Face Values

Arnold Newman's portraits, now the subject of a major retrospective, are pointed looks at some of the 20th century's most memorable figures.

Technically Arnold Newman is 82 years old, but he seems somehow ageless, like Aunt Jemima, like Smokey the Bear. With his trademark tweed cap and black glasses and little dark beard he looks just the way he does in the Canon ads—gruff and alert and amiable and . . . well, Newmanish. By being so unimpeachably Newmanish he enacts one of his own chief insights, which he made about 50 years ago. He discovered that just as you can make a hieroglyph or a logo stand for a thing or group of things, for "serpent" or "pharaoh" or "General Motors," so you can use a totally realistic image to stand for an actual person. He realized that if you went to a person who was famous enough and took a photograph of him that was graphic enough, and also genuinely representative of his character, that photo would become the logo for that person: Whenever people thought of that person, they would think of your photo.

Newman's wife, Augusta, likes to tell him that he's "living off the sweat of a kid," and the joke has a kernel of truth. When he was a kid of 28, in 1946, he took a picture of Stravinsky at his grand piano that turned the piano into a huge slanting black quarter-note dwarfing the composer's head. Harper's Bazaar didn't want the picture and gave him a kill fee of $75, but Holiday bought it and printed it, and in one way or another it has put meat on Newman's table ever since. Art directors, photography collectors, and the general public think of him as the person who can do this one arresting thing—turn a celebrity into a glyph—which he certainly can, and which says a lot about him, about his eye for uniqueness and memorable design. But the funny thing about the Stravinsky photograph is that it really doesn't tell you much about Stravinsky or, in the long run, about Newman, who has made other kinds of images that are equally if not more impressive.

The Arnold Newman exhibition opening March 18th at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., could have ended up looking like a frozen VIP lounge, with every "icon" in the American scene fixing its basilic gaze on you. But Philip Brookman, the museum's curator of photography, had other ideas in mind. The show, whose roughly 160 photographs fill four spacious halls, has its fair share of familiar faces, but it also has pictures of street people and personal friends and half-forgotten artists. Brookman, who spent more than a year with Newman sifting through a wilderness of prints, seems to be suggesting that there were two major sources for the photographer's aesthetic. One was his training as a painter, his wish to be at grips with pictorial design of the most exacting sort. The other was Walker Evans, whose sense of the American place, and especially of the American interior, gave the young Newman a sort of scaffold on which to hang his own view of this country and its people. If Brookman's show works any magic on its viewers, they should come away from the Corcoran with a renewed appreciation not only of whom Newman has seen but also how he has seen them.

Nobody can deny, however, that Newman remains (perhaps with Richard Avedon) our most famous photographer of the famous. It's a fact that he never lets you forget. Harry Truman and John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson hang prominently on his studio wall as signs of his professional attainment—and he still speaks of Truman with tears in his eyes. Yet if Newman is undeniably a photographer of celebrities, he is quintessentially not a celebrity-photographer but something else altogether; if he wants us to remember the big fish he has caught in his viewfinder, that's largely because he's haunted by memories of the Great Depression, when he was starting out. Newman's long war of attrition with those who tried to exploit him or to pay him nothing or to deny him copyright or to deprecate his gifts is a rather comical staple of his conversation. For his earliest portrait work, he received 49 cents a shot, a Baltimore studio's standing rate. During his first nine months in New York he slept on the couch in a cousin's apartment. Now handsomely remunerated for his work, he still carries restaurant coupons around in his pocket, and he is not too proud to worry aloud that although December appears fully booked, January looks empty. Above all, Arnold Newman wants to keep working.

In some of his earlier portraits, like the immortal 1953 picture of John F. Kennedy framed by the colonnade of the United States Senate Office Building, you can almost feel the photographer's joy at finding there's a market for his talent; you can almost see him getting down on his knees and thanking the good Lord that people regard him as "commercial." Because actually Arnold Newman did not have a commercial sensibility—he simply had a skill that commerce could use. Look again at that vision of Kennedy enclosed by the marmoreal solid geometry of L'Enfant's Washington. The play of light on the columns behind the superbly handsome young senator creates a barely discernible halo—an aura. Newman's camera seems to recognize that at last somebody has come along who, like a Roman tribune or a Florentine prince, can measure up to the heroism implicit in classical architecture: In this picture, physical grace becomes the expression of democratic resolve. More than a potential political advertisement, the image is an accurate, prescient insight into midcentury America's visualization of power, of how power ought ideally to look.

