Meeting with Arnold Newman
Words Lars Schwander
In the 2000’s Arnold Newman got his revival. For some years he had almost been forgotten. But his major exhibition at the ICP in New York and the exhibition, which I helped to arrange at Louisiana MoMA (Denmark) and Hotel de Sully (Paris, France), gave great resonant throughout the photography world.
We travelled some together. And we met - not least - in his studio at 67’ Street, Uptown Manhattan.
We were sitting in his studio and had our Tuna fish sandwiches from a bar next to Lincoln Center, at the end of Arnold Newman’ street.
We met among other times in August 2001. We were in the street outside. Everything was idyllic. The neighbours commented that he was on the wrong side of the camera (it was me who portrayed him). The sun was shinning, and his wife came out in the street. And I thought that New York was so peaceful. It was less than a month before 9/11 and the attacks on the WTC.
I was a few years later in New York, where we would meet. Arnold Newman said he first had a routine examination at the hospital. When I rang the doorbell, he was not there and he didn’t respond my phone calls. The day after I read the news in New York Times, that Arnold Newman had died of a stroke at the hospital.
Dear reader, this is the first interview in a series on photographers, whom I have met. Next time it’ll be Cindy Sherman in New York.
A R N O L D N E W M A N
- i n t e r v i e w & e s s a y
Arnold Newman – if anyone – represents the epitome of the so-called environmental portrait, the portrait that makes the setting form a central element in the picture. In his work we meet the artist in his studio, the scientist in the laboratory and the politician in his office or in front of the government building. It’s often a portrait with ‘infinite space’ as the background. And so the wonderful – sometimes the almost miraculous – happens: the person in question is framed by his or her own universe. “People exist in space,” says Arnold Newman, and he merges two great traditions in American photography: the studio portrait and the documentary. The method he arrives at is all his own: unorthodox, sometimes even provocative. It is important not to label people, as well as pictures, he thinks, and no new ideas remain untried. Today the 84-year-old Arnold Newman is one of the world’s most respected photographers and has portrayed every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Newman’s most famous portrait is probably the picture of the composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky, taken in New York in 1946. He sits in the bottom left-hand corner and takes up very little space compared with the great, curving top of the grand piano; it is a musical composition in its own right, in a picture-space that is intersected vertically by a straight line between two different kinds of grey space. This is Newman’s idea: to place Igor Stravinsky as this ‘detail’ in the large musical space, a space that at the same time reflects his calling.
Although the picture has become a classic today, almost an icon, in its time it was a young, ‘different’ concept; so provocative that the normally so forward-looking art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch, turned down this very picture for the portrait series when the magazine was to be edited. But there can be no doubt that in it Newman accommodates the work of the traditional portrait photographer to the wishes of LIFE Magazine or Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar for a living document created ‘on location’.
Of course Newman used a studio and sometimes even had the disposal of LIFE’s own studio when he needed a lot of room, for example for a portrait of Jackson Pollock in 1949. But these are not the typical studio shots you get from a monumental, slightly heavy Yousuf Karsh, an Irving Penn, or for that matter the formally radical Richard Avedon. Even in the studio portraits Newman draws on his origins in and experience with documentary photography. And he takes up the struggle with the fault lines of the picture-space. With his wide-angle camera he gets right into the artist’s own – often very small – space, into the ‘other world’ of the subject, so that the person and the art are fused together in a totality. It is one of Newman’s great achievements that he is able to combine his own style with the art of the subject. The pictures are undeniably the photographer’s. We see pictures that are recognizably Newman’s when we meet Piet Mondrian in his right-angled universe, David Hockney up against one of his paintings or – as a temperamental opposite – Marc Chagall, who becomes one with his own painted background. Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp and Jacques Villon are so to speak right inside their works, just as Igor Stravinsky becomes part of the form of the piano. It is simple, modern and profoundly original. But Newman himself shows considerable modesty when the conversation turns to his role as the so-called ‘father of the environmental portrait’:
To me it seemed natural, like getting the hell out of the studio to do my own work. In other words I took the portrait out of the studio, and – the way I put it – into the real world. And I wanted to go on record; actually I think that environmental portraiture, which I am supposed to be the father of, was hundreds of years old. Look at all the painting done in the Netherlands, all the great Flemish painters – one painting in particular, where a man is in this room, and on the walls are all the accoutrements of his import trade: notes tacked up on the wall, a little drawing, and he’s counting out gold coins, and then in the middle there’s a big window, and out there these old sailing ships, which brought the trade in to the port where his office was. Of course it was put together by the artist, and these were the ones that brought the money to him. And this is, in a sense, an environmental portrait. I wanted to show the space, because we live in space.
