The Icon Maker: Arnold Newman
Graphis, July 2000
in the 1940s, if you didn’t use natural light, you were considered a commercial photographer. If you turned on a switch to take a picture God would strike you dead.
“Yes, yes, my book,” said Arnold Newman to the person on the other end of the line. “Do you want to see my book? Why don’t you go to Barnes & Noble, I am sure that they have copies.” It was 1975 and Greg Heisler, then Newman’s assistant, couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. Heisler took a deep breath for what he knew was coming.
Sure, his boss’s then latest photography books, "Bravo Stravinsky," published in 1967, and "One Mind’s Eye," published in 1974, were still in print. But Heisler could tell that the young advertising art director calling Newman was not inquiring about that type of book. There was a long pause while Newman was listening. “You mean you want to see my portfolio – like a student’s portfolio?!” the 56-year-old portrait master said at last, incredulous.
Even though Arnold Newman was not yet the legend he is now, he was already considered the inventor of “environmental portraiture,” a genre that has since become an intrinsic part of our visual language. He has photographed almost every head of state, artist, writer, composer, dancer, or scientist in the news. Etched in the mind of most literate people of that time were his portraits of Picasso, Kennedy, Stravinsky, Robert Moses, Francis Bacon, and even Alfried Krupp, the German war criminal and industrialist whom Newman had photographed in 1963.
And all of it had happened with Newman ever having to put together a portfolio to sell his work. “I was discovered in 1946, after I got national publicity for a one-man-show called ‘Artists Look Like This,’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” he explains. “As a result I started at the top in New York City, with assignment for Fortune, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life magazine.” Then, with a chuckle, he remarks: “It has been uphill ever since.” In the world of editorial photography, critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills.”
Today, 25 years later, Newman has had numerous exhibitions and authored eleven more books, including "Faces USA," published in 1978 by American Photographic Publishing Co., "The Great British" and "Artists," published in 1979 and 1880 respectively by New York Graphic Society, and "Five Decades," published in 1986 by Harcourt Brace Jonvanich.
He has added to his collection of unforgettable portraits the most prominent personalities of our time, from Cecil Beaton and Elie Weisel to Stephen Jay Gould and Woody Allen – not to mention presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. And twenty five years after that awkward phone conversation with the young art director, Newnan at last has produced a “portfolio” piece – a 276-page coffee table anthology, publish in 2000 by Tashen.
Trained as a painter
At age 82, this New York native has no desire to retire. His phone rings all the time. He is booked months in advance with magazine assignments and requests for private portraits. Ruthless with people who call him with idle inquiries, Newman has the reputation of being a tough negotiator of both fees and contracts. And not everyone is willing to meet his high standards. “Either it’s quality or it’s schlock,” he says. “I never settle for a that-will-do. That’s the reason why I have kept my clients for decades.”
A Newman portrait is itself an icon. Each element of the composition is in its proper place, carefully positioned and exquisitely scaled. In its entirety, the image seems to be in perfect equilibrium, as if it had been laid out according to the principles of the Golden Section so dear to Renaissance painters. This is no coincidence: Newnan received a classical fine art training. Since childhood he has dreamt of becoming a painter. After high school he got a scholarship to take art classes at the University of Miami, in Florida, the state where his parents had settled during the Depression.
Financial circumstances forced him to interrupt his studies to make a living. Eventually, he got a menial job with a chain of photography studios in Philadelphia. Though he was deprived of his pencils and paint brushes, Newman still had a creative tool: the camera’s ground glass. And indeed, it is as a painter that he approached this new pictorial challenge.
After his early experiments in photography, which included minimalist landscapes, abstract still lives, Dada-inspired collages, and realistic portraits of street people, Newman embarked in what has been his life’s journey: photographing the greatest artists of the twentieth century.
His first subject, in 1941, was Fernand Léger. Soon he added to his list Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz (who had encouraged Newman to follow his photographic instinct early on) as well as Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Jean Arp, Grandma Moses, Jacques Lipchitz, Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, and Piet Mondrian, who paintings resemble some of Newnan’s most rarefied compositions.
Capturing the stillness of the moment
Under their apparent rigor, Newman’s portraits are dynamic in nature. The people are often off-center, occupying what looks like the most strategic place on the page. Whether sitting squarely on the lower right hand of the frame, or resting his head against its left edge, the subject of a Newman portrait seems utterly poised and in control of his environment. This sense of ease in turn affects the viewer.
