March 19, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Images for a lifetime 

Charles Arnold, pioneering the art of photography

In one of Charles Arnold's most memorable self-portraits, the artist stares at the viewer while surrounded by an eclectic array of items: an animal skull, an otherworldly plant, and a piece of architectural ornamentation. But the strangest presence in the print, also staring out (though somewhat cross-eyed), is Arnold's hero, Wile E. Coyote.

            "Road Runner is always doing terrible things to him," says Arnold, "but he's indestructible."

            After spending the better part of a day talking with Arnold and his wife, Ginger, it's not difficult to understand his identification with Road Runner's nemesis. Throughout his life, Arnold has had no shortage of occasions when he's had to gather himself up and begin again.

            He was happily married to his childhood sweetheart, June, for 53 years until her death in 2000. A year later, Arnold married Ginger, a long-time family friend who had also lost her spouse. At the ages of 80 and 75, respectively, he and his wife act like young lovebirds, holding hands and laughing together.

            Throughout his three-and-a-half years of military service during World War II, and his career in photography during a time of transition, there have also been occasions for starting over.

            But none of them have fazed Arnold. His sense of wonder and youthful energy are firmly in tact as he leads me down a beautiful gorge into the valley behind his Webster home. It's a walk he takes every day with his dog, Toby.

            "I know every blade of grass in this valley," says Arnold.

            But on this day, the snow is a foot high and the path is as slippery as it is steep. Arnold has advice on the best techniques for staying balanced by using a walking stick. His wife calls him a mountain goat. Sure enough, he has no trouble making his way down the path and back up again, pointing out the "snow lizards," sitting on tree branches along the way.

            Arnold recently attended a high school reunion and had a terrible time. It's not difficult to figure out why; everyone else had grown old.

            Back at the house, looking at his innovative electrostatic images, it's tempting to think of Arnold as an artist first. Using the most common of objects --- tissues, snail shells, and grass --- and a Xerox machine, he conjures compositions at once ethereal and surreal. Wispy ghosts of clouds course through moonscapes populated by organisms not of this world.

            But Arnold is quick to insist, "This is of secondary interest. My life's work was not making images; my life's work was teaching."

            Talking to anyone who was fortunate enough to have studied with him during his 31 years at Rochester Institute of Technology, it's hard to argue against the idea that teaching came first. When he retired in 1987, the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences named its prestigious lecture series after him.

Born in 1922, Arnold grew up in a suburb of Providence, Rhode Island. His father was a commercial artist in Providence, but many of his clients were located in Manhattan. Arnold, who is known for his colorful stories, explains how his father went to work.

            "When we were kids, very frequently Sunday night we'd take my dad down to Providence and see him off on the New York boat, an oil-fired steamboat," Arnold says. "He would have his supper as the boat was going out through Narragansett Bay and then go into his cabin and sleep. He'd wake up in the morning and there would be the Statue of Liberty. He'd get off and spend all day Monday seeing clients. He'd get on the boat that night and get into Providence as the sun came up Tuesday morning. He'd go to his office and start working. It was a wonderful world that doesn't exist anymore."

            Arnold was destined to follow in his father's artistic footsteps, but he took a detour through the Navy when the United States entered World War II.

            Arnold was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, to learn to be an aviation radio technician. He was not a good student and didn't think he would pass the course but, as Arnold tells it, he never had a chance to fail.

            "One morning I went to the mess hall and had breakfast. I came back to the building we were put up in. I had my hand on the door to open it and the building blew down. I'm standing there, there's a door jam and a door, and the building is gone. There wasn't a scratch on me, but I couldn't hear very well.

            "The next day we heard that the people on the other side of the airstrip saw a guy with a tractor pulling ten depth bombs [designed to hit submarines] in trailers behind him. As it came up to our barracks, one of them slipped off. The whole thing went off and left a hole in the ground that was about 20-feet-deep and blew down three or four buildings, including our school."

            To this day he doesn't know exactly what happened.