When you ask Newman why, he usually answers with the negation “Why not?” There are no laws in art – everyone must have the freedom it takes to create. Pictures can be cropped or even joined together in collages. It is this liberal attitude that characterizes all his activities. And this is where Newman is refreshingly unprejudiced: he takes pictures with wide-angle cameras so that everything in the foreground becomes distorted to the point of the grotesque; hands and feet are often drawn out into ‘unreal’ long surfaces, while the faces and spaces of the middle ground and the space behind are sharply contoured. But Newman is also interested in the appearance and the space of the person – in what is in fact an extremely humanistic project.
All this despite the fact that many of the pictures arose as work commissioned by a number of different magazines, from LIFE through Holiday to Harper’s Bazaar. Newman is present in the portraits. Not least because he is curious, and has the psychological interest and the talent required to communicate what he sees. And this is why his work has become an important oeuvre where one gets close to the subjects – especially the artists – and their work. Many of them belonged to his circle of friends, including Piet Mondrian, who was hardly able to scratch a living in the New York of the 1940s.
Arnold Newman was born on 3rd March 1918 in New York, the second of three sons. Soon after, in 1920, the family moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents, Isidor and Freda Newman, worked partly in the clothing industry, party in hotel catering, in Atlantic City in the summer and Miami Beach in the winter. It was a difficult period for the family, indeed for the prosperity of the USA in general. The country was heading for the economic recession that would soon be known as the Great Depression. Nevertheless Newman succeeded in finishing high school. It was while he was still a young man in Atlantic City that Newman began to take an interest in art and began studying at the university; but in 1938 he got a job with a portrait photographer in Philadelphia.
My teacher was Damon Fink. He was German, not Jewish, he insisted on giving me private lessons; I was his teacher’s pet. Fink was a very conservative painter – he was a mural painter, portrait painter, that sort of thing – he turned to me and he said “Arnold,” (he knew I was going north to work), “It’s too late for me,” referring to the MoMA which had just opened up, “but you ought to look at their work, they have something to teach you. It’s too late for me.” So he freed me and I’d already gotten interested in modern art.
I was offered a job in photography after two years. I realized I couldn’t continue. My father was not well, and I wanted to get off his back, even though I was giving him money that I was earning – my part of the helping out. I was offered a job in photography at this cheap ‘49 Cent Pictures’. Today it would be like $5. A half of a sliding back. You took one picture; if they didn’t like it we gave them a proof on printing-out paper, so they wouldn’t keep a permanent print. If they didn’t like it, you did another one; if they didn’t like that you gave them their 49 cents and told them to go out. The point was that I was offered a job after two years of studying art at the University of Miami.
He moved in with the friend of his youth, Ben Rose, and met earlier Alexey Brodovitch students from the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts – a challenging milieu for Newman, who had begun in those years to experiment with photography. It was 1939, and he was now working in a number of cities: besides Philadelphia in Baltimore and Allentown.
