The New Jersey State Museum building has all the trappings of modernistic architecture: planes of glass and masonry, sleek lines, frosty walls, and an airy openness. Some of its components remind one of a camera.
That thought, it turns out, is an apt one for the exhibition now on view and having an opening reception this Saturday, March 9: “Jon Naar: Signature Style,” featuring 60 photographs informed, in part, by that post-war-era design and style.
Yet, while architecture is fixed, ideas regarding design and styles are not, and the past 50 years have engendered new ideas and rebuttals to the once new.
Likewise Naar, a man with an inventive mind, is not fixed in time, and by capacity, fortuity, and longevity (he is 92 years old). He has chronicled a half-century of creativity, his own and others’.
That half-century has been one where modernism’s tidy optimistic geometry — a type of prescription for social or individual harmony — was smacked by the unrestrained reply born from graffiti and social change. During that shift, Naar has been there as both witness and recorder.
Naar, a resident of the Mill Hill section of Trenton, is an internationally respected photographer. His work has been seen in major museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre, the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Berlin, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, and now this solo show in Trenton.
He records expressive extremes, the faces of artists who advanced cultural changes and the stuff of daily life that happens to catch a searching eye. Sometimes they intersect with interesting results.
While many of the images were created for major European and American publications — Elle and Jardin des Modes in Paris, the Sunday Times Magazine and Vogue in London, and the New York Times Magazine — others were created by his urge to capture his era.
No matter the reason, Naar’s accumulated work suggests a layering of cultural ideas, providing the big picture of recent times. The exhibition’s title comes from Naar’s belief that “there is a factor that distinguishes one photographer’s images from another’s, that gives the photograph its ‘signature.’ This factor is essentially a way of looking, which, for me at least, is primarily an instinctive physical reaction to the subject/object to be photographed.”
Naar’s own signature is his drive to capture clarity, composition, color, and subject. It is an idea captured by his statement written on the label next to his photograph of architecture by modernist Mexican designer Luis Barragan. “Sometimes you can anticipate the kind of light,” Naar writes. “You want to achieve a particular visual effect. At other times, all the elements of form, texture, light, and color come together so suddenly that you must be ready to respond instantly to get the picture.”
Naar’s photographs — 42 digital giclee prints and 18 black and white silver gelatin — are on view on the museum’s second-floor gallery and the passageways leading it. In those spaces, walls or sections highlight themes or approaches used by the photographer rather than provide a chronological survey.
For example, one wall focuses on designers and artists. It starts to the left in the 1970s, with the true-to-life color images, with famed architect Marcel Breuer and then, following right, to designer Harry Bertoia (who created the kinetic and aural sculpture in front of the museum), followed by ground-breaking earth sculptor Christo, and then up to today and Trenton street-influenced artists Will Condry and Leon Rainbow.
Another area displays the found geometric designs of buildings, signs, and machines, many overlaid with waves of graffiti.
There are also groupings of found designs that he captured including a key piece, “OST-N.” While that 1957 black and white silver gelatin print seems a crisp abstract work, it is a finely detailed image of a broken wall. Its missing section appears at first to be a solid, unevenly shaped mass with lines. When the eye settles it’s clear that it is an opening exposing wood support frames. While the stenciled letters that run across the top of the image (and give the work its name) enhance the sense of structure, hand scrawled markings (tic-tac-toe grids and a tiny box) oppose it. The image marks a preview of coming images that continue a variation of a theme: the play between order and disorder.
One section of the exhibition that makes the most immediate art connection to viewers — and on a recent Sunday afternoon people stopped and announced their recognition of the subject — contains a series of images that includes the iconic black and white image of perhaps the most iconic of recent American artists, Andy Warhol, in a reflective mood. Naar photographed the famed artist and his entourage for a New York Magazine assignment on Warhol’s famous Silver Factory in 1965.
The idea of art that looks at art is Warhol-like in spirit. That Naar captured and exhibits it makes the works resonate even more, as if it were an artifact of that time brought to Trenton.
