The art of photographing artists: Portraits by Arnold Newman

Mar 28, 2013
Originally published on March 28, 2013 11:31 am

By the end of his career, Arnold Newman had developed a reputation for his "environmental portraiture" — a signature way of capturing artists and intellectuals in the spaces where they worked.

Newman would have been the first to admit he didn't invent the style. And he would have shirked any sort of label, too. But still, his archive is practically unrivaled as a who's-who of midcentury culture.

Shortly after Newman's death in 2006, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired his archive. The curators there have whittled it down to about 200 images for a newly mounted exhibition, Arnold Newman: Master Class, and a corresponding book, Arnold Newman at Work.

Newman called himself a "saver" — perhaps a euphemism for "pack rat." He kept his notes, which he wrote meticulously, as well as his sketches, which he made exactingly. And although he published several photography books over the course of his life, what's interesting about this one is the emphasis on that ephemera — which illuminates both his methodology and his personality.

These "environmental portraits" are just a fraction of Newman's oeuvre, which included assignments for magazines like Life and other commercial clients. It's also interesting to note how, by no fault of his, portraits of women and people of color are remarkably few.

In one portrait of Edward Hopper, the painter's wife, Jo, does make an appearance — completely dwarfed in the background. Sometimes the absence of a thing can be the most intriguing.

What's also missing is the artist's signature. Salvador Dali and Eugene O'Neill got bylines and recognition — but for a photographer, the only signature is style. Fortunately for Newman, he had plenty of that.

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