During the Depression, in connection with his New Deal policy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had launched an official programme where photographers were sent out into the poorest rural districts. Their task was to document the economic and social reforms. The programme, the so-called Farmer Security Administration project (FSA), ran until 1943 and developed a whole generation of American artists who were to have a ground-breaking influence on modern photography; photography that may have been documentary – originating really in the Dane Jacob A. Riis’ development of the political potential of the medium – but where the style and special interests of the individual photographer were given scope. Names like Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and – not least – Walker Evans had a solid artistic breakthrough in the project. When the pictures were exhibited in New York in 1940, a reviewer wrote: “That sentiment will be the greatest tribute to our contemporary photography”.
Walker Evans’ close-ups of house facades, of billboards, human portraits, his whole activity, pointed forward to a new age and a new view of the picture that rejected the beautifying pictorialism of earlier times (although there were still traces of it). The soberness with which the FSA photographers – and in particular Walker Evans – took pictures remained an ideal for post-war American photography, from Robert Frank, of course, to William Eggleston and for that matter Newman. Some of his first ‘cutouts’ were in fact based on house facades:
The Farm Security Administration was my first guide. Right after I came to NY, one of my friends in Philadelphia had gone to Walker Evans’ show that had opened up at the MoMA. It was one of the first real photography books I saw, and it blew my mind.
With his return to New York success became a reality. Newman was discovered by the well known photohistorian Beaumont Newhall and through him by the photographer, editor of the magazine Camera Work and gallery-owner, Alfred Stieglitz. With his friend from Miami, Ben Rose, Newman was invited to exhibit at the prestigious A.D. Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art, which also bought its first pictures by him. The meeting with Beaumont Newhall and Alfred Stieglitz whirled Newman in earnest into the centre of events.
I came to N.Y. after three years of working in studio. After the MoMA – this was in June of ‘41 – Beaumont Newhall discovered me, and sent me over to Stieglitz, who immediately took me in. And as it happened, the very next day Ben Rose and I were offered a two-man show. It was a typography place that did it, but the best typography place in the United States, right off Times Square. In an entrance they had sort of a casual exhibit space where the best art directors and designers would have shows, on occasion photographers. I knew that my friend Ben Rose had been there a few months before and they liked his work. As soon as they saw my work, and knew that we were friends, they said, “Let’s give them a show in September”. This was how I was discovered, the day before by the MoMA, and Stieglitz – GOD! – took me in.
With Alfred Stieglitz Newman joined a circle that consisted not only of photographers, but also of other artists, including of course Stieglitz’ wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. He took a whole string of artist portraits in the years 1942-1945, and in 1946 had the one-man show Artists Look Like This at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Despite his relative youth, Newman was on his way to recognition – especially by the leading magazines, Harper’s Bazaar, Fortune and LIFE.
LIFE Magazine was a modern illustrated periodical founded in 1936 by the legendary Henry Luce with an editorial mission: “to see life; to see the world”. In order to present the public with the most attractive material, LIFE hired some of the world’s leading documentary photographers. This line was followed consistently, and meant that down through the years the magazine was able to publish pictures of lasting value. And the magazine’s policy was self-reinforcing: because it chose some of the best photographers – and mentioned them by name in the articles – being associated with the magazine was a distinction in itself. Newman was an independent photographer and stayed that way, but he willingly accepted commissions from the magazine. It was thanks to LIFE that he came to portray some of the greatest cultural personalities and presidents of the USA.
Eugene O’Neill was my first assignment for LIFE Magazine when LIFE was it. As a matter of fact, it was my first assignment, 1946. It was a turning point because when I started in LIFE, as well as other magazines, with my name on it, which was very unusual in those days, I started getting credit almost immediately. When the Eisenhower picture was on the cover of LIFE, there was a critic who was involved with the photographers on The New York Post. He used a pseudonym for his column, and criticized me for allowing a he-man like that soldier to put his hand on his hip, because that was only for sissies. He never said it was for – you know – ‘gays’, ‘cause I don’t know if the word ‘gays’ was done; you never used the word ‘homosexuals’ – things like that. When photographing Eisenhower the second time I told him about the criticism: he said, “What the fuck does he know about soldiers?”