            "One thing about the military, they don't immediately go out and tell everybody 100 people have been killed, especially during war. I don't know what happened to the rest of the people in my class or the people who taught it. The school was gone."

            Wile E. Coyote, indeed. Arnold was dazed for a while and was sent to another post until he could get his hearing back.

            His next stop was a radar school but the Navy decided he would be more valuable as an aviation radio technician. He joined a group assigned to maintain planes in the Admiralty Islands.

            "We got to a small island and waded ashore in time to wave to guys in an infantry landing craft," he says. "They were almost out of sight when a Japanese bomber blew them out of the water. They had radioed that they were being attacked. The assumption was we didn't exist. We were on the island for three and a half weeks. It was beautiful, but we didn't have any food. There were coconuts, fish, and lots of shellfish. Finally they found us. We had no idea if we were going to spend the rest of our lives there."

            Later he was assigned to an airstrip at Tacloban on Leyte, an island in the Philippines.

            "Sometimes we were bombed four or five times a day. You'd work on a plane and you'd have one ear tuned to what someone was saying and the other ear was waiting for a Japanese plane to come in. We got pretty good at jumping into holes."

            Arnold not only survived the war, he got married during a 30-day leave.

When the war ended he took advantage of the GI Bill, attending the college both of his parents had graduated from, Rhode Island School of Design. He earned a degree in illustration, but while a student, Arnold stumbled into the career that would be his life's work. He took a summer job working at RISD's museum, learning how to photograph art objects from the staff photographer.

            After graduating in 1949, he headed to Manhattan to find a job. Coming up empty, he returned to Providence where the museum photographer had just retired. Arnold was offered the job.

            He took it, but after a few years the technical nature of the work left him bored. Wanting to retain him, his boss asked what would make the job more interesting. Arnold asked to teach "a little course in photography."

            Despite the fact that there was no darkroom at RISD in the early 1950s, and students processed film through the drugstore, their prints were strong and the course was successful. The following year, 1953, Arnold taught the course for credit.

            Although it may be hard to imagine at a time when just about every art school offers photography, Arnold's was the first photography course taught at RISD. He could sense a growing excitement about the medium.

            "That spring, one of the kids came in with a magazine. We all looked at it and we were all excited. We'd never seen it before. It was Aperture."

            On the magazine's back page was an announcement that the editor, Minor White, was moving from California to the newly founded Museum of Photography at George Eastman House. The students were so taken by the magazine, they asked Arnold to get in touch with White and arrange a visit.

            "We drove 11 hours to Rochester to see Minor; there was no Thruway then. He had us over to his apartment up above a hardware store, downtown. We sat up until one o'clock in the morning looking at photographs. The next morning he brought us over to Eastman House and introduced us to Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and George Pratt and James Card and we watched a film. [Newhall was the museum's first curator; his wife, Nancy, a writer. Card and Pratt worked with motion pictures.] That evening we went back to Minor's. Sunday we went to the Eastman House and met Oscar Solbert, the first director."

            Arnold and his students were elated, but they had to drive back to Rhode Island for Monday classes. Four days later, Arnold received a letter from Newhall offering him a job.

Arnold took the job even though it proved disruptive to his family life. His wife, who had just given birth to their second child, moved in with her parents in Rhode Island and Arnold got to know the long route from Rhode Island to Rochester very well.

            On weekends that he didn't visit his family, he would go on shooting trips with White.

            "Minor and I would go out photographing together," Arnold says. "I did very little photographing, but I got so close to how his thinking was that I'd drive along out in the country and I'd stop the car and he'd get out and take a photograph. He didn't tell me to stop the car; I knew. One of the reasons I didn't do photographs myself was I knew I was making Minor's photographs. I so admired the things he was doing, I would just sense it."

            Toward the end of the summer, his wife arrived. While they spent a week looking for a home, Newhall allowed them to stay in the small apartment on the third floor of the Eastman House.

            "I'm one of the few living people who has legally slept in the Eastman house."

