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Arnold Newman: The Pioneer of Environmental Portraiture

By William Fitz-Patrick - contact sheet # 5520, photo 6. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (1981-12-14)., Public Domain, Link

Placing his sitters in surroundings representative of their professions, aiming to capture the essence of an individual’s life and work, the American photographer, Arnold Abner Newman, is acclaimed as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, whose pictures of major cultural figures set a standard for artistic interpretation and stylistic integrity in the postwar age of picture magazines.

Renowned for pioneering and popularizing the environmental portraits, Newman was born on March 3, 1918, in New York, and grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersy and Miami Beach, Florida. He was given the scholarship to study art at the University of Miami from 1936 to 1938. He began his career in photography working at portrait studios in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and West Palm Beach while making abstract and documentary photographs on his own.

While socializing with students at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts, Newman was introduced to an experimental approach to portraiture encouraged by Alexey Brodovitch, the influential art director of Harper’s Bazaar who was teaching there at that time. In 1941, Beaumont Newhall and Alfred Stieglitz discovered his work and gave him an exhibition at the A.D. Gallery.

In 1945, a solo show titled “Artists Look Like This” was exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and attracted national attention. The following year, Newman moved from Miami to New York, opened his own studio, and became a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. His environmental approach to portraiture was influenced by symbolism and impressionism and defined by the imperative of captivating the viewer no matter how well known the subject was.

Although his early portraits concentrated on well-known artists, Newman gradually broadened his subject matter to include famous people of all types, including writers, composers, political leaders, scientists, and business magnates, usually posing them in their own space or in a space that was constructed to reflect their character. Among his best-known portraits is one from 1946 of Igor Stravinsky at his piano. Other well-known subjects include Max Ernst, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marilyn Monroe, Alfried Krupp, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau.

Newman was an important contributor to publications such as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Life, Look, Holiday, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Town & Country, Scientific American, New York Times Magazine and many others. In addition to numerous monographs, he contributed photographs to countless histories of photography, catalogs, articles and television programs throughout his career.

Newman was the recipient of various awards including the American Society of Media Photographers, The Lucie Award, The Royal Photographic Society Centenary Award as well as France’s “Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters”. In 2005, Photo District News named Newman as one of the 25 most influential living photographers. In 2006, he was awarded The Gold Medal for Photography by The National Arts Club. He is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and has lectured and concluded workshops throughout the country and the world.

While recovering from a stroke, Arnold Newman died at Mt. Sinai Medical Centre, New York, on June 6, 2006.


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