The presidential portraits hang on the wall in Newman’s studio, one after another. All with personal dedications to the photographer. It began with the picture of the then General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1950. LIFE asked to have the presidential candidates portrayed, including Ike; then in 1953 it was John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
One of the best known pictures is the portrait of John F. Kennedy standing in front of the Senate House in Washington. The figure doesn’t take up so much space, only the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. The building fills most of the surface. Behind John F. Kennedy, backlit by a delicate sunbeam, we see the deeper perspective: the Senate and the Government building. Despite – or perhaps rather because of – the highly personal style, a Newman portrait became an obligatory element in image cultivation if one had White House aspirations – every new President since the 1950s has been captured by Newman’s lens. He makes no bones about his own leanings towards the Democrats, but attaches great importance to depicting each personality professionally as well as possible.
I’ve photographed so many heads of state, and whether you like them or not, they represent the head of state! And you have respect for them – or more respect for their position, for the president. You have in your own mind what you think about them. If I started doing lousy pictures, and putting a knife in their back, I wouldn’t last long professionally. And not only that, I actually liked personally some of the people I never agreed with. I greatly admired Truman. During his period in office, he was not liked at all by the public. He followed this great person, Roosevelt, who was bigger than life, and here is this little man from Missouri, who most people thought wasn’t capable of even being a senator. But people realized that he had a big impact and influence. He was a very honest man.
You could take any one of the photographs of any of the others and paste it up on that, as long as the body looked similar, and say this is a picture of Truman in the White House, this is a picture of Kennedy in the White House – there is a kind of a mystique. Although they’re all different in appearance, they are in the White House. Maybe this of course is an exaggeration, but it becomes sort of ... particularly the official portrait gets to be stiff. It’s like official portraits of everything else, and I got stuck with that.
In the meantime the development of documentary photography, which picked up speed with the FSA campaign, and was consolidated by the Photo League group and later by the formation of Magnum Photos with participants from both sides of the Atlantic (the New York-London-Paris axis), had culminated internationally with the exhibition Family of Man. This was organized by Alfred Stieglitz’ colleague and close friend Edward Steichen, who had established the photographic collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just after the war. On behalf of the Museum Edward Steichen arranged an overview of life on Earth as it takes form from birth to death, from western civilization to primitive peoples. The aim was to turn away from the horrors of the war and instead open the door to a new age of enlightenment with international understanding, in the spirit of the newly established United Nations. And photography already had this tradition of profoundly humanist activity, both in the USA and Europe. Newman was invited to contribute by Edward Steichen, but for various reasons his work never appeared in the exhibition. Back in 1949 Newman had married Augusta Rubenstein. The next year they had their first son, Eric Allan, and in 1952 their second, David Saul. In those years the wellbeing of the family had the highest priority. With assignments in Europe for both LIFE and Holiday, Newman had no choice, although it was to cost him his participation in Family of Man.
And you know why I’m not in it? In 1954 they started putting it together, and in 1954 I was planning what I thought would be a three months’ – turned out to be six months’ – tour of Europe with my family. I figured if I didn’t go then, my kids were about to be two and four; I’d never be able to go again while they were growing up. And I got all my clients and magazines – I always kept my independence – to give me assignments.
On the other hand it was on this trip that he really made the acquaintance of the artistic milieu in Paris, which meant new portraits of among others Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso in Vallauris. Newman drove down to the south of France with letters of recommendation from Pablo Picasso’s American gallery-owner and from Marc Chagall. The picture would again turn out to be one of Newman’s very best. The contact print of the whole negative reveals however that the photograph is cropped – substantially so – going against many documentarists’ ideal of already composing the finished subject during the exposure.
When I looked at the negative and I saw the intensity of his appearance, I said, “My God, it’s better to come in close, and let the intensity of his expression – his eyes – pierce you. I’ve photographed I don’t know how many famous people in the world. He is the only person I can say that his eyes could actually pierce, and it’s the strongest I ever saw.
