PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, what about coming back to New York and getting out of the Army? What kind of plans did you have? Or did you have any?
HANS NAMUTH: None. I had only a vague idea of making a success of myself and
earning a huge amount of money. To which it never came. But I was determined
to take shortcuts and not to return to photography at first.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really!
HANS NAMUTH: It was an entire mistake.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What did you want to do initially?
HANS NAMUTH: I wanted to raise a family and have enough, earn enough money
to travel and do photography only as a hobby. Which I continued to do right
away while I was working with a firm that was engaged in research to make waterproof
paper, some kind of industrial engineers. Fortunately for me, that firm went
bankrupt and I found myself without a job. And I immediately went back to photography
without any hesitation and realized that for a full year and a half I had been
very unhappy. I was doing something that really was not my dish.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So what did you do then? Did you set up a studio? Or how did
HANS NAMUTH: I started very timidly. I worked out of my kitchen as a darkroom
and did location work and some assignments for architectural magazines. Then,
as fate would have it, I encountered Alexey Brodovitch and took the courses
that he was giving at The New School of Social Research on direction and photography.
And that encounter with this man probably changed my life. He was no doubt one
of the great teachers.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you pick him? Did you just meet him socially? Or through
HANS NAMUTH: Through other photographers. It was also my ambition to be published
in Harper's Bazaar, of which he was the art director. I first started
to study with him and then eventually was invited to work at the Bazaar. My
association with the magazine lasted for several years . . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: How was he as a teacher compared to . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: Ruthless, absolutely ruthless.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Really?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. He was absolutely devastating. And so often quite negative.
But because of his ruthlessness he actually was able to change people's direction
and thinking. He would never let any mediocrity pass by. In the weekly assignments
that we were given when somebody was asked to show his work the following week
and started to explain why he hadn't done any work or why he had done mediocre
work, giving the excuse that he was too busy with other things, or that his
grandmother had died, or some such, his answer to that was, "No alibis!
No alibis!" spoken in a Russian accent.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did he differ from Breitenbach as a teacher?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, well, his field was entirely different. Breitenbach taught
me techniques. Brodovitch taught me to think.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I see. I see.
HANS NAMUTH: And Brodovitch constantly made us think in new terms when we were
approaching the problem, be it fashion photography, or still life, or portraiture,
or reportage, he always made us think how to do it differently, how to find
new ways of studying a man's or a woman's face and how to bring out new approaches.
This had nothing to do with technique. He knew nothing about techniques himself.
But he knew how to . . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: Develop an image and an idea. That's fascinating.
HANS NAMUTH: As you know, some of the most famous photographers were his students
at one time or another. Like Richard Avedon, Hero, Tam, many, many others.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, it's amazing. Everybody seems to have worked with him at
one point. But he also seemed to have been terribly influential about the developing
of their careers after they had been students of his. Was that true of you?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, well, we became friends. Actually until his death there was
a constant rapport. I have the last letter he wrote me; I think I received it
about a month before he died. So from 1949 on we were always quite closely associated
with each other in one way or another.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You mentioned that you started taking architectural photographs
for magazines. Was that because you were interested in architecture?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. I have always been interested in design and architecture.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really?
HANS NAMUTH: I've always felt it was a challenge and to this day I like architecture
and give a great deal of my time to architectural photography.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Would you say that's an area in which you've specialized? -
because, I mean, there are so many kinds of things that you've done.
HANS NAMUTH: Well, no, there is no specialization in my photography. I like
to work with people even better. I like to do portraiture. And now, as you know,
PAUL CUMMINGS: You have done fashion photography and everything.
HANS NAMUTH: I have done very little fashion photography; well, I did children's
fashions a great deal, yes; for many years. I did a campaign for Dunmoor shirts
for boys. Back in 1950 I actually coined the approach in children's fashions
which is now widely accepted but which at that time was still very revolutionary.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How would you describe that?
HANS NAMUTH: I wanted children to be themselves instead of posing them in stiff
poses. I took them out of doors. I spoke to them. I made them play games. And
while they were forgetting they were being photographed I photographed them.