Looking at a Newman photograph is a very satisfying experience indeed: In the stillness of the moment, one takes the time to notice every minute detail of the picture – a dangling bare bulb overhead, messy piles of paper on a desk, the elegant profile of an armchair, or the graphic impact of a paint-stained easel.
“Everything is squared up and dead on in his pictures,” says Will Hopkins, who worked with Newman at Look magazine in the late 1960s. “He has this uncanny design thing that allows him to get the point. In the last half of the twentieth century, I can’t think of someone who has done what he has.” Newman’s ability to organize the page has served him well. In magazines, his pictures are invariably the focus of arresting spreads. “At first you think that his portraits are formulaic,” says John Lowengard, the picture editor at Life magazine in the 1970s and 1980s. “Yet it’s not a formula. Newman never simply runs through the motions.”
Bob Ciano, art director of Life through the 1980s, often marvels at Newman’s talent for getting the perfect picture over and over. “Unlike so many photographers today that are overtly deferential to their celebrated subjects (perhaps afraid they will walk out in the middle of the shoot), Arnold treats his sitters like equals, giving them a hard time if they don’t pay attention,” he says. Or, as Newman himself explains: “If people are difficult and play hard to get, I say ‘No problem, if you can’t make it, we’ll get a cartoonist instead.’” So, not surprisingly, from Truman Capote to David Hockney, they all collaborated.
He works like a doctor
Problems arise when art directors give Newman the wrong assignment because they take for granted that they understand his graphic recipe. But there is more to Newman’s portraits than dramatic location and lighting. Once, Lowengard remembers, he asked Newman to photograph famous immigrants who had passed through Ellis island.
“I felt pretty confident that placing people into a meaningful environment would do the trick,” he says. “But Ellis island is a dull place. There was nothing personal happening between the people and their imposed surroundings. That’s why Newman prefers to capture people where they work of live, whether it’s a dance studio or the Oval Office, a living room on Park Avenue or a shack in Pennsylvania. The picture only happens when the private relationship between people and their familiar objects is unexpectedly revealed.
"I always ask people’s permission to take their picture,” says Newman, noting that his initial agreement is a tacit contract that bind both parties on either side of the lens.
His first personal portrait ever, that of a young, poverty-striken mother breastfeeding her baby, taken in Philadelphia in 1938, makes evident the intimate nature of the relationship between this photographer and his subject. Inspired by Walker Evans, the carefully composed shot is both sympathetic and dignified. It is typical of Newman’s approach which is never confrontational nor manipulative.
“He never made a conscious effort to intrude on the territory of his sitter,” says Heisler. “Newman elicits trust – you feel that you are in good hands.” He works like a doctor. You put your faith in him because you instinctively feel that he knows what he is doing.”
Right from the start, Newman’s equipment and his lighting approach were very low-tech. To this day, he hardly uses fancy reflectors, strobes, umbrellas, motor-driven cameras, or movie lights, all stock of his trade. But back then, in the 1940s, if you didn’t use natural light, you were considered a commercial artist. “If you walked into a room at night and turned on a switch to take a picture, God would strike you dead,” he says. “You could not crop, you could not retouch, you could not spot. You had to print your negative as is, scratches an all.”
Newman broke the rules, enlarging parts of his photographs, or angling them, or splicing them, or reframing them to heighten the graphic emotion of the image. His famous close-up of Picasso, taken in 1954, is a tilted portion of a larger negative. These manipulations make Newman something of a controversial figure today in photography circles. Some people dismiss him as “a celebrities photographer.”
Levels of superbness
But Ann Sass, associate curator at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York, explains: In photography, the difference between art and commerce does not hold today. Even the greatest fashion photographers, or photojournalists, who don’t try to cross over to the art side, are considered artists in the art world. Arnold Newman’s level of superbness doesn’t have its match today,” she says. “Furthermore, he is the kind of artist who is open to new possibilities – his work evolves all the time. Environmental portraiture is not his only form. He still experiments with still lives, with color photography, and with extreme close-ups.”
Newman is frankly bored with people who have a bias against his work. He loves to tell how W. Eugene Smith set the record straight when someone asked him which lens he used. “I use the same lens as Van Gogh,” the celebrated photographer replied. And when someone else asked him if he only uses available light, he piped “I use only available light, anything that’s available, strobes, flashes, flood, candlelight.” As far as Newman is concerned, all the rules and regulations about what’s art photography “are a lot of crap.”
Owen Edwards, a former editor of American Photography and a design critic, admires Newman’s ability to perfectly blend, in a seamless picture, the portrait, the environment, and the composition. “All his life, Newman has carried the torch for a style that was at times un-chic,” he says. “In the same portrait photography genre, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn are more fashionable. Annie Leibovitz is more trendy. But what they do is in some way easier.”