The portrait of Pablo Picasso became a milestone in Newman’s work, and back in the USA he could show the new pictures of the current European cultural personalities. The assignments were still divided between pictures of artists and statesmen. Through the 1950s and 1960s he had become one of the really pace-setting American photographers. The official portraits for US presidents led to new challenges – involving both sympathies and antipathies: in 1963 the industrial magnate Alfried Krupp, who had supported the Nazis during World War II; in 1964 the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco; in 1993 the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; and in 1998 one of several Israeli presidents, Benjamin Netanyahu. The first of these was probably one of Newman’s most difficult assignments, for both practical and ethical reasons. The picture was taken in Essen, at one of Alfried Krupp’s own factories. Krupp looks like the Devil himself, as he sits there in the extremely unflattering light and looks straight ahead while the machinery rumbles in the endless hall behind him. And one cannot help but wonder why Alfried Krupp wished to be portrayed at all by someone who had such considerable antipathy towards him, in a picture that incidentally now hangs in the living-room of Newman’s home, as a constant reminder of the horrors of the war and of the fate of the Jews in the Europe of the 1940s.
I’m very happy that I took the picture. When I was asked to photograph him by Newsweek, I wouldn’t. “Why not?”, they asked. “Because I think of him as the Devil.” He used slave labour. When they got too weak to work after he underfed them, even by Hitler’s standards, he sent them away because he had an endless supply of slaves. And they weren’t all Jews, they were political opponents, they were Gypsies, they were everything. He just shipped them off directly into the crematoriums. So I said “I won’t do it,” and they said “Why not?” – “I think of him as the Devil”, and they said “Fine, that’s the way we think of him too”, and I was stuck with the job.
From Paris I called my contact, Krupp’s public relations, and vice-president in charge of public relations. They agreed to meet me when I flew in to Frankfurt. They met me at my hotel, and I was given a huge big room, a suite, but it was noisy as hell. In that hotel, at that time – and I understand this was German tradition – if the room wasn’t rented, the door was open. I saw that one of the back rooms, which was very quiet, overlooked a garden, and I wanted a room like that. They said, “Well, we’ll have to make it up”. What did they have to make up? I was there for about an hour or so, before the room was ready. And I knew that they were about to tap the telephone in that room. Because I had that experience with Franco.
The next day they picked me up and brought me into a very small room, where there were about three or four men at a round table – a very ordinary office. I mean, in the factories they didn’t have elegant offices. I don’t believe in elegant offices, except for my lawyers. They sat me down and they said, “I’m sorry Mr. Newman, the portrait is called off”. Now I knew immediately, if I didn’t do something quick I would lose it. And what was I to do? I banged my fist. And of course they’re not used to being talked to. I mean, I was only a photographer. You have to remember, it’s only recently, particularly in Europe .... a photographer, socially, was only a notch below a plumber, or a handyman. And so I slammed my fist and I said, “How dare you do this to me”, and their mouths dropped. They’re not used to being talked to, I mean these were vice presidents of one of the biggest factories in Europe. And they were big industrialists. I said, “How dare you do this to me. You could have told me this when I called you the day before I left Paris, and you didn’t tell me. You are wasting my time...”. And I went on and on and on. Finally, they just stood there in shocked silence. I said, “I demand that you show my pictures to Herr Von Bohlen Krupp, and let him decide whether it’s off.” I was very insistent. I thought, what in the hell have I got to lose, they’re not gonna shoot me. And they didn’t want another dead Jew on their hands. So they looked at me in absolute silence, and in those days I didn’t have a book printed, but I did carry around the usual portfolio with the transparent pages which you can slip photographs and things into.
Of course I had other experiences when people looked at it. It began with a president. He took this book, brought it in to Krupp, and he came back astonished: “Herr Von Bohlen would like to speak to you now”. I entered a room that was rather large and a little fancier, and he said, “Of course I would love you to photograph me, these are wonderful pictures”.
