Newman photos capture spirit of famous people

May 03, 1992|By Chuck Myers | Chuck Myers,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Photographer Arnold Newman has spent much of his life bringing us face to face with America's most distinguished artists, writers, scientists and political leaders.

Mr. Newman, the master of what is known as "environmental portraiture," has captured intimate and often touching moments with celebrities over the decades, images that have shaped our memories.

In celebration of his career, the National Portrait Gallery has put more than 100 Newman portraits on display in a photographic Who's Who of 20th century America.

It takes a special creative sense to be a portrait artist. Every one of Mr. Newman's images is unique, not just because they are of someone famous but because they hold a special, intimate quality that tell the viewer something about that person. Mr. Newman, in Washington this week for the exhibit's opening, explained, "I tried to get the spirit of the person."

If elegance could be defined by a photograph, it would be Mr. Newman's famous portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky. This absorbing, yet austere work has the late composer sitting at a grand piano, where the instrument's propped-up lid cleverly forms the image of a musical half note. The linear work is accented by soft lighting and the simple two-toned background.

The collection includes an extraordinary cast of renowned American artists. An intense Jackson Pollack, abstract expressionist painter, stands amid the brushes and paint pots of his craft. Piet Mondrian is seen next to an easel. Architect I. M. Pei smiles out of a long rectangular opening.

Two images of Georgia O'Keeffe not only contrast the effects of time but also the changes in Mr. Newman's relationship with the artist. Mr. Newman had a difficult time arranging his first shoot with the very private and protective artist in 1944. When he visited her years later for an assignment in 1968, Mr. Newman found her friendlier.

She even invited him to stay the night at her New Mexico ranch. Mr. Newman says he told her "I think you act tough to try to keep people away, just to keep your privacy," and she started to laugh.

Mr. Newman's collection of writers includes poets, playwrights and novelists. The flamboyant Truman Capote reclines upon a sofa amid an opulent setting. Playwright Eugene O'Neill's dark and haunting portrait was taken by Mr. Newman as his first assignment for LIFE magazine in 1946.

The 1976 photo collage of the effervescent Henry Miller has the aged novelist with his right hand over his right eye.

"He was at the end of his life, he was blind in one eye by this time," Mr. Newman explained. "He held his hand up -- it was a gesture that fascinated me -- to prove, he said, 'I can't see anything any different.' I began to work with this on some of the pictures . . . showing that he was blind in one eye but not blind in his mind."

Although the exhibit is dominated by images of artists, photographs of personalities from many other fields, including politics, science and publishing, also are well represented.

Mr. Newman has taken a portrait of every U.S. president, except George Bush, since Harry Truman. An image of John F. Kennedy shows the 35th president not as this nation's chief executive, but in 1953 as the handsome young senator from Massachusetts.

Mr. Newman lives in New York today and at a vigorous 74 years of age continues to work on assignments from magazines and other commissions.

"Arnold Newman's Americans" will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery until Aug. 16.

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