Greig Heisler agrees. “Newman invented a type of photography people now take for granted. But unlike so many other ‘celebrities photographers,’ his pictures make you want to learn about the people he has portrayed.” And Elizabeth Biondi, who brought Newman’s work to The New Yorker, calls him “a precursor,” someone who, on today’s photography scene, is considered “a classicist who took portraiture to the next level.”
A character assassination
One picture tested Newman’s personal integrity: the portrait of Alfred Krupp, a Nazi criminal Newman had every reason to hate. Newman and his wife of fifty years, Augusta, are both Jewish and have always been actively involved in their support of Israel. But they are not bigots. Newman’s portraits of general Franco and Yassar Arafat are just as personable as his portraits of Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, David ben Gurion, Shimmon Perez, Yizhak Rabin, or Benjamin Netanyahu.
With Alfried Krupp, though, it was a different matter altogether. During the war, in his factory, Krupp had starved to death his Jewish “slaves,” keeping them chained night and day to the heavy machinery. So, when Frank Zachary, then picture editor of Holiday magazine, sent Newman to Germany to do a reportage on the Krupp family, Newman was ready to do what he himself describes as a “character assassination.”
The circumstances surrounding the shoot were not auspicious to start with. Zachary, who was an enlightened supporter of Newman, nonetheless insisted that he didn’t want a tough image. As progressive as Holiday looked, it was only a travel publication after all. Only Newsweek was interested in a controversial Krupp portrait for a potential cover (though in the end they too turned it down). And the Krupp publicity machine was weary of having a Jewish photographer take a shot at its boss.
But newman was ready. This was the one instance in his life when he was willing to go the distance to convince someone that he was the man for the job. To sell himself, he carefully put together a sampling of his most prestigious presidential portraits. It worked. Krupp was flattered to be in the company of presidents Truman, Eisen hower, and kennedy, as well as Chancellor Adenauer and Emperor Hailie Selassie.
“I took one look at Krupp’s factory floor when I got there, and I knew at once what I had to do,” Newman recalls. “There was this big concrete casting that would make a perfect frame for the portrait. I got someone to move it with a crane just where I wanted it. Then I had someone else build a platform for Krupp to stand on. The stage was set. I used the overhead skylight of the factory and the natural illumination of two small windows on either sides. As Krupp leaned on his crossed hands and peered at the lens at close range, I had him. He looked like the devil.”
As Newman tells it, Krupp’s people snuck into his room after the shoot to steal a couple of Polaroid outtakes (Krupp owned the hotel where Newman stayed). Upon realizing that the portrait was not flattering, they used their considerable influence to stop its publication, putting pressure on Newsweek and Holiday. “It was a mean picture: I didn’t care much for it anyway,” says Zachary, ever honest, even though he and Newman have always been, and still are, best friends. It was eventually published in Look magazine, under the stewardship of its brilliant art director Allen Hurlburt.
“Say what you want about the Krupp picture,” says Heisler, “it was not a cheap shot. It had integrity. It was done with the full collaboration of the sitter.” Pointing at a color print of the portrait that hangs in the corner of his studio, Newman declares: “That’s the one picture I want to be remembered for.” With is mask-like picture bathed in green light, his slightly crossed eyes, and his mandible-like fingers under his malevolent mouth, Krupp looked like a mere insect pinned forever on a board – harmless at last.
That one photo is perhaps the quintessence of what makes so many of Newman’s portraits compelling. It is an example of how Newman dispels his subjects hidden agenda and presents, to the contrary, their blunt honesty, their strength or weakness, for better or for worse. In most portraits, the sitters look straight into the lens without apology for who they are. And so you respond in kind to this succinct, sometimes brutal clarity – and then, with a sigh, you settle back into your seat.
1/12 - Pablo Picasso, Cannes, France, 1956
2/12 - Portraits of Picasso from "Arnold newnan", Taschen, 2000
3/12 - Alfreid Krupp, condemned WWII criminal, Essen, Germany, 1963
4/12 - Igor Sravinsly, New York, 1946
5/12 - Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood, 1962
6/12 - Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1966
7/12 - Robert Moses, Roosevelt Island, New York, 1959
8/12 - Andy Warhol, New York, 1973
9/12 - Isamu Noguchi, New York, 1947
10/12 - Francis bacon, London, England, 1975
11/12 - Piet Mondrian, New York, 1942
12/12 - Paul Strand, New York, 1966