Lightness of Being

Photographer Mark Arbeit, exposed

In the early spring of 1997 in New York, I got off a bus at Port Authority on 42nd Street and headed to a shared apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. There I began my search for an apprenticeship with a New York City photographer.

Understandably, competition for apprentice jobs was fierce, and it wasn’t easy finding work with a famous photographer or, for that matter, a photographer whose work you personally appreciated. Yet, I carved out a career bouncing from one photographer to the next—picking up bits of knowledge along the way. I worked for many, but always chose photographers whose work I admired.

One photographer in particular captivated me the first time I saw one of his artistic nudes. I wanted to learn his technique, understand how his light shaped the image and see how he sculpted his models. I observed traces of Matisse, Renoir and Man Ray in his work. The classic training in his photography was apparent. It was then that I sought to understand Mark Arbeit.

I attempted to contact Arbeit, but found all correspondence went directly to his Manhattan agent. Over time, I faxed numerous resumes and called his agent a number of times, hoping to get an audience to no avail. With irony, it was only in Hawaiʻi several years later where our paths crossed.

Arbeit moved back to the islands after nearly three decades away, as he became a respected fashion and beauty photographer in Europe and the U.S., working for major magazines and brands. He returned to start a new chapter in his life and enjoy the Hawaiʻi lifestyle that so many covet.

Originally from Chicago but raised in Northern California, Arbeit was just 16 when his family relocated to Oʻahu, and he immediately fell in love with his new surroundings. As awestruck as he was in his new home, he was more astonished the first time he stepped into the darkroom at McKinley High School.

“The first time I saw a piece of white paper developing into a picture, I was blown away,” he says. From that point on, he knew he would become a photographer. After high school, Arbeit attended the renowned Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, where he met influential photographer Helmut Newton—someone who eventually became a life-long mentor and friend.

During the ’80s, Milan was the epicenter of the fashion world, and Arbeit longed to be a part of it—but not before making a stop in New York where, he started working with another big name photographer, Irving Penn. At Penn’s studio, Arbeit would retouch Penn’s platinum prints for eight hours a day but would sneak his lunches behind the master photographer to watch him at work. “I watched how he sculpted his models starting at her feet up to her chin,” Arbeit explains.

He did make his way to Italy as planned, and spent quite some time in Paris as well. There, Arbeit began shooting for such clients as French Vogue and L’Oréal, but more importantly, he began to focus on personal projects. “Being around the greats like Newton and Penn made me realize the importance of working on personal work,” Arbeit says. “…You’re always taking orders during a commercial job; personal work isn’t for anyone but yourself.”

Arbeit juxtaposed flowers and nudes for his first series, the In and Out of Focus project, in which he concentrated on the out-of-focus elements in his pictures.

His images became ethereal and dreamy, almost painterly in quality. For his next series, Polajunk, Arbeit experimented with different photography techniques to create montages all connected to Polaroid film.

After 19 years of living in Paris and working within the major photographic markets, Arbeit set his sights on HawaiÊ»i once again and decided to return home in 2004. Since then, he’s been occupied with plenty of commercial and editorial projects, while his personal work continues to flourish. In fact, Arbeit showcased a series of photographs during a one-man show in 2013 at the Kaune, Posnik, Spohr Gallery for Contemporary Photography in Cologne, Germany.

This most recent personal project, Photograms, incorporates the human form exposed on photographic paper and processed in photo chemicals. The project was born out of knowing that the traditional photographic process is fast becoming obsolete. “The dark room is dying and it is getting harder to find photographic paper and chemicals,” he opines. So this last project incorporates darkroom techniques before they completely vanish from the marketplace.”

Arbeit and his work read like an art history book with his compositions coming straight from the masters. His personal work, along with his commercial endeavors, stand among some of the best the market can offer. To look at his images, you see the training and education that went into each piece. You also see how Penn and Newton influenced him to create work not in their shadow, but in their wake.

Eventually, I transitioned from apprentice to photographer here in Honolulu and used many of the skills and techniques I picked up on the bumpy road to becoming a professional.

Although I regret not being able to work with Arbeit back in New York, I did help him on several jobs here locally. What struck me most was how deliberately he worked. It irked me at times since I tend to be an impatient photographer shooting hundreds of pictures in an attempt to capture fleeting moments as they happen before me. In contrast, Arbeit doesn’t capture moments; he creates them. This key element is what I missed during my days as an apprentice and wished I had picked up from him back then. Now I try to imbue that approach today as a professional photographer. Alas, Arbeit became one of the last photographers I assisted— and seemingly the last one from whom I learned the most.

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