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Profile: Arnold Newman

As modernism came to an apex in the mid to late 20th century, Arnold Newman was an active contributor to the art-photography world, making celebrity portraiture more than just a simple snapshot of their image, but an encapsulation of their individualized place in the world and a physical legacy in the form of a photograph. Newman made his way from Manhattan to Miami, and later Philadelphia to sell portraits at a mere 49 cents a pop, following his inability to finish art school due to financial hardship. These 49-cent opportunities weren’t necessarily his most fruitful time in terms of artistic creation, but he took the time to become accustomed and skilled in handling photographic production and working with a large number of subjects in a short period of time. In his earlier years, much of his work was inspired by documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Their influence was seen in his interest in capturing the power of snapshots of life in a more natural way, a combination of the subject and their surroundings.

Milton Avery, New York, 1961

Newman’s knowledge and background as a painter transferred to his interest in compositional elements and rhythmic line, which only added to the artistic, social, and political effect that the setting had on the photos he took. His influence grew greater in the photography world starting in the late 1930s and early 40s in New York, where the power of art and social stirrings were at their highest concentration. This was also the time in which he experimented with reassembled collaging, which tore down certain aspects of photography dependent on uniformity and precision. Much like this technique did in the photography world, it was most often utilized in portraits done of artists who, too, would define themselves by their creativity and defied expectations in their life and work, including Andy Warhol and Dr. Seuss. By the end of the 1950s, Newman’s work had risen to significance through his ability to create artistic documentation of places and figures, so much so that he was included in Life, Fortune, Newsweek, and the New York Times.

Theodore Geisel, 1985-1991

Popularly known as “environmental portraiture,” Newman was widely praised for his gifted eye for composition and posing, which emphasized the subject’s particular niche and work, mostly in the celebrity realm. Background, foreground, furniture, props, cropping, angle, lighting—all were tools Newman artfully used with meticulous deliberation in each portrait he made. There was also simplicity in his precision; the portraits “rarely contain[ed] more than a subject and a well-composed set of amplifying elements.”

Leonard Bernstein, Philharmonic Hall New York, 1968

As a great deal of Newman’s work was done in black and white, an emphasis is put on the form of the objects surrounding the subject and pure emotion emanating from them, creating a greater space for a complete portrait that captured both a likeness and a personality, while simultaneously exciting and intriguing the viewer. Through this medium, light and form evoke emotion in a far more complex way than a particular array of colors could.

While all of his portraits were extremely individualized in subject matter, a particular palette can accompany and complete an effective portrait. In some cases, what necessitated starkness and barrenness in objects and props additionally necessitated that same mood in palette. Even more, Newman preferred to use large format cameras—mostly 4x5—in order to capture every detail with clarity and boldness.

Man Ray, Paris France, 1948

Newman was able to work with a diverse array of widely known figures in the world, including artists, composers, political figures and more, reflecting his interest in relishing true human accomplishment. The care in which Newman acted toward both the subject and their surroundings created an environment where the one being photographed could open up to the camera, and in turn, the viewer. This, along with his unique and commanding New York personality, caused him to be known by Arthur Ollman, founding director of the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts, as a “champion manipulator of people,” even with his most demanding of subjects.

Aaron Copland, Peekskill, New York, 1959

He was mindful and well-researched of his subjects, always aware of his role as a guest in another’s space. He was aware of what poses would compose the perfect photograph, and just what to do to get them. This did not come at the expense, however, of the subject’s dignity or comfort. He acted with a certain normality, and his time in the studio during photo sessions was drawn out enough that all tension was relaxed—breaking down barriers between Newman and the personality, and even vulnerability, of those in front of the camera. Because of this, Newman earned much of his status as a portrait photographer through the authenticity and intimacy he brought to the table of those he photographed, most often celebrities forced to create a staged persona of themselves for the public eye. However, their role as a public figure was not so broken down as to discredit their work or image—instead using those features as complimentary and fascinating facets of the portraits he created.

Alfred Krupp, Essen Germany, 1963

One example of his influence is shown in the infamous portrait of Alfred Krupp, a notorious Nazi industrialist. Although Newman affirmed his role as an artist first, leaving the taint of politics largely out of his work, this particular portrait is an exception, emphasized by his Jewish heritage. The camera position, angular lines, undulation and symmetry of the lighting, and the ghoulish colors of the photo combine into the maleficence that Newman wished to portray in a man who supported and contributed to such a despicable cause during World War II. Arnold Newman’s unique position as a photographer specializing in portraits is an example of an artist who has the ability to formulate relationships with his subjects, then translate that to his work. As one master of environmental portraiture, Newman provides viewers with a look into the lives of those he worked with, as well as his distinct eye for artistic photography.




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