He was a rather handsome looking man; you know the Devil does not necessarily have horns! So I started looking around, and I knew these men were trying to put every obstacle in my path they could, and there were different bays, and this is a bay where there was a lo-o-ong area of manufacturing. This is heavy duty stuff – making street cars: no more cannons, no more guns, no more whatever, as I noticed as we walked through – I was looking to see which bay I wanted to use or what location.
I noticed in the bay adjacent to that, there was this huge thing, it was maybe 18, 20, 22 feet high. A huge casting, one casting, and the biggest casting they ever made. I forget how many tons. And I looked up, and it was hooked up to a rail, with wheels, and I noticed it went into this bay as well, which was the bay I wanted to photograph him in. I thought it would be great, it would frame him, and frame the bay. I said, “Well, let’s move the.... can we just roll it down in the next bay.” He said, “Oh, impossible.” I said, “Well, if it’s impossible I’ll tell Herr Von Bohlen Krupp,” and he said, “Well, we’ll try, we’ll try”. Of course they did. I had built a platform. Two meters high, two meters wide, and three meters long. That way I could oversee some of the things instead of being at the same level. In addition to that, I had him by myself, they couldn’t see what I was doing. I was up against a wall, and I was using a 4x5 camera, and I had two little 250-watt light bulbs on either side.
I didn’t want him to do a Boris Karloff kind of picture – that would have been overdoing it. Nor did I retouch anything at any time. Because then they would have been able to say it’s fake. I got these lights on the side, and he looked very nice, and I said, “Herr Von Bohlen, would you lean forward just a little bit”, and he leaned forward. I was taking Polaroids to prove out the exposure. We did a lot of that – today we can depend on our meters. In those days, you never could tell, before you were around, what the exposure was with reciprocity and all that. And the lights I didn’t correct with filters, they were fluorescent, and that’s the thing that is oogy green, and so I let all that come into it. And it was all there – all I had to do was press the button. I pulled one Polaroid, which I refused to sell. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted to buy it. I said no, that’s for my grandchildren, there’s only one of those. I took it. Then I came down, and I took some benign pictures of him, which he then was able to see, and I put those in my hard case.
That night these men wanted to take me out to dinner. I said I was too tired. “Well” they said, “just in your hotel”. They kept insisting, and at last I agreed: “Well, I’ll have a drink with you”. So I went downstairs, and they kept me there for over an hour, and I went back up to my room, and I processed the stuff when I got back to NY. Course in those days there weren’t any X-rays and things like that. But what they did was to break into my room. He owned the hotel, owned the whole town. So he just gave one of their men a pass key, and he went into my room, photographed it, and like a dutiful German, – you know, you do what you’re told and nothing more – he didn’t destroy my transparencies, he didn’t pull the slides on the 4x5. And of course I went back to Germany when I had another story later. To this day I understand he was very upset about the picture.
I was asked to photograph Diana Vreeland, who by this time is terribly famous all around the world. As I walked into her apartment, on one of the walls was a photograph of Krupp, a person who sent thousands upon thousands of people to their deaths, used slave labour, was declared a war criminal. It said, “To my Diana, to my love Diana”, or something like that – “with love, Alfred”. In other words, he may have been a murderer, and a war criminal, but he was famous and very rich, so he was accepted in that kind of crowd. I mean, people call me modest – I think I’m a realist. I don’t brown-nose anybody, kiss backsides...