Very early, Newman discovered that in the midst of making a living at a trade—a trade then held in low esteem—he could combine in a single frame a conception of who his sitters were, what they did to make them famous, and how the public perceived them. It was a sort of portmanteau aesthetic often referred to as "environmental portraiture," meaning that he tended to take pictures of people in a setting that called to mind their vocation or manner of life. This is perhaps best illustrated by a comparison. Whereas somebody like Henri Cartier-Bresson, the nonagenarian genius of the grabshot, catches people wherever he finds them (and mostly when they aren't looking), Arnold Newman goes to their home or workplace and frames them with the emblems of their trade, often juggling an army of props (easels, pianos, desks, scientific instruments) in the process. He may keep such paraphernalia in transit for hours until it lands just where he wants it. Whereas Cartier-Bresson never crops his pictures and leaves them at a Paris lab to be printed, Newman hovers for hours over each new negative, making scores of prints and trying out innumerable croppings with a pair of mat-board L's. If there were a bestiary of photography, Cartier-Bresson would be found among the hawks and Newman among the weaver-birds of the trade.

That every eminent portraitist has a certain way with people is one of those true clichés about photography, and Newman fits it. Yet his attitude toward his sitters is such an elusive mix of focused willfulness and blank receptivity that his own pictures sometimes surprise him. His story about getting a notable image of Alfried Krupp, Hitler's wartime munitions maker, illustrates both the power of his technique and its built-in perils: in particular, the possibility that he may bring too much or too little psychic baggage to a sitting. In this case he seems to have brought just the right amount of sang-froid to the endeavor.

When Newman visited Krupp in 1963 the latter had already served a sentence of fiveyears in prison as a war criminal for using slave labor. "What happened," Newman told me, "was that the people at Newsweek had called and said they wanted me to do a portrait of Krupp. I said no. They said, 'Why not?' I said, 'He's the Devil.' And they said, 'Okay, do him that way.' As it turned out, Krupp owned the whole town of Essen, I mean, really had it in his pocket—my first evening at the hotel I could tell my phone was tapped. Next morning his assistants took one look at me—I guess I do look Jewish—and insisted we have a talk. 'Sorry,' they said, 'but this sitting is off.'

"I didn't know what to do, but suddenly I got the idea that I'd bang my fist on the table for effect. Then I launched into this offended harangue. 'I was in Paris yesterday, why didn't you call me there?' and so on and so forth. They were shocked—astounded. In those days in Europe a photographer was shown in through the back door—we were two steps down from the plumbers—and there I was, shouting and carrying on. I had my 'book,' my portfolio, with me and said, 'I demand that you show him my pictures and let him decide!' So they went out carrying my book, and in a little while they came back and said, 'Herr Krupp will see you now.'

"Naturally the first few pictures in that portfolio were of presidents, prime ministers—that always flatters people's vanity. 'I love these pictures!' Krupp said with a big smile, so we went ahead with the sitting."

Newman told me that after some initial reconnoitering he positioned Krupp in a loft overlooking an assembly line and then cross-lit him, bringing out something sleazy and scornful in his character. "We picked the location together, and then I demanded that they build a platform for me. I deliberately lit Krupp from both sides to get the effect I wanted, but it wasn't until I'd taken a test Polaroid—something I often do—that I really saw what that image was going to look like. I can tell you my hair stood on end! Krupp himself had no idea what was happening. Afterwards the staff of the Krupp Works, mostly ex-Nazis, invited me to dinner. I said, 'I'm too tired, have it sent up to my room.'

"Newsweek didn't use that picture. But eventually Holiday decided they wanted to run the first three chapters of William Manchester's book on Krupp [The Arms of Krupp: 1587-1968] and they bought it. The Krupp Works threatened to have all their friends pull their ads, but Holiday ran it anyway."