            The early years in Rochester were not easy for the Arnolds. They found a small home near the University of Rochester. The basement had a dirt floor, a coal furnace, and a ceiling so low that Arnold had to dig a trench just to get to the furnace standing up. He was paid so little at the Eastman House, he had to take another full-time job as night manager of a dairy near the airport.

            "I'd come home from Eastman House, get in my white uniform, shoot out to the dairy and work till 1 am. I had to be back at the Eastman House at 8:30. I'm not an early riser; it was painful."

            By the second year at least there were some perks.

            "Beaumont used to invite me to come over to his dinners Saturday evening. I used to have meals with Beaumont, Nancy, Ansel Adams, and the Weston boys [Edward Weston's sons]. Beaumont was a gourmet cook. He'd get up at five in the morning and start preparing the sauces he was going to serve us at 8 o'clock at night. The food was good and the company was interesting."

            But, once again, Arnold was getting bored with his job. Newhall wanted to keep him on the staff, because of his particular expertise.

            "I could pack stuff to be sent to Chicago or San Francisco and it would be bomb-proof. I had leaned how to handle works of art. He asked me what he could do to keep me."

            Arnold had the same desire he'd had at RISD; he'd like to teach a workshop. Ten people signed up and, once again, it was successful.

            But at the end of the 10-week class Arnold was unhappy again.

The following week a phone call came in to Newhall's office. C.B. Neblette, of RIT, wanted to speak to Arnold. Arnold had never heard of RIT or Neblette, director of the School of Photography.

            Once Newhall filled him in, he made an appointment to see Neblette. The secretary showed him into the tiny downtown office and Neblette pulled two cigars from his desk drawer.

            "I said, 'Thank you, I don't smoke.' He lit one up and started talking. He told me about how he'd worked for Kodak and Kodak had arranged for him to come to RIT and set up this photography program. It was very interesting, but during that time he also smoked the other cigar. I was getting sicker and sicker. Forty-five minutes went by, he looked at his watch and said, 'I've got an appointment.' He got up and shook hands. When I left, I went downstairs and stood on the sidewalk and threw up in the gutter. That was my introduction to RIT."

            Though Arnold hadn't said more than two sentences during the interview, he got a job offer a week later. It turned out that two of the students in his Eastman House workshop were RIT faculty members Ralph Hattersley and Neil Croom.

            This time Arnold held out for a decent salary; one job was enough. He got it.

            "I spent 31 years there and I loved it. I loved teaching and the challenge of dealing with the rest of the faculty."

            Arnold explains that the faculty, at that time, was built around technology, and most faculty members didn't understand the instructors who dealt with the "art" of photography.

            "The rest of the faculty looked at us like we were a bunch of phonies because we weren't teaching the right stuff."

            Along with Arnold, Hattersley, Croom, and White designed a BFA program in photography. Arnold was appointed chairman. All of them are now revered as pioneers in "art photography" education.

            "But you couldn't use the word art," Arnold says. "Photography's for snapshots!"

In the 1950s, photography was by no means accepted as art. There had been pockets of respect in the United States, notably Alfred Stieglitz's photo-secessionist movement. But, as Arnold points out, Stieglitz made his biggest splash showing modernist paintings at his gallery.

            "Photography was documenting stuff and that's not art. Even during the Farm Security Administration, even thought there were wonderful things created there, the whole premise was to document."

            Newhall had begun to make inroads by showing photography at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was a librarian before the war. After the war, MOMA hired Edward Steichen to become its first curator of photography. But that didn't necessarily mean respect for the medium.

            "Right after the war I was in New York and saw a show at MOMA," Arnold says. "It was remarkable to see a show of photography in a museum. It was a small show, it was a nice show, and it was in the basement hallway between the men's room and the ladies room. They didn't let photography come up to the first floor."

            Most RIT students were not interested in photography as an art form, either. They were preparing for jobs as portrait, wedding, or advertising photographers. But Arnold soon found others who were as enthusiastic about the medium as he was, especially one couple.

