Arnold Newman's perfect celebrity photographs

By Zhou Zoe Yuan

A Master shot by a Master
“Arnold Newman: Masterclass” is a posthumous retrospective of Arnold Newman's celebrity portraits, some of which have never been presented to the public. Newman was one of the most productive, creative and successful photographers of the second half of the 20th century. His black and white portraits formed a new genre known as "environmental portraiture." Newman didn't just shoot standard publicity and glamour shots of the day. Instead, he tried to capture his subjects where they worked or lived. The effect of this is that they seem more human and less posed than normal, run-of-the-mill portraits. They read more like condensed visual biographies; the product of rich, creative lives where work is the defining element.

Newman's portrait of Edward Hopper and his wife in 1960 is a great example of his method. Newman constructs his Hopper portrait around a house, typical of the ones we see in so many of Hopper's paintings. By doing so, he brings to the forefront not only our idea of Hopper's work, but also Hopper’s relationship to it. Strangely, this isn't alienating, but makes Hopper seem more real and alive. It is this notion of context that is so important to Newman's work. He isn't just looking at Hopper, but the mind of Hopper and by doing that Hopper seems to be more present than any other portrait I've ever seen of him.

Hopper is sitting, both of his arms leaning against a chair. He furrows his brow, and looks directly at the camera. He appears to have thousands of ideas in his mind and the ability to see into people's souls. You immediately think, yes, this is a man capable of capturing the loneliness of modern life. Newman’s use of light accentuates this effect. He casts light to the left of Hopper's face so that he stands out against the dark backdrop. It reminds us of Hopper’s use of light and shadow and foreground and background in his paintings. These visual hints may not be visible to viewers who have never seen Hopper's works, but the beauty of Newman’s portrait is that they feel it anyway.

A bracing portrait
Hopper's wife, Jo, is in the background. Instead of depicting her face, Newman tries his best to diminish her. He put her far away from Hopper and we cannot even tell what she looks like. From her silhouette, we can only see she is standing there with her arms wide open— Hopper and his wife are not portrayed in equal terms. Newman frames and places Hopper's head in the foreground, which takes up almost half of the picture, and puts Hopper's wife next to the house in the background. It’s a stunning detail and catches the tension in their marriage and its relationship to his work. Hopper's wife Jo was also a painter. As the only model Hopper used, she inspired many of his paintings, but he was not supportive of her work. Over the course of their long and unhappy union, she helped him to manage his career. For more than 40 years of marriage, Hopper is dominant and Jo is his loyal, unhappy follower. Newman’s use of Jo Hopper is both brilliant and disturbing and demonstrates just how far he will go to depict what is real about an artist’s work.

You can see the basic outlines of Newman’s method in the Hopper portrait, but to see how radical Newman’s celebrity portraits are you have to see him in context. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were contemporaries of Newman’s. They were almost as famous as their subjects and often photographed the same people. The other two are acknowledged masters, but Newman makes their work seem like little boys sketching stick figures in sand. Newman is aware that what he is doing is fundamentally different and has even articulated that in interviews, “The thing is, with Penn or Avedon, they control totally the situation in the studio, and I’m always taking a chance, wherever I go.”

It is Newman’s commitment to social and artistic context that elevates this decidedly commercial work to the level of art. They all photographed Pablo Picasso and you can see how different Newman’s approach to capturing the artist is. Compared to Penn and Avedon, Newman places Picasso in the corner of the photo, so that this portrait not only shows Picasso’s face, but also puts him in a direct relationship with his art. Surrounding Picasso with sculptures, Newman shoots him cupping his chin on his hand and looking into the camera. Picasso's pose is natural, relaxed but present. Newman also utilizes Picasso's tools and it gives us a sense of his endless and ferocious creativity. By giving equal importance to the environment and the person, Newman gives us a Picasso full of life. It’s as if we caught him in the act of creation itself.

By contrast, Penn erases every detail. The rigid composition and absence of emotions accentuate a sense of abstraction. He ingeniously casts shadow on the right side of Picasso’s face and places his left eye right in the middle of the photograph, which gives the photo a sophisticated composition but almost no emotional force. Moreover, he uses Picasso's hat, face and collar to divide the image into three parts. All of these tactics dehumanize Picasso into an ideal combination of lines, shapes and forms. In Penn’s vision, Picasso is less human and more of an abstract idea.

In contrast to Newman, who places Picasso in something approaching a natural environment, Avedon's attempt to incorporate Picasso's work is strained and less effective. Throwing the background out of focus does fix the viewer's attention on Picasso's face, but it also undermines the presence of Picasso's art. Although Avedon shoots Picasso looking at the camera, he seems distant and bored. Avedon is a master at natural light and so his Picasso seems real and yet Picasso could be any celebrity rather than one of the great forces of 20th century art. In Avedon’s photo, he is merely a man posed in front of a Picasso.

