part because he’d been an athlete, Newman started getting commissions to do sports photography: “I knew what to look for.” But after eight years of photographing for Sports Illustrated and other magazines, he says, “I got terribly tired of it, because there wasn’t anything more that I could do. It had stopped being creative for me.” He quit and went off to Europe. He still did some sports and other assignments, but he also pursued his own projects. He did a lot of photojournalism, covering the 1973 Yom Kippur war in Israel, for instance; he also did a lot of travel photography, color street photography, and several photo books.
Ishimoto moved back to Japan in 1953 to be near his family. His career took off when he was commissioned to make architectural photographs of Japanese buildings around Nara and Kyoto. He says he was reminded of Mies van der Rohe’s famous North Lake Shore Drive apartment towers when he started photographing the 16th-century Katsura Villa. “I started photographing old Japanese buildings with the modern way of seeing,” he says. “Japanese architects were really surprised to see old Japanese buildings shown that way.” In 1959 he was given a grant by Minolta to photograph in Chicago. “I always feel it’s my hometown,” he says. “It’s much more comfortable for me here compared to Tokyo–I’m still an outsider in Tokyo. People are friendlier here. I don’t like Tokyo. Some of the old buildings are good, but a lot of the new ones are not so beautiful. Chicago is a more planned and much cleaner city.”
In 1960 Ishimoto had an exhibit at the Art Institute. He remembers that photographer and educator Minor White wrote in a brochure that “I was partly German, American, and Japanese in my pictures. At the time I disagreed with Minor White. I admitted to the German [because of the Bauhaus] and American influence, but I don’t feel Japanese–because I never had art education in Japan. I wanted him to delete the Japanese part, but he didn’t.” Today Ishimoto says he thinks White was right, and it is difficult to deny that there are Japanese qualities in some of his recent works in the Art Institute show: gentle images of clouds or leaves on pavement, which help one see that his early use of space wasn’t an accident. As in traditional Japanese painting, surfaces and repeating patterns that Westerners might regard as empty of content seem at once profoundly placid and restlessly alive in Ishimoto’s images.
Both men are still photographing today, and both seem restless, not fully content. Both still seem driven by the search for the perfect image. Newman acknowledges that much of his photography in recent years lacks the explicit social comment of his Chicago work, but he also recalls learning from Callahan that doing any kind of “good creative work” was a contribution to society. “You don’t have to be a muckraker or an evangelist,” he says, but he also hasn’t forgotten that the goals that motivated his photography a half century ago haven’t been realized. “It’s 50 years later, and having done all that work there, I guess I’m a little bit disillusioned by the fact that nothing really radical ever happened. America is still very much divided. To this day the social workers just go in and put Band-Aids on the situation.”
The exhibition of Newman and Ishimoto’s work at the Stephen Daiter Gallery continues through June 15; after that the gallery will still have most of the photographs available for viewing. Ishimoto’s Art Institute retrospective, “A Tale of Two Cities,” remains up through September 12. Video versions of “The Church on Maxwell Street” are on view at both the Art Institute and Daiter.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marvin Newman, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Nathan Mandell.