During the 20th Century, there were few portrait photographers as productive, creative, and successful as Arnold Newman.
For almost seven decades Newman applied himself to his art and his craft, never for a moment losing his zest for experiment. Painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, musicians, scientists, statesmen, poets, playwrights, novelists, politicians, and statesmen sat for him. His work was published internationally in the most influential magazines of the day, and he was much interviewed, quoted, and respected.
Several major solo exhibitions paid homage to his achievements during his lifetime, and his work can be found in many of the world's most prestigious photography collections. No historical overview of portraiture would be complete without one or two Newman masterpieces, nor could any general history of the medium safely leave out his superb studies of Stravinsky, Mondrian or Graham.
Newman has been called "the father of environmental photography" because unlike most or his colleagues, who preferred to work in their studios, he hungered to get out into people's homes and places of work. He particularly loved artists' studios, with all their clutter, but he was equally adept in boardrooms, classrooms, and private homes. But Newman disliked the "environmental" label, feeling it didn't do justice to his work, which could also be highly symbolic, strikingly geometric, and vividly graphic. He asked critics to ignore labels, and judge his portraits simply as they would judge any photographs.
Newman was also a great teacher, and he loved to share his knowledge and skills with aspiring photographers, winning many over to the cause. As with all great artists, his pictures have the quality of seeming effortless and spontaneous, but in fact they were the result of careful prior consideration, even if they left open to chance something entirely unforeseen which would spice up a picture (such as the unexpected background appearance of Edward Hopper's wife during a portrait session in front of his house). Newman prepared for his sessions by reading up of his subjects' achievements. And he applied this characteristic rigor to selecting the best of his "takes", cropping them precisely, and then printing them with supreme skill.
Newman had trained as a painter, and brought that training and sensibility to the making of great portraits. But he had come early on the realization that photography had its own unique terrain, where painting could not tread, and he blazed a path forward with panache.
William A. Ewing is the author of Masterclass: Arnold Newman [Thames and Hudson, $60.00].
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