A short, blocky man with a sandpapery voice, Arnold Newman takes delight in absurdities, often letting out a half-smothered laugh—his slightly lopsided smile is faithfully escorted by a dimple. As a child he met a range of unusual, probably even eccentric, people: His father, a businessman who'd experienced a run of bad luck during the Great Depression, took to leasing small tourist hotels in Miami Beach and Atlantic City to make ends meet, and guests drifted constantly in and out. Newman won an art scholarship to the University of Miami, but in 1938, after just two years, he dropped out for financial reasons and took a position in a photographic portrait studio in Philadelphia. It was then, frustrated by working in a shop where, as he put it to me, "the camera was almost nailed to the floor," that he began to roam the boarded-up streets of Depression-era America, creating in his spare hours his own amateur but already rather accomplished version of the brand of picture that Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee were making for the Farm Security Administration. Newman isn't thought of as a street photographer, but for a brief moment he was one of the most promising. As in Evans' images, the storefront, the billboard, and the sagging front porch often filled his frame, but people turned up more regularly in his little scenes of dereliction. Generally they were sad, impoverished types, and before photographing them Newman would introduce himself, ask permission to record them on film, and perhaps secure their collaboration in setting up the shot. It was a procedure he would never renounce.

Such, then, was the beginning of Newman's "environmental portraiture," a catch phrase that sounds more clumsy with each passing year. It is simply too generic, too blunt, to mark a distinction between one American's pictorial style and countless others going back to the ancient Egyptians, who, after all, carved bas-reliefs of artisans plying their trades. The Flemish painters of the Renaissance made detailed portraits of merchants and craftsmen in their showrooms; the 16th-century French had their portraits d'apparat, showing great soldiers or prelates surrounded by the emblems of their dominion. In conversation you may indeed hear Newman speak of "building" a portrait or "joining forces" with the sitter, but such expressions don't really pin down what he does. Although the pert solidity of his compositional style is instantly recognizable, the word "environmental" seems somehow too vague.

A typical Newman image assembles and fuses not only physical props but also intuitions from several different orders of experience, one of them being the theatrical. Generally a successful Newman portrait makes use of physical cues revealed by the sitter only after hours or even days of coaching. "Newman," one close observer has written, "has the ability to be dignified, arrogant, domineering, encouraging, charming, funny, bungling, petulant, or even invisible to get what he wants."

This, of course, is theatrical talk, rich in the sort of modifiers that people pin on charismatic directors who admire and respect good actors. Like those directors, Newman is a connoisseur of body language—of position, gesture, and stage business—and in many cases his portraits freeze-frame his own directorial "blocking."

Six decades in the business have left Arnold Newman with a fair number of middling pictures. Though his best work seems no more "staged" than a Dutch oil portrait in the grand manner, his less-inspired efforts may give you the impression that you have—in the jaunty journalistic phrase—"stumbled onto the set of Newman Productions Ltd." Aware of such criticism, he terms these "professional rather than creative achievements"; he recalls a wildly popular Life cover of Margaret Truman as a bride that he himself didn't find very interesting. And making a living as a photographer of the famous, he has sometimes found himself in pretty dicey situations. Wary of acquiring a reputation as a camera-wielding editorialist, he nonetheless feels duty-bound to reveal whatever truth he sees (as in his "visual assassination" of Krupp). "I tried to do in Joe McCarthy too," he told me, "but it didn't quite work. He was too ingratiating, in the way some villains can be, to the point where you simply couldn't believe a lot of what he was saying." With Richard Nixon things worked out better. Newman photographed him as vice president, looking muddy and glum under an enormous, twinkling chandelier (the chandelier-as-crown being a recurrent Newman trope). "Nixon just sort of relaxed and went into his usual growl."

Since Newman has made hundreds of bread-and-butter portraits, one may legitimately wonder whether there is a vital core group among them. Many viewers will probably come away from the Corcoran feeling that the beating heart of his lifework consists in his portrayals of artists—that this, in fact, is the stuff that really puts him in a class with the masters. On trips to New York from Philadelphia between 1939 and 1941 Newman met some of the chief artistic personalities of the day: Alfred Stieglitz and Beaumont Newhall, Reginald Marsh and Chaim Gross, and most signally, Piet Mondrian. Newman told me he used to sit for hours watching the painter at work, and "often it was that last tiny correction that made all the difference." That the younger man fully absorbed this lesson can be felt in his own portraits of Mondrian: They are triumphs of super-studied design out of which the Dutchman's bespectacled eyes blaze unwearied, despite all the bother he was doubtless put through. By early 1942 Newman was living entirely in New York and literally knocking on artists' doors, asking to take their picture. Intrigued by what he was doing, many welcomed him in.

