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Arnold Newman, 88; Photographer Added Milieu to Portraiture

June 07, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Newman, the master photographer who expanded the boundaries of conventional portraiture by adding an environmental framework, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 88.

Newman died of a heart attack at Mount Sinai Medical Center, where he was recovering from a recent stroke.

In a career that began in the 1930s, Newman photographed most of the great celebrities of the 20th century. Working as a freelance photographer -- most notably for the magazines Life, Holiday and Harper's Bazaar -- he made memorable photographs of Pablo Picasso, Harry Truman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mantle and Carl Sandburg.

But his enduring gift to portraiture was his notion that a subject's environment could illuminate character and enhance the finished photograph.

"It began as an idea," Newman once commented in ARTnews. "I wanted to do something different -- I wanted to go into somebody's office or studio and photograph them in their milieu, to see the whole thing either realistically or symbolically reflecting their character and what they did in life."

One of his best-known works, a photograph of the composer Igor Stravinsky sitting at a piano, is a prime example of his idea coming to fruition.

Much of the photograph is the geometric form of the piano's kidney-shaped sounding board. The image of the great composer in the left-hand corner of the photograph feels quite small in comparison. It is as if the musical instrument is overpowering him.

Newman didn't start out to be a photographer.

He was born in New York City on March 3, 1918.

Newman had an early interest in art, studying drawing and painting from the age of 12, and years later enrolled at the University of Miami as an art student. His early paintings and drawings were influenced by the work of the 20th century realist painters of the Ashcan School.

Forced by the harsh economics of the Depression to leave school, Newman found a job as an assistant at a photography studio in Philadelphia. Before long, he began to spend more of his free time with a camera rather than an easel. He would later say that he simply fell in love with photography.

He returned to Miami for a better photo gallery job and continued his personal development as a photographer.

In 1941, he set off for New York, and showed his work to the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz and to Beaumont Newhall, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Stieglitz was supportive of Newman's portfolio, and Newhall helped the young photographer get his first gallery show in Manhattan.

By 1946, Newman had given up his studio in Miami for the life of a freelance photographer in New York City.

His career began to take off after the New York Times printed some of his work. Then Life magazine hired him at the highest day-rate at the time. Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, Newman became one of the most sought-after photographers in New York City.

One of his first assignments for Harper's Bazaar was the famous Stravinsky image. But Alexey Brodovitch, the magazine's art director, rejected the image, a decision he later regretted.

While working for Life, Newman made one of his most memorable images: of the German industrialist and war criminal Alfred Krupp.

"I had him lean into the light to make him look like the devil," Newman recalled in an interview with the Washington Post some years ago. "When he saw the photos, he said he'd have me declared persona non grata in Germany."

In a separate interview, Newman defended his work, saying: "As a photojournalist, I think I have the same right as an editorial writer to say this is what I think and feel about someone."

Writing in ARTnews some years ago, Gerrit Henry noted that "Newman's peculiarly commercial genius is to reinforce legend by seeming to examine it. If a myth surrounds the sitter, Newman does not attempt to dispel it -- rather, he captures it."

Over the succeeding decades, Newman's stature in photography continued to grow. His body of work includes the official presidential portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson and various images of Marilyn Monroe, whom he later described as "the saddest woman I ever knew. I think she was petrified of growing old."

In the 1970s, when Britain's National Portrait Gallery wanted to enhance its collection of the nation's eminent men and women, it hired Newman, an American, for the commission.

"Arnold Newman is the best there is -- for formal portraits, prepared, composed and executed with all the thoroughness and depth of an oil painting," said Colin Ford, then the gallery's curator of photography. "He has shown the heights to which this kind of photography can rise."

Some critics saw his later work -- particularly portraits of writer Truman Capote, English artist Sir Cecil Beaton and fashion doyen Diana Vreeland -- as campy and outrageous.

In reviewing a 1999 retrospective of his work at the International Center of Photography in New York City for the New York Times, Grace Glueck said that Newman "has become a master of slick, often stagy compositions that make a person into a persona." Glueck noted that this formula sometimes "works brilliantly," as in the case of the Krupp photograph, but at other times, the work feels "too cute."

But for all the critical assessment, Newman advanced the idea of environmental portraiture that has become the standard in newspapers and magazines over the last half a century.

One observer noted that despite his composition and planning, his work was surprisingly humanistic.

"We don't take photographs with our cameras," Newman once told Vanity Fair. "We take them with our hearts and minds."

He is survived by his wife, Augusta, two sons and four grandchildren.

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