Arnold Newman Portraits

The beginnings of "Environmental Portraits"

Anyone that has spent any time around me would realize that I’m particularly fond of portraits. From the wonderful works of Martin Schoeller to the sublime Dan Winters, I am simply fascinated by a well executed portrait. So I thought it would be fun to take a look at some selections from the “father” of environmental portraits - Arnold Newman.

Arnold Newman, Self Portrait, Baltimore MD, 1939
Arnold Newman, Self Portrait, Baltimore MD, 1939

Newman wanted to become a painter before needing to drop out of college after only two years to take a job shooting portraits in a photo studio in Philadelphia. This experience apparently taught him what he did not want to do with photography…

Luckily it may have started defining what he did want to do with his photography. Namely, his approach to capturing his subjects alongside (or within) the context of the things that made them notable in some way. This would became known as “Environmental Portraiture”. He described it best in an interview for American Photo in 2000:

I didn’t just want to make a photograph with some things in the background. The surroundings had to add to the composition and the understanding of the person. No matter who the subject was, it had to be an interesting photograph. Just to simply do a portrait of a famous person doesn’t mean a thing. 1

Though he has felt that the term might be unnecessarily restrictive (and possibly overshadows his other pursuits including abstractions and photojournalism), there’s no denying the impact of the results. Possibly his most famous portrait, of composer Igor Stravinsky, illustrates this wonderfully. The overall tones are almost monotone (flat - pun intended, and likely intentional on behalf of Newman) and are dominated by the stark duality of the white wall with the black piano.

Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman
Igor Stravinsky, New York, NY, 1946 by Arnold Newman

Newman realized that the open lid of the piano “…is like the shape of a musical flat symbol—strong, linear, and beautiful, just like Stravinsky’s work.” 1 The geometric construction of the image instantly captures the eye and the aggressive crop makes the final composition even more interesting. In this case the crop was a fundamental part of the original composition as shot, but it was not uncommon for him to find new life in images with different crops.

In a similar theme his portraits of both Salador Dalí and John F. Kennedy show a willingness to allow the crop to bring in different defining characteristics of his subjects. In the case of Dalí it allows an abstraction to hang there mimicking the pose of the artist himself. Kennedy is mostly the only organic form, striking a relaxed pose, while dwarfed by the imposing architecture and hard lines surrounding him.

Salvador Dali, New York, NY, 1951
Salvador Dali, New York, NY, 1951 by Arnold Newman
John F. Kennedy, Washington D.C., 1953
John F. Kennedy, Washington D.C., 1953 by Arnold Newman

He manages to bring the same deft handling of placing his subjects in the context of their work with other photographers as well. His portrait of Ansel Adams shows the photographer just outside his studio with the surrounding wilderness not only visible around the frame but reflected in the glass of the doors behind him (and the photographers glasses). Perhaps an indication of the nature of Adams work being to capture natural scenes through glass?

Ansel Adams, 1975 by Arnold Newman
Ansel Adams, 1975 by Arnold Newman

For anyone familiar with the pioneer of another form of photography, Newman’s portrait of (the usually camera shy) Henri Cartier-Bresson will instantly evoke a sense of the artists candid street images. In it, Bresson appears to take the place of one of his subjects caught briefly on the streets in a fleeting moment. The portrait has an almost spontaneous feeling to it, (again) mirroring the style of the work of its subject.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, New York, NY, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson, New York, NY, 1947 by Arnold Newman

Eight years after his portrait of surrealist painter Dali, Newman shot another famous (abstraction) artist, Pablo Picasso. This particular portrait is much more intimate and more classically composed, framing the subject as a headshot with little of the surrounding environment as before. I can’t help but think that the placement of the hand being similar in both images is intentional; a nod to the unconventional views both artists brought to the world.

Pablo Picasso,Vallauris, France, 1954
Pablo Picasso,Vallauris, France, 1954 by Arnold Newman

The eloquent Gregory Heisler had a wonderful discussion about Newman for Atlanta Celebrates Photography at the High Musuem in 2008:

Arnold Newman produced an amazing body of work that warrants some time and consideration for anyone interested in portraiture. These few examples simply do not do his collection of portraits justice. If you have a few moments to peruse some amazing images head over to his website and have a look (I’m particularly fond of his extremely design-oriented portrait of chinese-american architect I.M. Pei):

I.M. Pei, New York, NY, 1967
I.M. Pei, New York, NY, 1967 by Arnold Newman

Of historical interest is a look at Newman’s contact sheet for the Stravinsky image showing various compositions and approaches to his subject with the piano. (I would have easily chosen the last image in the first row as my pick.) I have seen the second image in the second row cropped as indicated, which was also a very strong choice. I adore being able to investigate contact sheets from shoots like this - it helps me to humanize these amazing photographers while simultaneously allowing me an opportunity to learn a little about their thought process and how I might incorporate it into my own photography.

Igor Stravinsky contact sheet

To close, a quote from his interview with American Photo magazine back in 2000 that will likely remain relevant to photographers for a long time:

But a lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart. 1

1 Harris, Mark. “Arnold Newman: The Stories Behind Some of the Most Famous Portraits of the 20th Century.” American Photo, March/April 2000, pp. 36-38

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Pat David
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