The Digital Journalist
Arnold Newman: A Gift
December 2003

by Marianne Fulton

There was a boy born in Manhattan in 1918. His family moved to New Jersey where his father started a new dry goods business. While in college in 1934 at the University of Miami, he began making photographs with his friend Ben Rose. Thereupon he became famous overnight. That's the story. Students always ask some variation of "How can I be famous and sell my photographs for thousands of dollars?" Questions such as these do not go down well with Arnold Newman.

Newman remembers the 1929 stock market crash and the loss of the family dry goods business. He also recalls his father leasing small hotels in Atlantic City during the summer and Miami Beach in the winter; the family traveling with the seasons.

In 1934 he entered art school at the university, working at night 8:00 - 12:00 P.M. and taking out his camera in spare moments. It was not easy going but he was determined to be a painter. Finally as he says, "The Depression caught up with me." His father was ill and Newman quit school to work.

In 1939 he started his first photographic job working in a chain portrait studio with a spot in Philadelphia. He was paid $16 for 8 - 12 hours of work. The little studio pumped out portraits at 49 cents per photograph. It was a grueling and increasing boring job. But it was a job. In 1941 his life would change forever.

Newman was 23 years old when he traveled to New York and took the portfolio he had assembled through the lean years. He had heard of Beaumont Newhall, curator of the new photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. The famous curator/author was impressed; in fact, Newhall called in his wife the curato/author Nancy Newhall to have a look. Newhall encouraged Newman to go see one of the masters of early twentieth-century photography, Alfred Stieglitz. Newman was nervous approaching the renowned old man but the meeting went well.

The next day in New York he met Dr. Robert Lesley who owned the A- D Gallery. (Newhall describes it as a small gallery attached to a topography shop.) It was a place people knew to come and see good work. When Dr. Lesley invited Arnold Newman and Ben Rose to have a show, Newman had a hard time realizing that within two days he had met the four of the most prominent people in photography and was going to have an exhibition with his friend. All the while he was working for another chain portrait studio in Florida.

Newman now had to make a decision. He was getting started in New York City but New York was no sure thing. He knew he had to quit the studio job and he did. He opened his own portrait studio in Florida and did very well. Life became riskier but he began drawing on new friendships.

The A - D gallery experience was the same year in September and from that event he met Ansel Adams and the Museum of Modern Art purchased a print. The year 1941 was groundbreaking by any standards.

He was introduced to great painters who were fleeing Hitler's Germany. During the winter of 1942, he started making portraits of Raphael Soyer, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall and Max Ernst. This was an exciting time because, as Newman says, each artist sent him to another.

Newman's first one-person show was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, December, 1945. It was called, "Artist's Look Like This," and was mentioned in the New York Times. He refers to this event as a turning point in his life. He decided to settle in New York City and look for work which came early in the person of the photographer Eliot Eliofson, known for his new color photography. Eliofson was generous and took Newman around the offices of LIFE magazine. He was hired by photo editor Wilson Hicks in 1946. His first assignment was to photograph the playwright Eugene O'Neil.

During his first two years in New York (1946 - 1948) his primary employers were Harper's Bazaar for fashion and LIFE magazine for museums, portraits, etc. He had never liked the cold studio for portraiture. He wanted to have his sitters in their own environment, to see the familiar world in a new and different way.

He has been called the "father of the environmental portrait" but ideas don't come out of thin air. He often softly offers examples from the history of art and, in particular, the work of Vermeer to side-step the "title.

Some may look at the photographs and think that they've seen similar work. But, in reality, they have seen environmental work because Arnold Newman did it first in the twentieth-century and did it well.

The photographer Edward Steichen wrote that photography "is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult. It is difficult because, while the artist working with any other medium begins with a blank surface and gradually brings his conception into being, the photographer is the only image-maker who begins with the picture completed. His emotions, his knowledge, and the native talent are brought into focus and fixed beyond recall the moment the shutter of his camera has closed."

Newman builds his picture as one would a composition. This builds a reality that both the sitter and viewer can accept. When he meets a sitter he is prepared. He has read about them, looked at photographs of their work and composes accordingly. Newman maintains that he has no one style: he presents the humanity of a person and lets the subject present himself.

Looking at three photographs we can see how the whole frame presented works edge to edge. In MAX ERNST, 1942, the painter sits in an extremely high-back theatrical chair. Ernst's right arm crosses casually and his left elbow rests in his hand. This creates an open triangle leading to the sitter's face. Heavy cigarette smoke swirl's around almost obscuring the face. As the smoke curls around face and chair, it echoes the ornate carving of the back. Light slants from windows on the right of the photograph as seen reflected in the framed piece behind the chair. The painting of a light-toned nude woman fills and is cut-off by the right corner of the image. She is a light figure in opposition to the dark kachina doll on a stand next to the sitter. Newman has placed Ernst to the right in the image balanced by highlights to the left. Paintings drift out of the photograph. The scene has a mysterious and odd sense that is felt in many of Ernst's paintings.

Now, perhaps this is overdone, but it shows that Newman had a visual and intellectual idea about Ernst. The two men probably had an interesting conversation and Newman made Ernst comfortable in his own house. The research/friendship created the "knowledge" that Steichen spoke of - when the shutter closed, the decision was made.

There is nothing routine about Arnold Newman's photographs. He challenges himself. He will cut and rearrange a print (in those pre-digital days) and he wouldn't hesitate to do likewise -no computer- today. A Newman print is the final signed piece.

A quick look at two other contrasting ideas: YASUO KUNIYOSHI, 14th STREET STUDIO NEW YORK CITY, 1941 and PIET MONDRIAN, NEWYORK CITY, 1942.

The central part of the Kuniyoshi portrait shows relaxation, comfortable wool suit and sweater, a pipe, and the curvaceous lines of the couch, table, and the duck decoy. He is framed by horizontal floor boards and vertical lines on the left of the print. Above is a picture cut off by the photographer. His crossed leg and draped clothing point to his face.

The artist Mondrian echoes the straight lines of his own paintings. He is gaunt, standing upright in a suit and tie (his working attire). The only thing that breaks the flatness of the print is his hand draped over the easel.

Sensual lines and straight lines each say something about the person and his paintings. This is not an accident. It is the beginning of a long and rich career in the humanity of seeing.

Arnold Newman is a true master of photography. The Digital Journalist is proud to work with him in this endeavor. His photographs have gone well beyond their original use and have become a gift to each of us.

© Marianne Fulton
Contributing Editor