Considered one of the twentieth century’s major portrait photographers, Arnold Newman (1918–2006) took photographs that captured the artists, writers, celebrities, politicians, and businessmen that shaped the world during his long career. Well known for his perfectionism, he would meticulously craft his photographs both at the sitting and in the darkroom. However, this rigorous process often meant that in publications and exhibitions of his work, it was nearly impossible for a curator or editor to prevail against Newman’s strong opinions. Because he wanted to show work he felt was most impressive, figures who were no longer well known such as businessmen, as well as landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions were often omitted from documentation of his work.
Arnold Newman: Masterclass, the first posthumous retrospective of Newman’s work, reverses these omissions. Always open about his process, the title references the importance of teaching in his work as he enjoyed leading workshops and courses. The exhibition is divided into ten sections loosely based on Newman’s techniques, to assist in the visitor’s understanding of his artistic evolution and priorities.
Having grown up in Atlantic City and Miami, where his father managed hotels, Newman encountered and was at ease with a wide range of human characters. These experiences would eventually be put to use in his work, photographing personalities as diverse as the choreographer Martha Graham (1961) and the German industrialist Alfred Krupp (1963). The diversity of his subjects is an indicator of the fact that Newman often worked on assignment: photography was both his art and a commercial profession. His photographs were published in popular magazines and newspapers such as Life, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, The Saturday Evening Post, and The New York Times. The growth of print media over the first half of the twentieth century resulted in a high demand for celebrity portraits and Newman’s identity as artist-photographer was not unique. He was among a cohort of photographers whose work he aspired to and who could also be considered his colleagues, such as Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, and George Hoyningen-Huene, who were celebrated for their artistic photographs of the famous and powerful.
What differentiated Newman from his contemporaries was that he photographed his subjects in their natural environments: their studios, living rooms, and offices. Newman’s approach caused him to be labeled as the pioneer of the “environmental” portrait, but he rebelled against the label insisting that his work was better understood as “symbolic.” Researching his subjects beforehand, he would use his knowledge to “build” his photographs from the clues he found in their spaces. When a sitter was nervous or reserved, Newman would purposefully bumble around the studio or stall, until they relaxed; a skill he had learned in department store portrait studios (he was forced to leave school for financial reasons). He carefully composed each frame, drawing out his subjects to capture something at the heart of their personality, often a perspective that remained otherwise hidden.
He commonly set artists’ work within the frame of their portraits, as in his photographs of Joseph Albers (1948), and Piet Mondrian (1942) who appear as elements in one of their own compositions, and made their work central to their depicted identity. Newman’s own identity as an artist and photographer, however, was removed from his personal beliefs, which rarely entered into his work. An ardent Zionist, he met his wife Augusta in 1948 while working to raise money and arrange shipments of arms to the Haganah, the underground army fighting to establish the state of Israel. He photographed David Ben-Gurion in 1967, as well as Yasser Arafat in 1993 when the two men supposedly “charmed each other.”
This separation between his work and his personal politics brings us back to the fact that Newman considered himself an artist before everything else. He would often recall the abstractions that were his focus at the beginning of his career, and to which he continued to return, highlighting the fact that photography was merely one tool. He hoped to be recognized as a photographer who happened to take portraits. Bringing together photographs demonstrating the full scope of his work, Masterclass is a lesson in artistic diversity and nuance.
Claire Frost is Curatorial Associate at The CJM. She worked on Arnold Newman: Masterclass and is currently working on the upcoming exhibition J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch, as well as the second installation of In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art.
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