The pictures that came out of these sessions were very alive and very spontaneous
instead of stilted. Then of course I photographed my artists.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did that start? Have you always been friendly with artists
since living here? Or are they just people you're in tune with.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes, I've always been friends of artists. But my actual involvement
started with Jackson Pollock back in 1949. Through Pollock I met so many other
artists that I soon became sort of their photographer. When they needed something
they usually called me. And this is usually not a business relationship but
I felt that somebody had to record them. And I think I was one of the few people
who photographed, for instance, Clyfford Still way back in 1950 when he was
really very much of a recluse and still is to this day. I was able to break
through to him thanks to Barney Newman. And one thing led to another.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you meet Pollock? Who was that through, or with? Do
HANS NAMUTH: Well, in a way Brodovitch was responsible for that because he
made me aware of the importance of Pollock. I went to one of Pollock's first
shows at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949, I believe it was - well, I'm not sure
that it was Pollock's first show at Betty's, but it was for me the first show
of Pollock's at Betty's that I had seen. I had absolutely no rapport with Pollock
at all. It was thanks to Brodovitch that I made an effort and went back several
times. And as luck would have it, we rented a house in the Hampton's that year,
that summer, and I immediately became involved with the community activities
in East Hampton. There was an opening of a show of artists of the region one
day and Pollock had a few paintings there. And he was present also. I took my
courage in two hands and approached him and very timidly asked him if I could
come to his studio some day and photograph it. I mentioned to him that I felt
encouraged to ask him because of Brodovitch whom he knew. And immediately that
broke the ice, the mention of his name. Jackson said yes, and we made a date.
I asked, "May I bring my camera and take some pictures?" and he said,
"Sure." The day I arrived he told me that unfortunately he was all
through with the painting but that, of course, I could take some pictures of
him standing there. I asked him, "Could I see what you have just done?"
He said, "Sure, come on in." And in his studio, which you are probably
familiar with, on the floor was an enormous brown painting dripping wet; and
the painting was finished. I was very discouraged and was ready to go home and
asked him I could come back another time. Suddenly he looked at the painting
and started to correct something. Before I knew it he had a pot of paint in
his hand and a brush and then he started to paint and he destroyed what he had
made before and a brand new painting emerged after - I don't know - half an
hour. In the meantime I started taking pictures. You know, he obviously was
not aware of my presence. I shot roll after roll. I was terribly excited. Some
of the pictures were terribly unsharp. Even those unsharp ones became part of
the series which really shows the creative process because those are the same
pictures that you are probably familiar with. And that started the relationship
with Pollock. From that day on I was accepted. Especially after he saw what
I had done; you know, a week or two later I brought him some of the pictures
and that sealed our relationship.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Have you spent summers out in the Hamptons since then?
HANS NAMUTH: Ever since, yes. At first we rented a house, then eventually we
found one to buy. It's over twenty-one years that we've been going out there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Getting into - it's hard to know which question to ask first
here sometimes - you spent - what? - most of the summer weekends out there pretty
much like you do now and worked in the city? Or did you spend a month or so?
HANS NAMUTH: No. Most of the summer weekends. My wife and the children were
out there all summer and I returned to the city to work. I soon moved out of
my improvised studio which I had at the house and I found a place, thanks to
a painter by the name of George Sackby, at Third Avenue and 22nd Street, for
$100 a month, almost as big as my present one. And from that day on I was a
professional. I actually had some very good accounts. I photographed automobiles;
which was very lucrative. I photographed commercial ads for magazines. I worked
a great deal with Paul Rand, whom you probably know.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really? Yes.
HANS NAMUTH: He also became a good friend. He is probably one of the most creative
advertising people around. And always coming back to my first and old love,
photographing painters. The relationship with Pollock led to my first film -
the one we have just . . . Did you see it?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes. The one done in 1951.
HANS NAMUTH: We started it in 1950 and finished it in 1951. All the outdoor
scenes and the glass, all that was done in 1950.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did the glass come about? That wasn't his idea, was it?
HANS NAMUTH: No. It was my idea. I started this film as one starts still photography,
when one takes pictures, only the medium was different. When I suddenly realized
that a film is a different kettle of stew and that one needed to have a different
complexion of things. I had already called my friend Paul Frankenberg into this,
and we worked on the Pollock film together. He studied what I had taken on the
weekends and we saw it together and then discussed it and he mad suggestions
on what to do. He never came out from behind the scenes but directed me and
on a shoestring slowly evolved the bit of film. But I felt something was needed.
My aim was to show, if possible, the man not just in the act of painting, but
what's happening inside, what takes place in his face. How could I show that?
One sleepless nigh I suddenly hit on the idea of showing him through glass.