            "Nathan Lyons and Joan Lyons really started making people think about photography here," Arnold says. "Nathan went to Eastman House and opened it up to a much freer feeling about showing local contemporary photographers. Then he started Visual Studies Workshop. Nathan's bright and, intellectually, he was very interested. He was much more scholarly than I've ever been. He read about what people were doing and would write very intelligently. And Joan had the touchy-feeling thing. With Joan, it was always, 'Wow, amazing! This is an opportunity to do something I've never done before.'"

            As the aesthetic frontiers of photography expanded in the 1960s, definitions loosened and a spirit of experimentation was embraced. For Arnold, this meant a radical departure from most people's notions of photography.

            "Early on, I got to the point where if I never went in another dark room again I'd be delighted because I was bored with darkrooms," he says. "I was much more interested in getting images going. One of the reasons I got involved with Xerography was, I found that with this Haloid equipment, I could set up a still life, make an exposure, and make a print in seven minutes. If it didn't come out like I wanted it to, I could fuss with it and make another one."

            Arnold's electrostatic experiments got under way when "Dusty" Rhodes, a former research scientist at RIT who had gone to Xerox Corp., sent a flat-bed copier over to RIT for him to "play with" in the late 1950s. Arnold still has it in his basement studio.

            Over the next several decades, Arnold would become a major figure in the growing field of electrostatic art. Since the 1970s he has exhibited and lectured throughout Europe. He has also made several trips to Brazil and, in 1995, was guest of honor at the First Studio Internacional de Electrografia in Sao Paulo.

If Arnold was a natural-born teacher, he was also an unconventional one.

            "The first thing I would say to my classes when they never saw me before was, 'I'm Charlie Arnold, call me Charlie.' The second thing I would say is 'You have two choices in this life; you can be miserable or you can be happy. I choose to be happy and if you prefer to be miserable, I don't want you in my class.'"

            That sort of philosophy made him endearing to generations of students, including Jerry Uelsmann, Carl Chiarenza, Paul Hoeffler, and countless others who went on to carve out their own niches in photography.

            Arnold may be known for electrostatic images, but he is no slouch when it comes to traditional photographic processes. In his home is a large picture he took of an exhausted Minor White.

            "We worked all night on an issue of Aperture and this was in the morning when the sun came up and into his kitchen. He was really wiped out, weary."

            The majority of his images, however, are non-traditional. Some are done using a hands-on process involving the early Haloid (Xerox) machine, but many are Xerox scans. Arnold would take objects and ride them along the light as it scanned through to copy.

            "Beautiful stuff happens."

            Indeed it does, even if Arnold is using nothing more than a piece of tissue, a feather or a blade of grass. He can seemingly create art out of nothing.

"I'm making something I can't even see."

            In 1995, Arnold was awarded a fellowship to travel to the International Museum of Electrography in Cuenca, Spain, where he spent two weeks working with two technicians.

            The resulting work is typical of his magic. He found most of his raw materials while walking on a mountain trail. On paper, he created his own mountain landscapes from found objects, printed on a color copier.

            Through it all, Arnold's Wile E. Coyote past would catch up to him from time to time.

            One evening, after taking the job at RIT, he went back to the Eastman House for a lecture. During the reception that followed he met a Japanese visitor, a professor of comparative literature from Osaka University who had come here to study the work of Adelaide Crapsey, a poet from Rochester.

            "We really hit it off. I invited him home and we had dinner together and we sat and talked. He enjoyed being around my family. Finally I asked him, 'Where were you during the war?' He said, 'I was a light bomber pilot.' I said, 'Where were you primarily in action?' He said, 'Toward the end of the war we did raids two or three times a day on the airstrip at Tacloban in the Philippines.'

            "Here we were sitting and talking together. This was a guy who was trying to kill me and I was trying to kill him. The little yellow devil --- we had been taught to do anything to kill him. He had the sensitivity to come all the way here to study poetry. We both laughed."

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