Byron Newman: Playboy’s London connection

by Doc Glidewell doc@shootingbeauty.com

Byron Newman’s road to Playboy was unusually direct. Born in London, Newman discovered graphic design and photography in college and began commercial work by interviewing and photographing rock stars for Cream magazine in the late 60s and 70s.

After college he founded a London-based fashion magazine Deluxe (1977). The magazine, which he calls a “punk Vogue,” lasted only two issues. He had based the design of Deluxe on a French magazine, Mode International and the Mode publisher liked his “rip off” – his words – of their design enough that they offered him a job as Mode’s art director.

Once in Paris, Newman also began to work for Lui, a high-end men’s magazine. Newman’s first contact with Playboy was in 1982 when he and his wife, the actress Brigitte Ariel, were touring the US doing publicity for her new film. The film had been purchased by 20th Century Fox, and Ariel landed the “celebrity of the day” notice in the Hollywood Reporter. Hugh Hefner saw the story and invited them to the Playboy Mansion where Newman met Hefner as the husband of a famous actress.

1986 saw his first commercial dealing with Playboy. It began erratically when he sent his photos of an exceptional model, Marina Baker, to the magazine. Gary Cole from Playboy called, told him they had been watching his career in Europe, and suggested he fly to the US with the model and shoot a centerfold with Baker at the Chicago Playboy studios. Newman took them up on it only to have Hefner reject the centerfold. They assigned him another centerfold shoot, in London, which Hefner also rejected. Hefner then relented and used the first shoot, which appeared as the centerfold in March, 1987, and shortly thereafter, offered Newman an exclusive contract to shoot for Playboy.

Marina Baker, now a British politician, has appeared in Playboy several times and played the role of Priscilla Presley in Elvis Forever. And until her recent retirement, his wife Brigitte worked as Newman’s stylist and producer.

Thirty-two years later, work for Playboy as a contract photographer still makes up 90% of his business.

State of the Industry

But the business has changed. The principle change he has seen at Playboy is the reliance on celebrities rather than the much more expensive themed pictorial, such as the ten page spoof on the French Revolution that he did, again with Marina Baker, for the overseas editions in 1989.

“Today we will work in a studio rather than fly off for two weeks to Tangier to shoot promo stills for a James Bond film,” says Newman.

“I used to do a lot of work for European editions of Playboy: Dutch Playboy, German Playboy, Italian Playboy. But, as budgets have gotten smaller, those editions tend to use homegrown photographers.”

Nor does he do the volume of corporate calendar work he once did now that risqué calendars are deemed inappropriate for corporate public relations. He also has limited his work by design. Newman notes that “Over the years I’ve become much more specialized. It’s not what I desired really but it’s the nature of the business. I think people are suspicious of someone who can photograph in lots of areas. It’s probably easier to make a name for yourself if you are a specialist.”

And he maintains that, with modern digital cameras, it’s become much easier to take an adequate shot, even if they are artistically empty. For example, the recent proliferation of “lad’s” magazines, “which are basically girls placed in front of seamless paper with a flash straight-on, has had a large negative impact on doing glamour photography. Old school photographers like me have a grounding in lighting and technique but that isn’t necessary to get published any more. Now, as long as you have something on your memory card, you can put it in Photoshop and make something out of it. This has been good for the average person but detrimental to dedicated photographers.”

On Location

A typical Newman shoot for Playboy will have the models and makeup artist arrive at 9am. Newman and his videographer, who also acts as an assistant, will set up lights while the models are in makeup. He begins shooting by 11am, finishing the first set by 1pm, when they break for lunch, and then completes two more sets in the afternoon. He is not a prolific shooter. Each set will consist of perhaps 40 poses with 3 or 4 shots of each pose. Net output for the day: roughly 500 photos.

Unless it is a major advertising shoot, Newman describes his operation as a “one man band.” The assistant helps him carry equipment but Newman does all the photographic work himself.

Lighting

Newman almost never uses flash, preferring HMI hot lights, normally used for movie work, mixed with the warmer tone of 1KW, 3200K tungsten focusable spotlights.

“The drawbacks are slower shutter speeds and larger apertures, but you see what you get, and I prefer that.”

Newman says. Because of the slow shutter speeds, he always uses a tripod and an electronic remote shutter release: 1/60 at an f/4 is typical. His standard setup will include an unfiltered HMI bounced off a large reflector as an overall fill and several unfiltered tungsten spots, one in front to give a warm tone to the face – and supply a catchlight in the eyes – and several more wherever he wishes to place a warm highlight. He never uses a fill flash for outdoor work, instead favoring a large overhead scrim and reflectors to filter the sun and direct highlight placement.

He uses a Macbeth color chart in his test shots and examines the image on the camera back, rather than relying on the histogram or a computer display.

“I’ve become so accustomed to it, I can get the images spot on without referring to anything other than the image on the back of the camera.”

Cameras

Newman used to shoot 6×7 and 2 1/4″ square film formats, except for the Chicago centerfolds which were shot with an 8″ x 10″ view camera, for which, he says, he needed a lot of help from the Chicago studio people. Newman recalls

“I think I had 29 lights for the centerfold shoot and it took about a week to get the right shot. It was a very slow process of building up the image over a series of days. Models would break down in tears.”

A lover of Kodachrome for 35mm, Newman resisted the conversion to digital but Jeff Cohen at Playboy finally convinced him to try it. It took a while to get comfortable but he now believes there is simply no way in which film is superior to digital.

“I’m completely bowled-over and would never go back to film,” he says, with one exception, “for black and white, I still prefer the look of silver halide. But for color, digital has completely revitalized my shooting.”

He is proficient at Photoshop but, for the sake of simplicity, lets Playboy do most of the retouching on his photos.

He uses Nikon gear and has been using a D2X digital body and the 28-70mm f/2.8 and the 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikon zoom lenses. He once used Angenieux cine lenses but abandon them when autofocus arrived at the same time his eyes began to show the effects of age.

Like most Playboy shooters, Newman advises against models getting implants.

“The tide has turned against them, certainly at Playboy. But when I do a casting in America, roughly 98 out of 100 girls will have implants, and the main difficulty is that out of 100 implant jobs you’ll only have 5 good ones.” In any case, implants are not what make a good model. “The first thing I look for is a pretty face. The face is the most important element. Bodies,” he notes, “can be improved with lighting tricks and editing but a pretty face is essential.” And an outgoing personality: “You can’t be a dead fish in front of the camera,” he says.

More of Newman’s work

Newman’s books include:

Art Nude Collection, a compilation of erotic photography, published in Japan; English Rose, a compilation also publish in French as Methode Anglaise; and The Ultimate Angels, a photo reportage volume on transsexual prostitutes in Paris.

“It was very far away from my rather safe life in the studio here and in nice country houses’ Newman reports, “I was out on the street mixing with a rather rough crowd really”

This was a joint venture done with his wife on their honeymoon.

On the side, Newman has a rock and roll band, Senior Service, that plays as a cover band with Byron specializing in David Bowie and Bob Dylan. “I really have that nasal thing going on,” he says. “I play harmonica, guitar and I sing. It’s something I do for fun but I’m very serious about it.”

More of Byron Newman’s images can be seen at www.byronnewman.com

© 2009, R. A. Glidewell

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