And when I suggested this idea to him he jumped on it. He said it was a great
idea. And he built this construction on which the glass was resting; he was
a great stage carpenter. He bought this piece of glass for ten dollars. It is
probably worth $100,000 now. This glass painting is now in Ottawa, Canada. I
don't know how much they paid for it but at least that much, they paid Marlborough
at least that much. We had no light. It was done in the open. We had the sun
at the correct angle. We knew exactly when to start work. I was lying flat on
my back photographing up, filming up, watching him work.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was this the first film you made?
HANS NAMUTH: It was the very first, with one exception: I did some black and
white footage on Pollock before doing the color as a sort of rehearsal exercise.
But it turned out that this black and white footage, which I had neglected for
many years and forgotten about, is also very exciting and I think should be
preserved and perhaps made into a film, a different kind of film than the other
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was he enthusiastic, as the various weekend sessions went on?
You know, how did he like being an actor?
HANS NAMUTH: It worked. I mean it wasn't that he was . . . After all, I was
an unknown photographer and he could have done this with somebody much more
professional than I was. But somehow he trusted me. And I think it was a great
sign of friendship, or rather trust, rather than thinking that he is going to
be in a movie, as somebody who is writing a book on Pollock implies.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Because he was very difficult at times, you know, from what
people have told me.
HANS NAMUTH: What do you mean?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, he was a very difficult personality at times.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. E was very taciturn - is that the word? Somehow we didn't
need to understand each other. We had some kind of chemistry going, that immediately
. . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: You could just do what you were doing and it worked.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. I knew how not to abuse his time and I didn't intrude too
much. I just worked it so that I was not a nuisance. Actually, we both looked
forward to our sessions as it happened. During the time we were making the film
he was on he wagon, he was no drinking. The day we finished shooting the last
of the glass scene was a very cold October day and we were both frozen stiff
as we had come to the end of a roll, and I called it . . . Will you excuse me
[break in taping]
PAUL CUMMINGS: Let's kind of just pursue the general activity after - How long
did it take to really do the whole Pollock film? That was a series of summer
weekends and then was put together?
HANS NAMUTH: Right. Then we put in the missing pieces at Bey Parson's Gallery
in 1951 before doing his show then. And at the same time we put together a number
of written statements of Pollock's together and, helped by him and adding a
few new things, we did the narration. The narration, as you know, was a voice-over
done at the beginning of 1951 in New York City. Pollock being very nervous and
very self-conscious about the whole thing.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes
HANS NAMUTH: Interestingly enough, I have a tape here that kind of stems from
a radio interview that he gave in Provincetown after we had made this film and
in which he often refers back to the glass painting and events. He was much
less self-conscious. I have it here. If you're interested . . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, yes, I'd love to. That's fascinating. There are very few
. . .
HANS NAMUTH: Actually it was in the Jackson Pollock catalogue - it was transcribed
and is in the catalogue of the big Pollock show.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, the Museum of Modern Art one? The Francis O'Connor?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's good to know where it is.
HANS NAMUTH: I have one copy, the Museum has one, and Lee Pollock has one.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Because there's so little material on him either talking or
writing or anything.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, you were doing all kinds of photography then. You've talked
about the automobile accounts and he children's fashions. One thing I'd like
to talk about for a while is the architecture. You've done a fair amount of
that, I think, over the years. It's a kind of consistent activity. Do you work
for the magazine in that case? or for the architect? or the builder? or how
does that generally work? or is it something that interests you and you go out
and do the buildings?
HANS NAMUTH: Well, again, I think that, aside from my interest in design, I
was helped by a personal encounter in he early fifties with Peter Blake. I met
him actually through Jackson. I met many interesting people through Jackson:
like Clem Greenberg; Tony Smith - Tony was a great friend of Jackson's; and
Barney Newman; an endless lot of people. Peter Blake had done a model for an
exhibition showing Pollock's paintings inside an enormous room. I think the
model is still in existence. At least it was published in one of the books,
I think in the catalogue. So through Peter I became associated with a great
number of architects. We did several things together. For instance, we did a
story on the New Canaan and Westport architects who had all emerged from Harvard
under Gropius; we did six architects in their own houses designed by themselves
for Holiday magazine. Peter wrote the text and I did the photography. Breuer,
Eliot Noyes, George Hanson, the three others I can't think of. Then I was commissioned
by Harper's Bazaar to photograph Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Gropius in Cambridge.