Newman, Penn and Avendon’s potraits of the writer Truman Capote bring up similar issues. Different from Penn's and Avedon's studio shots, Newman constructs the portrait of Capote similar to Harold Halma’s portrait of Capote in 1947, which his publisher used to promote Capote's first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. It shows the then-23-year-old Capote reclining and gazing into the camera, almost as if he were trying to seduce it. As in that famous publicity shot, Newman captures Capote in a state of relaxation. He bends his knee, dangles his arm and lounges in the sofa with droopy eyelids and a chuckle on his face. The furniture and adornment of Capote's room capture Capote's luxurious life style and a refined aesthetic sensibility. Look at him, how could he be anything less than refined and relaxed, which by the way are almost opposite qualities and yet Newman shows how present both of them are in Capote.

Both Penn and Newman's portraits of Capote are highly stylized and staged. The main difference is the absence of anything approaching an environment in Penn's photo. This absence forces us to look at Capote as he supposedly is. Even though this is a realistic photograph, we can hardly miss Penn's cautious use of line and shade. The linear gaps between Capote's fingers, the wrinkles on his face and the folds of his clothes are all in accordance with each other. Penn orients Capote's glasses in line with the edge of the white collar, visually creating a diagonal across the photograph. He occupies the upper right half of the portrait with Capote's face. At the same time, he lights up the white cuff in the bottom left to bring the viewer's attention back to the top right, balancing the portrait. All of these details make the portrait intriguing; however, the Capote here is a blank, we no nothing except what he looks like and his ability to perform in front of the camera. He might as well be an exceptionally well-trained dog.

Compared to the fairly relaxed Capote in Newman's portrait, Capote in Avedon's seems to be somber and pensive. There is a fine line between the deadpan and contemplative and Avedon definitely blurs it. He depicts Capote's gaunt face and despairing eyes by accentuating his pouches and wrinkles. By positioning Capote against a white background, Avedon makes Capote's black suit and the shadow on his face jump out at you, as if he were little more than a silhouette of himself. This effect creates a sense of mystery, but it is a strategy that also makes Capote less human. Since Avedon gives us nothing besides his gloomy face, we lose interest. This man is not of our world or any world. In contrast, Newman’s use of setting sets Capote free and we are free to meet him, if only hypothetically.

Merely looking at Newman's portraits of Hopper, Picasso and Capote might lead to a misunderstanding of his methods: that taking a good portrait is simply a matter of finding a relaxed work or home environment and shooting. In fact, Newman’s portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe is an example of how much thought he puts into the construction of an environment. He captures the moment that O'Keeffe is in deep thought while sitting next to her house in New Mexico. She gazes into the distance emotionlessly, as if she was not a part of this ever-changing world—bushes around her are swaying in the breeze and clouds in the sky are marching away.

Newman utilizes the side view of a ladder and a folded chair, creating a triangle to keep the viewers' focus on O'Keeffe while at the same time allowing us to slowly construct the environment around her. Viewers who are familiar with O'Keeffe's motifs of the bleached bone and Ghost Ranch in her paintings will notice how subtly Newman incorporates them into this portrait. He darkens the bleached bone to make it less noticeable and reduces the contrast of Ghost Ranch to create a sense of distance. In comparison, the light on O'Keeffe's face accentuates the state of her mind. In this portrait we can see Newman's ability to harmonize the subject and the environment. He makes the surroundings tell the story of O'Keeffe without being overwhelming or artificial.

In Penn's portrait, O'Keeffe is nothing more than an object. Penn divides the picture in three sections, positioning O’Keefe dead center. The naturally aloof O'Keeffe comes off less as a person and more of an abstract form. It seems that Penn cares little about O'Keeffe the artist or individual, but concentrates more on how to make a unique portrait of her, the “Penn” style. Newman also captures O'Keeffe's aloof manner, but it is all the other elements of the photo that make her come so vibrantly to life.

Avedon’s portrait of O’Keeffe is one of the very few portraits of her that shows her smiling. While Newman cautiously incorporate a large amount of information about O’Keeffe, Avedon gets rid of anything that might represent her, capturing a sense of innocence in O’Keeffe’s aged face. This portrait makes O’Keeffe look quite approachable and human, but the emptiness gives us little sense of the richness and complexity of this woman’s life.

Newman is a storyteller. He doesn’t just shoot celebrity portraits, but places them in environments that allow them to be free, not images. He respects their unique lives and their accomplishments. He shows a genuine care for who they are. He neither takes portraits for their own sake nor for anyone’s ego. Instead, his work conveys the real beauty that all portrait photography tries to accomplish— to remain true to the individual and all that they have gone through.

He shot them all
©Zhou Zoe Yuan and the CCA Arts Review

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