If you want to sell a photography book, and you’re a nobody, find a big name to write the introduction. That’s what the publisher of Jon Naar’s first photography book, "The Faith of Graffiti," told him. Although Naar initially suggested Susan Sontag, he readily agreed to the publisher’s suggestion, Norman Mailer, who he knew from his work on draft resistance.
The upside of Mailer’s intro was that the 1974 book was reviewed in the New York Times and attained some notoriety. "It is now known as the Bible of the graffiti world," says Naar. The Mailer connection also gave Naar "entree into every publishing house in New York," with the result that he has published 12 books. The downside was that although Mailer earned a $35,000 advance for the introduction, Naar and his designer, Mervyn Kurlansky, had to split $3,500. Naar notes with a touch or irony that this gulf "was a reflection of our relative worths in the marketplace."
Naar recently published another book on graffiti – a media-created term for what the kids who do it call "writing." "The Birth of Graffiti" includes 155 photographs; most have not been published previously but some that had been cropped by the designer in that first book are presented here in their original format. He will discuss the book on Saturday, August 11, at the Classics bookstore, 117 South Warren Street in Trenton.
Artworks, a visual arts center in Trenton, is now showing graffiti art confined to the traditional canvas-on-wall format, a forum where Naar, other speakers, and the audience debated the topic "Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?" in an event held on Thursday, July 26. In a lively discussion graffiti artists and the show’s curator defended the spray-painted art form that has evolved from its original bold black letters. In graffiti’s more sophisticated realizations, the letters are filled in and outlined, taking on three dimensions, and they are decorated with clouds, color, stickers, characters, and other embellishments.
Yet when one person at the Artworks forum put out the claim that graffiti is art because "it’s expression," another quickly retorted that "not all forms of expression are art – art takes vision, planning, and effort."
One person expressed anger at the degree to which graffiti on subway cars had made them unusable – riders can’t see what station they are at, and so on. Another expanded on this, saying, "There’s a reason they call graffiti writing `bombing.’"
Others looked more kindly on the destructiveness of graffiti as evidence that it is a social outcry of the downtrodden or, in the words of one participant, "It boils down to letting people know I was here, this is who I am, this is what my style is. There is nothing that gets an emotional reaction like a tag."
But what struck me as I leafed through Naar’s new book was that whether or not graffiti is art, certainly Naar’s photographs of graffiti – in its urban context and sometimes with its creators – are the product of an artistic vision.
Naar shot his graffiti work during 10 days in late December, 1972, to early January, 1973. Standing on a subway platform with his cumbersome cameras, he and his designer, Kurlansky, had a lucky encounter with graffiti artists.
A group of children walked up to them and said, "Hey, that’s a nice camera you’ve got; what are you doing?" When Naar responded that they were doing a book on graffiti, the kids started to laugh. "What’s so funny?" asked Naar.
The kids responded, "Well, we’re graffiti writers."
During the next 10 days, says Naar, "they took me everywhere, showing me their masterpieces." Lugging his Leica M4, he even caught them being harassed by the transit police. "I had to run fast and take pictures as I could."
Naar was born in London, his mother an immigrant from Russia and his father a Sefardic Jew born in London whose father was from Amsterdam. His parents met in London’s East End.
Naar’s mother left school at age 11. Because selling was the only work that Jews had been able to do in the small Russian shtetl she came from, she and two of her sisters started a millinery business after being outworkers in the East End. Naar’s father went into local politics and became the first Jewish mayor of a London borough, at the beginning of World War II. "They were great role models," says Naar.
As middle-class English people, Naar’s parents had sent him and his brother to boarding school, but in 1936, at age 16, Naar rebelled, left home, and moved to Paris on an exchange with a French boy, who stayed with Naar’s parents. Although Naar was supposed to be going to the boy’s lycee, Naar managed to pass the exams necessary to matriculate at the University of Paris.
With war on the horizon, Naar decided he needed to learn German, so in 1937 he went to university in Vienna. He then returned home and finished an honors degree in linguistics at the University of London.
Between 1940 and 1946, Naar worked for British intelligence (in the SOE or special operations executive) in support of the anti-Nazi and antifascist resistance. He also volunteered for a secret mission in Syria and Lebanon while stationed in Egypt. By the time he was done, he was a major and had acquired an American wife, who was a captain in the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency.
They married in Italy in 1946 and moved to the United States. He says his first marriage was "a glamorous wartime romance" that didn’t last too long. He married again in the 1950s and had one son, Alex, born in 1964, who now works in crisis management for the National Park Service.
Naar developed late as a photographer. While working as a medical science writer and managing editor of the World Wide Medical News service, a division of William Douglas McAdams, in Manhattan from 1950 to 1957 and then until 1963 as director of international marketing for Pharmacraft Laboratories, a division of Seagrams in Cranbury, Naar did weekend photography in black and white.
He decided to turn professional after receiving encouragement from three important people in the field. It all started in his neighborhood, Turtle Bay around East 50th Street near the United Nations, which with Trump has become very "bourgeois" but was then replete with publishing houses and artistic types. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, lived around the corner from Naar.
A neighbor in his Manhattan apartment building was the well-known portrait photographer Nicholas Muray. One day Naar, who had helped Muray do a book of his portraits, said to him, "I’d like to show you some of my own photos." Muray was very polite, says Naar, given the frequency with which he was probably asked to judge other people’s photographs. But after Naar showed him 10 or so pictures, Muray said to him, "My God, I’m a photographer; you’re an artist!"