And this way my vision was enlarged enormously.
PAUL CUMMINGS: When you would work on a project like that would you work with
the architect? or really just photograph his buildings?
HANS NAMUTH: Preferably with the architect, but it's not always possible; sometimes
it is. Peter and I did many projects together that were not houses designed
by Peter but he had picked them; they were his personal choice. It was very,
very wonderful to work with a man like Peter Blake, you know, to see his vision
and combine it with my concept. It worked beautifully.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Working with an architect would you do things from his point
of view about how he wanted things?
HANS NAMUTH: No, not necessarily. I would certainly listen to what he had to
say and carefully follow his concept, but that would not rule out my own interpretation
of the thing.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. Did you find any of them particularly rewarding or exciting
to work with, or difficult?
HANS NAMUTH: I always liked Paul Rudolph's work. Even twenty years ago when
he was just starting he did a few houses in Sarasota and elsewhere in Florida.
George Hanson is wonderful to work with. Eliot Noyes. It's like seeing a work
of art alone and then with the person who did it. It's really a different depth,
a different perspective, and a new dimension.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think that your photographs of buildings or series of
buildings obviously present your idea of them? Or are you trying through the
photograph to show the building for, say, somebody who couldn't go there and
see it in reality?
HANS NAMUTH: There are only two or three ways you can photograph a building,
a good building that you like. That is to show it to the best advantage. You
can easily distort the thing and make it ugly. But you can also somehow redesign
it in a way by choosing the best possible moment of the day, the best light,
the best angle. I think that the honest way is always the best way. The straightforward
way, no tricks and no gimmicks way, is in my opinion, still the best. But when
you have a choice of photographing the building in a very dim light, and have
a choice of making it strong by using a filter, I think one should choose the
latter approach to the building.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you have enough time to study the building?
HANS NAMUTH: I shall take the time. Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You do? So you look at it and find the angles that you want
to use and things?
HANS NAMUTH: I think it's very important. Like all work, things done in haste
usually don't come off. So one has to take the time it takes to do it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: If you're photographing a large building do you take many, many,
many photographs, or selectively?
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, selectively, certainly. I've never really photographed a very,
very large building. I only photograph houses really. I don't know how I might
. . . Well, I've done Saarinen's Ark in St. Louis. That was a beautiful work
of art. It's a monument. But there I interpreted things completely wildly and
freely, and, as it turned out very excitingly. It's beautiful photography.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you do the - there's one incredible kind of angle photograph
of the work that seems to go up like that.
HANS NAMUTH: It was published in the Forum. Is that where you saw it?
PAUL CUMMINGS: I think so, yes.
HANS NAMUTH: There were six pages of photographs.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes. What kind of camera would you use on a project like that?
HANS NAMUTH: What project? - the Ark?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes.
HANS NAMUTH: A 35 millimeter camera.
PAUL CUMMINGS: For everything?
HANS NAMUTH: No, for that; for that particular project. But usually when I
do architectural photography I take a view camera with a tripod and a black
PAUL CUMMINGS: Eight by ten?
HANS NAMUTH: Four by five. Although I have done things with an eight by ten.
Which is still my favorite camera. I think I told you that.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You like the large . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: I like the large. Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: There is something exquisite about working on that large ground
glass . . .
HANS NAMUTH: Every shot counts.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, do you find in doing the houses - there are a lot of interiors
you've done as I remember, and people's collections are there and furniture
- do you find that there are similar problems? Or does each house . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: Each house has a different problem entirely. In fact, I welcome
that. I don't like routine assignments. As I usually forget what I did the last
time, everything is a new experience and a new agonizing challenge. I have a
bad memory and I start from scratch each time.
PAUL CUMMINGS: When you do a series of photographs like that, do you kind of
plan some kind of visual story? Or are they just a series of images . . . ?
HANS NAMUTH: When I do a building, or a house rather, completely on my own,
I study it first and I decide which are the angles, which are the rooms, and
which are the angles in the rooms to do. Then the next thing to solve is the
lighting, how to do it best. So the plan is being made after having seen the
house and studied it. And then one just follows through. To do a house takes
very often more than a day - I'm talking about a normal small house, not a large
one - and often two days, sometimes more.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Depending on how complex and . . .
HANS NAMUTH: Exactly. However, I do like to work with the editor or the architect
on the project. It's too much work otherwise. I photographed DeKooning's studio
last weekend, last Monday.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, the big place out there. I haven't seen it.
