Portrait Power- Review of Arnold Newman: At Work
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Photographs from Arnold Newman: At Work by Roy Flukinger (Copyright © 2013), used by permission of the publisher and author. For more information visit www.utexaspress.edu.
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.