In general, throughout Newman’s work, he seems to have great sympathy with the artists (unlike the politicians and business leaders, for example). Or rather, there is a better match between photograph and subject. Newman projects his own ambitions into the depiction of cultural personalities with greater freedom. This is where the pictures really exhibit innovative thinking and the style really makes its impact; like a game between portraitist and model, a game that in turn sets the agenda for the finished photograph: one sits at a table with Jean Cocteau and one has direct eye contact, while in front of him lie books, correspondence, perhaps a notebook, a telephone, an ashtray, and a pair of scissors. All lit by the glaring bulb in the lamp that hangs down from the ceiling. Farthest back, behind Jean Cocteau and his workroom, we see what is outside: a rather shabby back yard. Far from the decadent style of his art. One is almost literally tête-à-tête with Jean Cocteau. Newman comments on the picture in the same simple way as it looks:
It was there; all I had to do was to photograph it. Included the lamp, the whole thing. His apartment was in the Palais Royale, and I photographed him in other rooms with a big screen that he had painted. And I asked, “Where do you work?”. He told me it was here and the papers were there, ‘cause he had finished for that day.
The face, by the way, I had to bleach, because it’s sort of flat, because of the way the light didn’t really hit him. There was no way, and I didn’t want to move the table. The telephone was there, as well as the papers. I think I may have moved the papers from here to here, maybe ...Sometimes that might make it a little better. The spirit of the thing is there. And so I would bleach the face, print it in, and it looks like it’s being lit, or at least it gave it more shape.
The bulb on the ceiling recurs in a number of Newman’s pictures; the various localities often only have this single source of light. In a beautiful portrait, Francis Bacon has been placed at the bottom of the picture-space with strong shadows and his head half-framed in front of some kind of light well, but the central motif seems to be the ceiling bulb, and precisely this (zero) point of light forms a kind of infinite space, as a picture within the picture.
I took him in his studio – he lived in the most filthy place. At one point mixed with paint, paint tubes and paint rags, with filthy dirt, and one wall was like a slope. I didn’t believe it. And his filthy cot was in another room. He was very gentle, and at that time not drinking. I put my bag down and I started to take the 35 mm and I’d already put up the tripod, and looked up, and there’s my picture. He was looking down at me for a moment, and here he was: this bulb, and right behind him was the skylight, like these invisible glass boxes that he put his people in. I said, “My God, this is perfect, for God’s sake don’t move”. I kiddingly said, “Don’t move or I’ll kill ya”. It was so perfect, and then I asked him to raise his head up just a little bit, ‘cause I’d get more light. It was right there.
The stark ceiling light reappears sometimes, most recently in the portrait from 1993 of Paul Auster in his Brooklyn apartment. In parallel with this stylistic feature Newman has often photographed people up against white – or dark – fields. Beginning back in 1941 with the almost pictorialist-inspired portrait of John Sloan, who sits in front of the stretched canvas on the easel. The painter’s profile is sharply contoured against the light surface, while the rest of the body balances between the white and black. Later, among others, Josef Albers in 1948, Hans Hofmann in 1952, Man Ray in 1960, Georgia O’Keeffe in 1968 and Roy Lichtenstein in 1976 have been portrayed against white-painted surfaces. In this way the faces are demarcated and framed in what is usually a calm, neutral space without distracting elements.
The considerable authority Newman has built up in American photography has resulted in many monographs, from Bravo Stravinsky (1967), through One Mind’s Eye: The Portraits and Other Photographs of Newman (1974) to Faces USA (1978) etc. Artists: Portraits from Four Decades by Newman (1980) was followed by Newman. Five Decades (1986) – and that is almost two decades ago. The series of books culminated with the voluminous Newman from Taschen Verlag (2000), which sums up an eventful life that ranges over the world and yet time and time again gathers to a point again in his Midtown Manhattan studio.
And this, midway between Lincoln Center and Central Park, is where he receives guests. This is where Newman has lived and worked since the 1950s, when at first he bought a small apartment at the top. But when he started a family they moved further down into rather larger premises. The studio is on the ground floor, and a little further up the street he and Augusta Newman live themselves, spread over a couple of floors. An incredibly privileged arrangement.
Newman is amiable when he shows me round the studio. It’s like a slice of history itself. His pictures may often have been taken ‘out of the house’, but his heart seems to be here on the premises. Newman has lived and worked through the post-war period in these rooms and in a sense is the living embodiment of his own professional credo: a man in a space, a space he has made his own. The street outside makes a welcome break from the busy workaday life: greeting and being greeted. Newman makes no bones about his satisfaction with life here on his home ground.