HANS NAMUTH: You haven't seen the place at all?
PAUL CUMMINGS: No.
HANS NAMUTH: I can show you the pictures.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's incredible, I hear. All the space . . .
HANS NAMUTH: Oh, it's completely wild, and yet it falls so well together.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes?
HANS NAMUTH: It's marvelous.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Who designed it?
HANS NAMUTH: DeKooning.
PAUL CUMMINGS: He did?
HANS NAMUTH: Yes. He made many mistakes apparently. He tore things down again.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's an expensive way to design, isn't it? You know, one of
the things I'm trying to get at is, you know, things that you did for Horizon
or Holiday and various other magazines. Could you develop an idea for
them, or do they come to you usually and say: here's a project?
HANS NAMUTH: Both ways. I've done both. In the case of Horizon they
called me in the first time they did a large story on a particular part of the
country, the Housatonic Valley. Did you see those?
PAUL CUMMINGS: I don't think I remember that.
HANS NAMUTH: Would you like to see them?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes.
HANS NAMUTH: Then after we did that and it was very successful, I suggested
that they should do the same thing for the eastern part of Long Island. And
we did that eventually four years later.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Are these projects that you will take a week off to do, or two
weeks? Or are they done piecemeal?
HANS NAMUTH: No, this was done in one period of time. It was very well researched
by the staff of the magazine, and well organized. I think we did a number of
. . . Well, let me get the book. Here is Norman Rockwell. This is Ted Shawn.
This is a group of artists I never heard from again, the Independent Six. I
don't think you know them; do you know heir names? Lindstrom, Fred Lancome,
Stanley Bate, Homer Gann, Franc Epping, Harry Lane.
PAUL CUMMINGS: No.
HANS NAMUTH: That was 1960. Imagine that. Zino Francescatti, Richard Dyer Bennett,
Mack Morgan, the singer. Russell Lynes. Robert Osborn. These were great fun.
I had known him before. Nice to work with him. James Thurber. Lewis Gannett.
Mark Van Doren. All of these were done in color, but later on I found I couldn't
do them all. Malcolm Cowley, Leonie Adams, Edmund Fuller, Peter Blume, Russell
PAUL CUMMINGS: I know him.
HANS NAMUTH: Do you know him!
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes.
HANS NAMUTH: Yes? Do you know this house?
PAUL CUMMINGS: No.
HANS NAMUTH: God, I found it so incredibly beautiful. I wonder if he's still
PAUL CUMMINGS: I don't know. That's in New Milford?
HANS NAMUTH: New Milford, yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I think so.
HANS NAMUTH: Try to find out because -
PAUL CUMMINGS: I think he still is.
HANS NAMUTH: You see, it goes on and on. William Styron. Lawrence Langner is
dead now. And Louis Untermeyer. This I think took - let me see - we did two
a day. There are eighteen. So it took ten days. I think we went out for two
weeks' time, five days each. And we were terribly lucky that it didn't take
two months. Nobody had he mumps. And everybody was there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Everybody was there and it worked.
HANS NAMUTH: Very few people were hostile. I remember when we knocked at James
Thurber's door. We were absolutely on time. When he finally came to open the
door he took one look at us, and the editor said a few words and said we were
here from Horizon magazine to photograph him. And he said, "We have photographers
and other people have mice!" There was a nice reception for you. You know,
I felt like turning around and slamming the door.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Time to leave.
HANS NAMUTH: Anyhow he said, "Since you are here, won't you come in."
And then, strangely enough, he warmed up so completely, so beautifully that
within half an hour he said to me, "Have you seen my latest book?"
- which at that time was My Years with Ross. I said, No, but I've been reading
it in the New Yorker. He motioned to his wife to bring him a copy. She did.
He took a pen and opened to a page and said, "How do you spell your name?"
And then he made a drawing.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, marvelous.
HANS NAMUTH: For the drawing he did like this. And then he handed the book
not to me but to his wife with the pen and she put in two dots, one here and
one there, and then she gave the book to me and said something nice. The drawing
was the face of a dog and the two dots - he couldn't see well enough to place
the dots - one dot was for the eye and one was for the mouth. And that was it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's marvelous. We've got to stop on that.
Oral history interview with Hans Namuth, 1971 Aug. 12-Sept. 8, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Found here.