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20th Century Photographers – An Interview with Arnold Newman

Below is part of an interview by Grace Schaub that can found in the just published book 20th Century Photographers: Interviews on the Craft, Purpose, and the Passion of Photography.

To view examples of Arnold Newman’s work, visit www.arnoldnewman.com.


Arnold Newman (1918–2006) was a source of inspiration to generations of photographers. His concepts of symbolic and environmental portraiture revolutionized the approach to and meaning of a photographic portrait. He is widely recognized as one of the masters of 20th century photography, and his work continues to be exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. His work is also part of the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

As a magazine photographer he became much in demand for the many publications of the day, including Vanity Fair, LIFE , Look , Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire , and the New York Times Magazine . His portraits of the many artists, poets, musicians, and composers he photographed serve as iconic images of those individuals today, as well as markers of his distinctive style and creative approach to his work.

His work has appeared in several books, including Bravo Stravinsky (1967), One Mind’s Eye: The Portraits and Other Photographs of Arnold Newman (1974), and Arnold Newman: Five Decades (1986).

Newman’s list of awards and honorary degrees is extensive, including the Newhouse Citation from Syracuse University, the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri (Columbia). His honorary degrees include Doctor of Fine Arts, University of Miami; Doctor of Humane Letters, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California; and Honorary Fellow, Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

At the time of this interview he was as busy as ever with traveling, assignments, numerous workshops and lectures in the United States and abroad, and filling the demand of print orders that came in from around the world.

GRACE SCHAUB: What makes a good portrait?

ARNOLD NEWMAN:

A good portrait must fi rst be a good photograph. There’s no dividing line between a portrait, a still life, fashion, or sports photography—the only difference is one’s own interests, passions, and ability to communicate. When the painter John Singer Sargent was asked for his definition of a portrait, he sounded rather bitter at the time and responded, “A portrait is a picture with something wrong with the mouth.” I get a giggle over that!

There are no secrets in photography, or in any art form, for that matter. There are techniques and tools—words, paint, cameras, fi lm, or what have you. These are the materials we use to express ourselves. But we don’t take pictures with our cameras—we take our pictures with our hearts and minds. The camera sees only what it actually sees. The eye sees only what it wants or thinks it sees, but the creative mind, with the creative eye, must know what it sees, how to see, and how to control what it sees. Control, control, control—even in a fraction of a second.

GS: There is a theory about photographers being “control freaks.” Do you agree?

AN: The photographer has to control what he or she sees—that’s part of the job. There are certain people who like control so tightly wrapped they’ll work only in their own studios and hardly ever venture outside—and then there are others who are out all the time. I can’t speak for any of them, but I imagine those who only shoot in their studios have or fi nd whatever they need there—it’s a matter of completely building an image. When I work, I fi nd or seek things out, and then try to control them—whether they are people in their own environments or abstract images—and then bring them together to create an image.

Because a studio is a rather sterile place for me to work in, I change it either with light, panels, torn paper, or paint—but not so much with props. There are thousands of different ways  you can take it, but I prefer to go on location.

If you want your emotions and feelings to come across in your photographs, you have to have control and make things happen. A good example is Bresson’s “decisive moments.” I went out and watched him photograph one day. He doesn’t just pick up his camera and shoot. You could just see him thinking and waiting for things to work together. He finds a perfect stage, and waits for something to happen—now, that’s control.

GS: Each artist has his or her own personal approach.

AN: And we all have a particular “eye” that we carry with us wherever we go.

GS: Your studio of ideas starts from within. What do you look for or want to bring out in the people you photograph?

AN: That’s a difficult question to answer because I do many different kinds of portraiture. I’m not looking for the superficial, such as an interesting face. I’m looking to interpret that person and use that interpretation to develop my creative ideas, which can be straight photography or collage, or something in between.

GS: Does the person motivate the creative approach you choose?

AN: Yes, but I’m the one I have to turn to for my interpretation. I must rely on my own judgment. These people are simply the subjects, even when they are world-famous.

GS: A subject—like a bowl of fruit?

AN: Like a bowl of fruit, only they are people, and if they are shown as only a bowl of fruit, or just a subject, the picture is a flop!

GS: How did you arrive at the Stravinsky portrait?

AN: People call my portrait of Stravinsky an environmental portrait; well, it’s not. I would call it a symbolic portrait. I designed the whole picture around my concept of Stravinsky: the harshness, the beauty, the quarter note—all of which reflect and express the same strength and beauty of his music.

GS: Your understanding of the people you photograph comes through in your portraits of them. Where does research end and artistic judgment and instinct take over?

AN: I’m forever looking and always working out my next picture—even when I don’t know what it is. I may come up with preconceived ideas, but they may change when the physical circumstances present themselves. It’s important to have an understanding and knowledge about the people you photograph. Very often you may not meet them until the day you photograph them. I didn’t meet Stravinsky until the day I photographed him.

But there is something else. Very often all the research done beforehand doesn’t give you a clue as to what kind of person you will be working with. You have to have an instinct about people—you just can’t photograph by knowing. You have to have instinct, understanding, and knowledge about the person you’ll be photographing. This also gives you an opportunity to open up a discussion and develop a rapport with your subject.

GS: Do you prefer to photograph famous people?

AN: It’s been my job for over fifty years to photograph some of the most famous, talented, and intelligent people all over the world. It’s exciting, I must say. But, most of the people I’ve photographed are not necessarily well known. What is fame, and how long does it last? It fades, it’s elusive, and it doesn’t travel well. I’m not so much interested in their fame as much as what might have caused it, and what they do with their lives. Many of the people weren’t famous when I photographed them, particularly the visual artists. They were just people I knew, and their fame came years later.

GS: Is it important that your subject be relaxed when you’re photographing?

AN: I prefer to photograph people at ease because I come closer to what I’ve called the “common denominator” of that personality. It’s not the height of a laugh or the depth of serious thought. If a person is weeping because a close friend or relative passed away, to catch that expression—if it’s true and honest emotion—is good photojournalism, but that’s not what I’m looking for. I am looking to explain that person on a level that everybody would understand at most given moments. It’s impossible to really do it in one picture, but you can come to a close approximation of what that person is about—hopefully.

GS: What about your own creative process?

AN: I may do variations on a person, and there will be several different images. But, each is thought of as one image—I build up to that point or do it spontaneously, or what have you. The point is, I don’t see it as a picture story. Although I’ve done that sort of thing, I’m much more interested in reaching that one image to reflect my subject at that period or moment in time.

I’m always thinking in terms of ideas. In 1941, I set out to experiment with portraiture, and I had certain concepts welling up inside me that remain with me today. But there has to be a development within me, and when it comes to the point that I know what I want to do, either specifically or generally with one of these concepts, I express it in my work. And, of course, there are new ideas and concepts. But they are nothing more than what the portrait is for me—a hook to work out my ideas.

GS: What are some of the themes and ideas you continue to explore in your work?

AN: Abstraction, collage, and cubism are always popping up in things I do and coming through in my portraits. I began working with these ideas in 1938 and ’39. This was an exciting time to be maturing as an artist—both as a painter and a photographer. The modern art movement was new, and there were so many creative influences.

Excerpted from 20th Century Photographers: Interviews on the Craft, Purpose, and the Passion of Photography. by Grace Schaub, edited by George Schaub © 2015 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved

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