Like most eminent photographers, Newman hit his stride within months of seriously devoting himself to the medium. With regard to composition, psychological perception, tonal delicacy, and sheer goofball inspiration, he'd never improve on the artist portraits he made during the period falling roughly between l941 and 1952 (a lot of them were included in his first museum show, "Artists Look Like This," which was mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1945). Whenever he returns to this genre, which he does frequently, he threads new pearls on his string, and many of the portraits he has made of nonartists whom he admires show the same deftness and subtlety—he adored Kennedy, for example.

Among those whom Newman photographed with moving appreciation in this early period were Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Chaim Gross, Jack Levine, Mondrian, Max Ernst, Moses and Raphael Soyer, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, William Zorach, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Horace Pippin, Igor Stravinsky, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Isamu Noguchi, Hans Hofmann, and Jackson Pollock. Stunning later additions to the series include Jacob Lawrence, Langston Hughes, Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, a deeply perceptive snapshot of Marilyn Monroe, and somewhat recently, an offhand glance at Woody Allen writing on his bed. This rich art-world documentation reminds us that Newman has always been a kind of journalist, and that America came to know him primarily through his work for the picture-press.

It is here that the great paradox of Arnold Newman's work resides. Because he really wanted pictures for the public rather than for his sitters, he was obliged to arrive at a communicative formal distillation of each subject. And yet far from debasing his work, this fundamentally journalistic requirement challenged him and ultimately tempted him into creating a highly artificial and indeed artful style. What Newman saw almost at once as he began to meet people in the old Fourteenth Street art neighborhood was that he could use his skill at lighting and still-life arrangement to evoke the artist-sitter's own pictorial world. Toying with surrounds or backgrounds, he found that he was able to mimic Mondrian's orthogonal delicacy or Kuniyoshi's cool curvilinearity, offering an attentive pastiche of their work that was an instructive reading as well. "Can you see," these pictures seem to be asking, "that this is the sort of person who would make this sort of art?" Although it was not until late in 1946 that a magazine actually began commissioning his pictures (it was Life, asking for a portrait of Eugene O'Neill), even the earliest ones seem like reports to contemporary America, and, by extension, to posterity.

Until the advent of the TV evening news Life and Look—and to a lesser degree Holiday, Esquire, and Fortune—were America's windows on the world. Newman composed his photo essays in full awareness that they weren't so much illustrations as stories-in-themselves. After all, people looked at the photographs first and only then, if they were good, went on to read the text. Even today a lot of Americans have seen his work only in one of these magazines, or perhaps in a recent New Yorker, and if you happen to be one of them, if you've never seen a handmade Newman print, the Corcoran's selection will knock your socks off. One of the things Stieglitz taught Newman was to mess around with a single print all day long as if it were a wash drawing or a watercolor; and as a hands-on black-and-white printer, Newman was soon up there with the best of them—with Stieglitz himself and Walker Evans and Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Newman frankly admits he preferred the old silver-rich paper, which went by the board in the fifties. The earlier prints attain the greatest range of tender middle grays, but his dark backgrounds are equally alive, never flat or plugged up, and brimming with smoky, tremolo effects. Part of the beauty of Newman's prints comes from his restrained sense of size: He doesn't normally work with paper larger than 20 by 24 inches, and tends to enlarge his images just enough to do justice to the negative's tonal variations. Noting with a smile that he did not make numbered prints of his early negatives (wryly: "I couldn't have sold one for fifteen bucks"), he treats each reprinting of these classics as a fresh venture, feeling free to change their cropping or to alter their lights and darks.

Newman's collaboration with his sitters, his manipulation of props, his open-minded attitude to his images, which may morph through cropping and printing into something entirely unsuspected—all of this suggests that he regards photographs essentially as fictions. This applies even— or perhaps especially—to photographs of a plainly journalistic sort. They are, at their best, imaginative re-creations, because testimony itself is partly a creative act.

"I do not yet know," Arnold Newman has written, "what a portrait is or is supposed to be. . . . Representational photographs are not the unchallengeable record of reality that myth would have them be. They are most unreal."

Dan Hofstadter wrote about The Phillips Collection in Departures' November/December 1999 issue.

"Arnold Newman: Sixty Years" is on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from March 18 through May 21. The exhibition catalog, "Arnold Newman," edited by Philip Brookman (Taschen), is available for $39.99. Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006. For further information, call 202-639-1700; www.corcoran.org.