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Portrait Power- Review of Arnold Newman: At Work

July 9, 2013

Poets & Writers

When my latest issue of Poets & Writers arrived, I was completely taken with the cover photo of Neil Gaiman. I’ve never read a Gaiman book, and though I know he is wildly popular, I didn’t have him on my To-Be-Read List. Who knows why. But after studying this portrait, I became certain that I had erred in my neglect of him. Suddenly, I absolutely had to get a ticket to his sold-out reading. The epiphany was spawned from Jon Crispin’s incredibly powerful portrait of Gaiman that spoke to me in a big way. He captured Gaiman’s heart and soul and cast me under his spell.

Very few portrait photographers have this ability. Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn are a couple. And, then there’s Arnold Newman (1918-2006), who’s in a class by himself. Even if Newman’s name doesn’t ring a bell, no doubt his photos, which spanned almost seventy years of the twentieth century, will be familiar. They featured artists, actors, politicians, athletes, and musicians such as Pablo Picasso, Bille Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Allen Ginsberg, and John F. Kennedy.  Many graced the covers of magazines such as LIFE, Time, Look, Newsweek, and even Seventeen. Probably his most famous work is of Igor Stravinsky taken in 1945 pictured below.

Stravinsky Jpg

Igor Stravinsky, 1945

Newman is the subject of a new book, Arnold Newman: At Work by Roy Flukinger. It’s an exquisitely executed compendium of photos and ephemera that includes hundreds of Newman’s most iconic and mostly black and white pictures, and some photos never before seen in book form. The back stories gathered from the pages of Newman’s notebooks, contact prints, drawings, and correspondence are beautifully reproduced in full color and give the reader an opportunity to see the context from which the photos sprang. Imagine a glorious Joseph Cornell box of Newman’s life.

Andy Warhol jpeg

Andy Warhol, 1973

Newman was the first photographer to be described as an “environmental portraitist” though he didn’t particularly care for the term. He photographed painters in their studios, writers at their typewriters, presidents in the White House, and took portraiture to a whole new level of artistry. He was successful because he incorporated the subject’s work, intellect, and soul through lighting, environment, and cropping. In fact, he was a master cropper and could take a good photo and make it great by knowing what to include as well as what to exclude. I especially appreciated the reproductions of his contact prints showing the various shots with his cropping lines on the photos he chose.

Fascinating anecdotal letters from the people who sat for Newman flesh out this beautiful book and offer insight into the life of one the twentieth century’s greatest and most prolific photographers. President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote in a letter to Newman that, “It’s wonderful what a real artist can do with a hard subject.” General Omar Bradley said, “You did handsomely with a difficult subject.” And then others, such as Nazi war criminal Alfried Krupp, whose photo ended up with a “strange, unearthly, greenish cast,” probably wished he had declined the sitting. Although initially reluctant to shoot Krupp, Newman, ever the professional, followed through with the job. Years later Newman revealed his thoughts of Krupp saying, “This outwardly gentle man was really the devil.”

Ed Ruscha jpeg

Ed Ruscha, 1985

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin began acquiring Newman’s archive in 2006 after his death. This book is a result of processing and preserving boxes and boxes of his photos and artifacts. Flukinger is a senior research curator at the Center and has produced nearly fifty exhibitions ranging from classical photohistory to contemporary photography, and from photographers’ retrospectives to American, regional, and Texas photography.

If you live in San Diego or will be visiting there this summer, be sure to check out the San Diego Museum of Art.  An exhibit of Newman’s work is running now through September 8. Arnold Newman: Masterclass includes 200 of his black and white photos. The Museum also has a permanent collection installation, Arnold Newman: In Context, that includes recent acquisitions in photography, and works by artists portrayed by Newman.

Arnold Newman: At Work
University of Texas Press, 2013

Photographs from Arnold Newman: At Work by Roy Flukinger (Copyright © 2013), used by permission of the publisher and author. For more information visit

P.S. As it turned out, I couldn’t get a ticket to Neil Gaiman’s event and I hear that this is the last book tour he will do. What few tickets I saw for sale were being scalped. Yes, I said, “Scalped!” For an author! That’s the most wonderful left-handed compliment an author can get. In the meantime, I will add his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, to my To-Be-Read List.

  1. Another home run. Great review, Diane!

  2. kcecelia permalink

    Love this review. Good portrait photography is powerful. The Ed Ruscha photograph which includes his OOF piece is extraordinary. I too would appreciate seeing the contact prints with the crop marks, since cropping can alter a photograph is so many ways. Thank you for this.

    • Thanks, it’s amazing to see Newman’s thought processes, to study his correspondence, and to feel as though you know the man. Just loved this book.

  3. Wonderful post, Diane. Can’t make it to San Diego, but next time I’m in Austin, I’ll visit the Harry Ransom Center. Too bad about Gaiman. Love his commencement speech, Make Good Art:

  4. A great photographer makes it look easy when they produce work that makes the rest of us stop and stare. Likewise, a great writer makes it look easy when they produce a review that gets read from top to bottom. This blog post showcases both talents.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Pye!

  6. I bought a Gaiman book for my 11-year-old daughter, which is how I became aware of him, as the author of the book behind the film Coraline (which she watched and watched endlessly) and as the man who writes the kind of stories she loves – (though perhaps not what a typical 11 year old likes, I hasten to add).

    So I’ve been following his journey since then and read many of his articles and comments (and tweets), but like you I have not yet indulged his work. I spent 10 minutes perusing his latest hardback in the bookshop a week ago and almost bought it, until I remembered the growing pile of books that I must read, which have a kind of claim on me at the moment – Gaiman is the kind of writer who would jump in and push his way to the top, I just know, he almost got me there in the bookshop in a moment of weakness.

    I will read his work though, not necessarily because it is my thing, but because it might give me an added insight into this quirky, creative little kid I love. 🙂

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