Frames Of Reference

Famed portrait artist Arnold Newman leaves little to chance. His carefully constructed images reveal the inner life of his subjects by combining biography and art.

March 21, 2000|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN STAFF

For photographer Arnold Newman, portraiture is a form of biography that, at its best, both illuminates the present and records the passage of the present into history.

Newman's photographs, which are the subject of a major retrospective at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art that opened Saturday, constitute one of the great biographical records of the second half of the 20th century.

Newman is best known for his portraits of seminal modern artists such as painter Pablo Picasso, composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer Martha Graham and playwright Arthur Miller, whom he pictured in apparently casual settings that seemed to express both their personalities and the nature of their work.

Yet Newman, 82, is an extremely self-conscious artist who carefully constructed his images to reflect his own aesthetic ideas, an original blend of realism, modernism and abstraction.

Because Newman worked most of his life for mass-circulation magazines -- for years his images appeared in such periodicals as Life, Look, Holiday and Harper's Bazaar -- there's been a tendency to downplay his originality as an artist, in much the same way as contemporaries such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were long considered suspect because they earned their living as "commercial" photographers.

But Newman was well aware of the revolutionary currents of modernism that were transforming American art in the 1930s and '40s. The son of a New York clothing manufacturer who made and lost a couple of fortunes before and during the Depression, young Newman was passionately interested in the arts as a child and at one point planned to be a painter.

After the failure of the family business forced him to leave college in the 1930s, a friend offered him a job at a chain-owned portrait studio in a Philadelphia department store, where he learned to crank out 40 to 60 small photographic portraits a day at 49 cents each.

The experience piqued his interest in photography, and he started taking pictures of his own in his spare time. Tired of the grind of department store portraiture, he took a job as a manager in a better portrait studio in West Palm Beach, Fla. Meanwhile, he carefully studied the images of Walker Evans and the other Farm Security Administration photographers as well as the work of Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

During a visit to New York City in 1941, Newman was unexpectedly "discovered" by Beaumont New- hall, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who bought several of his prints and helped arrange the photographer's first show at the city's A.D. Gallery.

When war broke out, Newman was deferred from active duty. He returned to Florida and opened his own portrait studio in Miami Beach but continued the series of artist's portraits he had begun during his stay in New York.

After the war, he moved back to New York and almost immediately won prestigious assignments from several major magazines, launching his career as one of the country's most sought-after portrait photographers.

Newman left surprisingly little to chance in constructing his pictures, which are singularly personal documents that embody a profound creative collaboration between the artist and his sitter.

"Chance favors the prepared mind," he likes to quote the great French biologist Louis Pasteur as saying. "That is why so many `accidents' seem to happen to the better photographers."

Among photographers, Newman is recognized as the father of so-called "environmental portraiture," a style of picture-making that aims to reveal the inner life of the sitters by situating them in settings characteristic of their life and work.

Many of Newman's images have employed this approach. His pictures of Picasso in his studio, or of Miller standing backstage as a group of actors rehearse one of his plays, or of a tanned John F. Kennedy sitting on the White House lawn are all examples of how seamlessly Newman identified his sitters with their occupational settings.

Yet Newman himself has steadfastly resisted the environmental portraiture label as formulaic and confining.

"Good art cannot be defined," he has written. "There is only great art that creates new ideas and then there are imitations of varying degrees."

Indeed, many of Newman's most famous pictures defy the conventional definition of the genre. Take, for example, his 1946 portrait of Stravinsky, which shows the composer at the extreme left-hand side of the frame, with the rest of the picture area filled by the shape of a huge black grand piano and its opened lid. The picture is by now so familiar that many viewers hardly question the assumptions that underlie its combination of visual elements. The composer and the piano seem to complement one another perfectly.

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