The studio is without real daylight. A large open area where rows of lamps play the role of the (artificial) sun. And in here one recognizes the backdrops of many of Newman’s portraits. And the place doesn’t seem to have changed much. The small desk of wood, the curving staircase up to the first floor, where there is a hole in the wall so one can communicate directly between studio and office.
In former times other photographers, for example Philippe Halsman, were housed right next to Newman’s premises. And a wealth of personalities have also flowed through: the poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote the introduction to the famous exhibition Family of Man; the playwright Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, and others. Newman portrayed Marilyn in 1962 – a picture that has the stylistic character of the snapshot. He himself explains it as follows.
It’s taken in our home next door. With some friends of mine there ... because my friend wanted me to take pictures of her for the movie, but she kept putting it off, like she put off everything else. If dinner were to be at 7 o’clock, she would show up at 10 o’clock at night. She would change her clothes, change her make-up, change her hairdo, everything. I mean this was common knowledge to anybody that had anything to do with her...
But the truth is she was a very troubled woman. And actually this picture – let’s see – was taken out of the tiniest frame, the tiniest portion of a 35 mm that I pushed to 1200 in those days. That’s why it’s grainy, not for art’s sake. I took a look and I realized this was Marilyn.
But otherwise it wasn’t the parties that predominated. Newman doesn’t care for exuberant festivities, and has been more interested in cultivating his own family, Augusta and the children.
I wasn’t the type. And I found out later – which is absolutely true – that to be accepted socially, or to be a part of the group, you either had to be very, very, very, very, very, very rich, and kowtow to them, or you had to have a title, or you had to be very, very famous. And if you weren’t one or all of those three, they didn’t bother with you, you were a social outcast. And I felt awkward in this. I don’t understand people who do. Yes, I have some friends – and have had, some of them are dead – who are famous. But they were human beings, and we had mutual things in common, and that’s how you become friendly with people.
There’s sincerity in the voice; in the studio, at home at the dining table and outside in the warm summer air. The sun shines through despite the thick foliage, right down to street level. There Newman appears to me, more than anything, to be the archetypal New Yorker. Newman, who has been a pioneer of modern portrait photography. And yet he is against labelling people and their activities. And Newman doesn’t care at all for the word ‘portrait’. “Portraiture,” he has said, is “a word I soon began to dislike. It’s a label...”
Well, it’s too general a phrase. Portraiture has a – I’m trying to find the proper word – connotation which means that it is not quite kosher as a word... It isn’t quite the best of photography ... which is ridiculous, considering all through history, and not only in photography, some of the greatest artists in the world have done portraiture. And you go back to the very beginnings, in the early days, back in the 12th century, whatever... And then on and on and on when it became non-religious, like the Flemish paintings, and then you go on to Rembrandt, which of course was part of it. They took delight in making portraits.
The trouble is that photography and also some painters created portraiture simply as a means to flatter and make money. And that’s what I got so disgusted with in the two studios I was working with. It was always by the numbers: make it as pretty as possible, make ‘em as handsome, make ‘em as beautiful and make the children as cute as possible... On occasion, in the past, when frankly they would request that I retouched a little, I would do as little as possible. I had two kids to bring up. Weston did the same thing. In his studio, in the early days particularly, I think it was in Mexico, I’m not sure, where he actually flattered people because he had to. I never really ... I made nice pictures, let’s put it that way. But to me, I wanted people to believe in what they were.
Do I flatter? The minute I start of people[?], and this is my first picture in LIFE Magazine – and others, where we didn’t retouch them. And we did presidents, senators, captains of industry, and heads of industry – no retouching. And little by little people got accustomed to no retouching. You didn’t have to flatter them, and so that set another kind of trend, ‘cause I believed in realism.