For Mark Arbeit, photography is 'all about light.' And for more than 25 years, he had chased, captured and manipulated light to create a complex and powerful oeuvre that includes portraiture, fashion, landscape, nudes and the artist's studio. Arbeit's pictures capture life as it is today, from his revealing studies of celebrities of the moment such as actors Tom Hanks, Penelope Cruz and Anthony Hopkins, to his snapshots of local kids playing in the surf of his native Hawaii. But Arbeit also maintains a reverence for such photography greats as Edward Weston, May Ray, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton--the last two for whom Arbeit worked as an assistant in the late 1970s. Not only has Arbeit learned from the experts, he regularly pays them homage, whether by applying May Ray's solarization method to a series of nudes or playing with Newton's daring lighting techniques. 'Newton taught me never be afraid to shoot in low light,' says Arbeit. 'It could create something unexpected.
'Born in Chicago in 1953, Arbeit was raised in Northern California. When Arbeit was 16, the family moved to Oahu, Hawaii, and the beauty of islands awakened Arbeit's senses. 'It's paradise on Earth,' he says quite simply. At 18, Arbeit enrolled in the University of Hawaii to study art and photography, and started shooting wedding portraits in his spare time for pocket money. A few years later, he decided to focus solely on photography, and transferred to the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. During his third year there, he met Newton through a mutual friend. Newton took Arbeit on as an assistant, and Arbeit looked to Newton as a 'photo guru.' 'I drilled him with every question I could think of,' Arbeit remembers. 'And he shared with me his philosophy about photography: how to deal with magazines, ad agencies, art directors, models and create an image concept. He said, 'Always remember your client--the clothes you are photographing. Never forget why you are there.'
Upon finishing his studies, Arbeit moved to New York, and was hired by Irving Penn as a studio assistant. Again, Arbeit approached his work as an apprentice, taking everything in, peppering the master with questions. 'Penn was Mr. Technique,' says Arbeit. 'Everything he does is so meticulous, so perfect, you just want to copy it. It took years to forget what I learned from him.'
From both men Arbeit learned the essentials of lighting. 'Newton said, 'There is never too little light. If you have a tripod, and a little lamp, you can make a beautiful picture,' he says. 'Penn showed me importance of using equal amounts of light, that if you use a strong direct flash, there should be equal indirect soft light. Light is photography, and both of those men know it.'
After working for Penn, Arbeit moved to Milan to launch his own fashion photography career, and shot regularly for Linea Italia, Donna and Vogue Bellezza. In 1985, he settled in Paris to further his career as well as expand his artistic boundaries. To explore the experimental side of photography Arbeit and a few ambitious photographer friends from the Art Center formed a group called 'The Cauldron.' Its mission was simple: to take pictures that had never been done before. Arbeit chose focus as his tool, and launched Out of Focus, a series of photographs in which in the foreground Arbeit focuses sharply on a flower and in the background, an out-of-focus female nude mimics the shape and movement of the bloom. 'I wanted to show the form out of focus and let the viewer fill in the gaps, create something dreamy,' Arbeit explains.
Arbeit continued to work commercially, shooting fashion for French Vogue and Marie Claire, and portraits for In Style, People and Forbes. In 1992, he launched a second series, 'Artists' Studios,' of female nudes in artist ateliers. 'When I go into the atelier, I try to do two images,' Arbeit says. 'One is a portrait of the artist without the artist in the picture, and I<