Portrait photographer who mastered the location shot

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In May 1965, the American portrait photographer Arnold Newman traveled to Israel on assignment with Look magazine to cover the opening of the Israel Museum. Much to the chagrin of the new curatorial staff, he borrowed the young nation’s Declaration of Independence and shot David Ben-Gurion holding the historic document in the room where he’d signed it.

Arnold Newman’s “David Ben‐Gurion, politician and Prime Minister of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 1967” photos/courtesy cjm

On a subsequent trip to the Jewish state, Newman trotted Levi Eshkol — who oversaw the state water project credited with turning the desert green — out to the far edge of the Negev, where he’d had a platform constructed. Newman posed Israel’s third prime minister atop the platform in such a way that the bottom half of the picture appeared desert brown, while the upper half appeared a fertile green, according to J. Robert Moskin, the writer and former Look editor who accompanied Newman on those historic assignments.

Known as the “father of environmental portraiture,” Newman was committed to photographing some of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, visionaries and culture-makers in their home or work environments, determined to compose the perfect shot. In the first retrospective since his death in 2006, “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” showcases more than 200 of those shots, including some vintage black-and-white prints never before seen on public view.

Opening Thursday, Oct. 23 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the traveling exhibition, which was organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Minneapolis and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, features some of Newman’s most iconic images, including portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein.

Newman’s “Self‐portrait, Philadelphia, 1938” photos/courtesy cjm

Born in 1918 to Jewish immigrant parents in New York City, Newman began his career at chain portrait studios in Philadelphia, Baltimore and West Palm Beach. Fla. Frustrated by the limits of a studio, he soon began creating documentary images that better reflected the spirit and life of his subjects.

“Unlike many photographers who had the sitters come to their own studios, Newman went out into the world,” said William Ewing, the guest curator who organized the exhibition. “He took a risk, because he never knew what he would find in the way of lighting, props and so on. But that was challenging for him, and he loved it,” Ewing said in an email.

In a 1991 interview, Newman said, “For me the professional studio is a sterile world. I need to get out: Be with people where they’re at home. I can’t photograph ‘the soul,’ but I can show and tell you something fundamental about them.”

In 1941, Alfred Stieglitz and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, Beaumont Newhall, took note of Newman’s work and gave him his first gallery show. By 1946, Newman had moved to New York City and soon began shooting for such illustrious publications as Life, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and New York.

The exhibition is divided into 10 sections. In Habitats, we find Newman’s 1968 portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe seated outside at Ghost Ranch, the northern New Mexico refuge where she’d painted on and off since 1934. A frail, elderly O’Keeffe stares out across the desert landscape, arms folded, a ram skull perched in front of her.

In Fronts — a section inspired by Newman’s quote that “There is a big blustering front, and most people have it until you overcome it, or compensate for it” — portraits of Norman Mailer (1952) and Ayn Rand (1964) are clustered together with pictures of former Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1962) and the German industrialist Alfried Krupp (1963).

While the majority of Newman’s subjects were prominent figures and celebrities, he also photographed less recognizable faces. “Masterclass” features a number of such subjects — many never before seen — including a group of Manufacturers Hanover bankers gathered together in Hanover, Germany, for their annual report’s group portrait. “How on earth does one make bankers sitting around a table in a banal conference room an exciting picture?” Ewing said of the 1977 photograph. “And yet he does.”

“Arnold Newman: Masterclass,” Thursday, Oct. 23 through Feb. 1, 2015 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel.