About 25 years ago, about eighteen months into my first job, I was working on the design of a brochure with my boss, Massimo Vignelli. It was some kind of corporate brochure. I don't remember what company. In fact, I mainly remember one thing about it: it was to include a black and white photograph of the company's chief executive on one of the first few pages.
The client had approved the design, and I was sitting with Massimo, attentively taking notes as he talked about how we would go about getting it done. On this page, he said, we'd have a series of line drawings of the company's product. Line drawings, I wrote in my notebook. This divider page should be a bright color, like PMS Warm Red. PMS Warm Red, I wrote. And for the portrait? Oh, that should be something special, said Massimo. We should get someone really good to do it. Someone like Arnold Newman. Arnold Newman, I wrote.
I went back to my desk, got out a Manhattan telephone book, and looked up Arnold Newman.
Oddly, I found the right number right away. I dialed it. A man's voice answered the phone.
"Hello, I'd like to speak to Arnold Newman," I said.
"This is Arnold Newman."
"Arnold Newman, the photographer?"
"Yes," came back the voice.
I wasn't expecting to get him on the phone this quickly, so I switched to a new manner that I had been trying out recently: brisk, businesslike.
"Ah, Mr. Newman. My name is Michael Bierut and I'm a designer" — actually more like a production artist, but no need to get into details — "at Vignelli Associates. We're looking for a photographer to work on a new brochure we've designed, and we thought you could be someone we might consider." I loved this kind of thing: we're considering people. "May I ask you a few questions?"
"First, do you do portraits?"
There was a long pause. Finally: "Er...yes, I do portraits."
"Great!" Mr. Newman was sounding a little unsure of himself, so I tried to sound peppy and encouraging. "Okay, can I ask if you do black and white portraits?"
An even longer pause. "Yes, black and white. Color, and black and white. But mostly black and white."
"Well, that sounds perfect! Would you mind sending us over your portfolio so we could take a look?"
Today I cringe as I write this, wondering what could have been going through Arnold Newman's mind as he submitted himself to some little twerp's inane interrogation. But the voice, though hesitant, was formal, polite, almost pleasant. Arnold Newman agreed to send me his portfolio.
I like to think that he put it together himself, with extra care, just to teach a young punk a lesson. And by the end of the day, it was delivered to our office with my name on it. I opened it up, and there they were, all original black and white prints: Igor Stravinsky. Pablo Picasso. Max Ernst. Marilyn Monroe. Eugene O'Neill. Martha Graham. Andy Warhol. It must have been with special relish that he selected the photograph on the very top: his famous picture of John F. Kennedy in front of the White House.
We didn't hire Arnold Newman for the job; he was, of course, too expensive. I never spoke to him again. But in that one short — and needlessly polite — conversation, he taught me a lesson about humility, patience and elegance that I've never forgotten. He died last week at the age of 88.