New Jersey State Museum arts curator Margaret O’Reilly’s panel text bears testament to the power of the Warhol image and gives it a direct connection to the exhibition that she coordinated. “For more than 30 years,” she writes, “I have had a postcard of the Warhol.Picked up in New York during my undergraduate days, the back of the postcard was blank. There was no indication of the photographer or the date the image was taken. Back then, that was alright with me; Warhol was the attraction for that young art student. Over the years, that postcard moved around eventually to my museum office and now in my home office. During this time, Warhol has remained an important art world figure for me, but the photograph itself took on great importance, too. Who took this picture and what led the photographer to make these particular choices?”
After viewing an area exhibition and seeing the work, O’Reilly adds that she was astonished to discover the photographer lived in walking distance from the museum.
Naar’s 19th-century home sits next to the Assunpink Creek, where on a recent afternoon the white-haired yet youthfully curious photographer sits in a less than modern dining room and, surrounded by photos and books, answers questions about his life, his late entry into photography, and his approach.
He was born in 1920 in London. His father was English; his mother arrived there from Belarus when she was 3. By the age of 11 she was orphaned. The two lived and met in East End London. “They were,” he says, “working class and Jewish, a dual hardship.”
They also were determined. His father, overcoming class and religion, became the first Jewish mayor of the London borough of Hendon. His mother worked as a milliner, learned tailoring, and started a dressmaking business that his father managed. When he was six, Naar accompanied his mother to Paris, fell in love with the city, and vowed to return.
Naar was educated at the private Mill Hill School in London. An academic achiever, he graduated at age 15. Too young to be accepted into an English university, he saw it as an opportunity to return to Paris (which was not concerned with age as much as aptitude) and attended the Sorbonne to study French and German. He also became more interested in social justice issues, supporting the left-leaning Front populaire.
He returned to London to attend the University of London in 1939. World War II erupted, and he was conscripted into the military. Thanks to his enrollment in the Officers’ Training Core at Mill Hill, he became an officer and agent with the British Intelligence Service. One of his assignments was to go to Palestine, disguise himself as a Swiss journalist, and gather intelligence from Nazi-aligned forces.
Naar smiles as he talks about the story’s complications. While not a James Bond adventure, there is intrigue (interviewing Vichy French officers in a brothel) and danger (he was caught in crossfire that lasted a day). He shakes his head in amusement during the account.
Other assignments included being sent to the Middle East and Italy to gather information regarding resistance efforts and to advise London. He was, he says, too preoccupied at the time to think about photography.
By 1945 he had assumed the rank of major and married an American captain in the Office of Strategic Services. When the European war ended, Naar accompanied his wife back to America, settled in New York City, and became an U.S. Citizen.
Looking to establish himself, Naar eventually found a niche with writing on biological science issues that led him to the public relations offices at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, then a public relations company that specialized in pharmaceutical advertising, and then director of international marketing for the Seagram Corporation.
Naar says that during this time he had gotten a single-lens reflex camera (an East German Praktica) and spent his weekends taking photos of his Greenwich Village neighborhood. Eventually he became more devoted to the process, developed his eye, and took advantage of his trips for Seagram to explore markets in Mexico.
A 1962 trip is represented in the exhibition by a gathering of black and white images: “Christ and the Teacups,” “Mexican Family,” and “Saint in Frame, Mexico City.” Their winning combination of found subjects (religious objects, frames, faces) and pronounced composition was the foundation upon which he was to build. He says that was the year that he found himself seriously pursuing photography and started using a Nikon F camera.
The year also marked Naar’s friendship with influential fashion and advertising photographer Nicholas Muray. They met, Naar says, in the laundry room of their apartment building. When the novice photographer finally found the courage to show his work to the world famous photo stylist, he was struck by the reaction: “You are not a photographer; you are an artist.”
Muray then arranged to take Naar’s work to his friend and fellow Hungarian-American, internationally known photojournalist Andre Kertesz, who, in response to Naar’s question as to whether the master thought he too could be a photographer, simply replied, “You are one already.”
“With Kertesz’s imprimatur I decided to become a professional photographer, and I decided to save up money for one year to work without worrying about getting paid,” says Naar.
The plan included taking a new job as a consultant with the Germaine Monteil cosmetics company in Munich, Germany, where Naar stayed, while his second wife remained mainly in New York. With money in the bank and a Leica M3 range finder camera, he launched his new career on with a clear goal.