Naar also got encouragement from Andre Kertesz, one of the great photographers of the 20th century, whom Muray had introduced him to. And through his then wife, Naar met Betty Parsons, who ran a famous art gallery representing Rauschenberg and well-known abstract expressionists. She bought one of Naar’s photographs.
His mentors’ estimations of his talent pushed Naar to become a full-time photographer. But to save enough money to be able to spend his first year as a professional without an income, in 1963 he signed a one-year contract to serve as general manager of the Munich cosmetic company, Germaine Monteil.
As an unknown photographer, Naar had to come up with ideas and sell himself. His first proposal, to what he calls "a German equivalent of People magazine," Neue Illustriete, was for a story about the plot to kill Hitler – on the occasion of its 20th anniversary on July 20, 1964.
Naar traveled through East and West Germany and Czechoslovokia, photographing both people who had survived the plot and some of its key players, including the German colonel who arrested Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who left a bomb at Hitler’s headquarters. "The article [co-written by Naar and well-known German author Heinrich Fraenkel] created quite a stir," says Naar, and he subsequently sold it to Look magazine in the United States.
When Naar returned to New York, he did work for New York magazine, including photographs of Andy Warhol. "Warhol said it was the best picture of him he had ever taken," says Naar. "He always considered he was taking the picture, not the photographer."
Naar also took photos – mostly of lifestyle subjects, interiors, and architecture – for the New York Times magazine. Other venues were Vogue and several German, French, and Italian magazines. Eventually he also moved into the more lucrative corporate photography, for IBM and Merck.
Naar has met many interesting people along the way. Through a British designer who worked for the London ad agency that had the account of the British government, Naar was recommended to photograph the prime minister Harold Wilson, who he remembers as being obsessed with Maoism. When Wilson was criticized for importing an expensive photographer from New York, Naar was able to pull out his British passport, which he holds along with his American one.
Once Naar got a call from Joseph Albers, a famous member of the Bauhaus from Germany who taught graphic design at Yale University for many years. "I want you to make me a portrait that the world will remember me by," he said. After Naar sent the proofs, Albers’ wife, Anni, who was an artist in her own right, phoned Naar and said, "We got your pictures, and Joseph is very angry." The reason for the strong emotion, Anni explained, was that Joseph "loved the pictures, but you didn’t charge him enough money." Albers sent Naar twice what he had charged and also gave him a signed lithograph.
Naar has also had a deep involvement with renewable energy. After he completed the graffiti book with Mailer, he lived across the street from Random House, for which he was photographing book jackets. One of the designers there introduced him to the editor-in-chief of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, who asked him, "What is your next book?" Naar’s response was that the next big thing coming down the pike was solar energy. (It was 1973, during the first OPEC oil crisis, and Carter was in the White House.) Naar persuaded Ballantine to do the book "Design for a Limited Planet," and he got Jacques Cousteau, another of his neighbors, to write the introduction.
Naar received a $15,000 advance for his book on the pioneers of solar energy and he traveled through New Mexico and Colorado, interviewing and taking pictures of people who were building solar collectors on their houses. Naar himself actually helped put the first solar collectors on the roof of the White House. The book sold over 100,000 copies, and as a result of his research for it, Naar became an expert on solar energy, or, as he tells it, "an expert on experts."
Eventually Naar became president of the New York Metropolitan Solar Energy Society. From 1996 to 1998 he served as deputy director of renewable energy programs under Clinton and Gore at the United States Agency for International Development, after which he founded the consulting firm Eco-Energy Associates based in New York; Marin County, California, and Trenton.
Naar is now working on an upcoming exhibition titled "Out of Gas" with the Canadian Center for Architecture, which combines his expertise in renewable energy and his photography. The show, which will open in November in Montreal, will use 57 photos from his 1973 work in the Southwest. "Things sometimes come together," he says.
Naar also does a lot of work for his distant cousin, Harry Naar, who runs the gallery at Rider University. They discovered their familial connection when Naar moved to Trenton in 2000 from Manhattan, where he had lived since 1947. "I moved out of New York because it had become too expensive and Trenton then – and now – offered some of the best real-estate values. In effect I traded a 400-square foot studio apartment near the United Nations for an eight-room landmark house overlooking Assunpink Creek in historic Mill Hill. Not a bad deal."
Naar’s photographs have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA, and in 2005 he had a retrospective show at the Jan Kunen Museum in the Netherlands.
For Naar the photographic vision is in the moment. Even though for the past four or five years he has used digital cameras exclusively, he says, "I don’t manipulate, and I don’t like cropping. I think you should envision a photo before you literally see it and get the picture. I do not believe in manipulation after."
When doing portraits he has been amazed that although he may take 100 shots over two to three hours, his customer often picks either the very first picture or the very last one. In an effort to explain why this happens, he says, "There’s a certain intuitive sense of what I call `getting the picture.’ He adds that a real photographic artist has an intuitive sense of design, composition, and lighting "that you either have or don’t have," and that holds whether a photographer is self taught, like Naar, or the product of an art school. Of the aspiring photographers who show Naar their work, for example, he says "one in every 100 or so has that gift."
Naar likes to define himself as a photojournalist. Brought up as a political activist before World War II, Naar observes, "Maybe I’m a little more aware of the social and political dynamics of history." He sees his artistic work as an extension of that early awareness. "I was a writer before I became a photographer, and I have always been interested in recording my time – being a witness to history and documenting what’s going on around me. To me, that is journalism."
Photography Discussion, Saturday, August 11, noon to 2 p.m. Classics Used and Rare Books, 117 South Warren Street, Trenton. Talk with Jon Naar, photographer, about his latest book, "The Birth of Graffiti." 609-394-8400.