“I was 42 years old and did not have enough time to go the traditional route. I needed to focus and pitch myself to the top. In order to do that, I needed to be prepared with two things. First I needed to have good photos to show people, and, second, I had to have ideas to come up with,” he says.
One of his ideas was a photo essay on Germany 20 years after the death of Adolph Hitler. Armed with contacts and references from his other work, he contacted the editor of the influential Italian design magazine Domus and pitched it. What had been planned as a 16-page photo essay turned into 23-page one. “I started off with a home run,” says Naar. “This magazine was seen by every designer and architect in the word.”
After other assignments in Paris and London, Naar (who had returned to New York City in 1964) worked full-time as a photographer for New York Magazine, Conde Nast, and others. He also received assignments from one of advertising’s leading designers, Massimo Vignelli. That work provided Naar with access to subjects that connect his major artists and architects and allowed him to frame them with his signature style.
“I am not an artist,” Naar says thoughtfully as he looks at his images in a book, “I am a photographer. I work with my eye and my hand.”
But there is art in the work, art that seeped into his eye and stayed. While he studied linguistics in school, he also took architecture classes in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. When in Paris, he followed the practice of French schools at the time: take the students out of the classrooms one day of the week and put them in a museum gallery.
The result is that classical architectural forms and designs became part of his seeing. “I was influenced by late medieval and renaissance art. Fra Angelico, Giotto,” he says, adding that the French painter Paul Cezanne, with his geometric groupings and structured designs, was also an influence. Vermeer also enters the conversation as Naar points to the light pouring through a window in one of his images. He notes that he used a light similar to that used by the 17th-century Dutch painter.
In addition to design, Naar also admits to the spirit of freedom, of being a chronicler of the daily appearance of forms and situations, someone in search of images waiting to be found. He adds that he was inspired, in part, by the work of another Hungarian photographer, Brassai, whose 1924 “Paris at Night” captured sculptured scenes of Parisian places and people.
After pausing and thinking about what he has just said, Naar looks up and says, as if realizing something, “There are certain things about my photography that I cannot explain. There is an intuitive existential resonance about my picture taking that is not intellectual or preconceived or planned. I never know what is going to happen. I trained to be ready.”
That readiness was helpful when he in 1974 when he received an assignment from Pentagram Design London to take the photographs for the first book on the New York City graffiti art, “The Faith of Graffiti.” The introduction was written by celebrated American novelist and journalist Norman Mailer. “After the graffiti book came out, I had entree to publishers,” says Naar who went on to create 11 more books that focus on subjects ranging from photography to solar energy.
It was during the creation of a book on energy that he found his new home in Trenton, after five decades of being connected to New York. It was in 2000 and, he says, “New York became too expensive, and I couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
Because the new book included researching energy policies in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, Naar was in contact with government officials in each state. He says that during a casual conversation with a State of New Jersey energy official he mentioned that he was planning to move. The official suggested that Naar visit Trenton and took him Mill Hill.
“I walked around the neighborhood and felt I was in Paris. I bought the house before I went into it,” he says. “I love the house, south facing, and sunlight all day. The loudest sound at night is the Assunpink Creek. I don’t have a car and walk to the Trenton train station. What more can I ask?” he says.
The Trenton locale also allows him to see his Washington, D.C., based son Alex, a crisis manager for the Federal Aviation Administration; daughter-in-law Karen Heys, a Peace Corps employee; and Axel, his three-year-old grandson. In a twist of fate, Naar’s arrival in Trenton connected him to a distant family member, artist and Rider University professor Harry Naar.
Looking back on the Warhol picture, Naar smiles and says, “I was paid a $100 from New York Magazine, and I’ve made a lot more on the photo.”
It also has given Naar an exhibition in a space that has the same modernist design as the digital cameras that Naar has been using over the past decade (Nikon 3100 and a 5100). There the gallery becomes a place where visitors have the opportunity to gaze through the eyes of a photographer who was willing to put his signature on his times.
Jon Naar: Signature Style, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Through May 5. $5 suggested donation.
Meet the Artist Reception. Saturday, March 9, 2 to 4 p.m. RSVP required to 609-292-5420.
Artist Gallery Walk.Friday, April 5, 12:10 to 12:50 p.m. in the galleries at the State Museum. Free to Museum visitors.
609-292-6464 or www.statemuseum.nj.gov.