Arnold Newman (1918-2006) was one of the great portrait photographers of the 20th century. If an image of a famous person comes to mind, it likely will be one made by him. Fifty of them lining gallery walls at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art show us why.
Unlike other masters of that genre such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, who brought subjects to their studios and isolated them against spare backdrops to capture their essence, Newman took his camera to them, photographing them in their milieus. That style led to the term environmental portraiture, though he rejected the categorization, saying "It only suggests part of what I have been doing and am doing. Overlooked is that my approach is also symbolic and impressionistic or whatever label one cares to use."
Observe his photographs and you see nothing is random; the compositions have the rigor of fine draftsmanship, no surprise since Newman had originally studied drawing and painting during his two-year college career that ended because of financial hardships in his family.
He worked for a cheap photo studio, first in Philadelphia and then in West Palm Beach. In his spare time, he began taking his own photos and realized he had more gift for that medium than painting. In 1941, he gathered his images and his courage and went to New York to get professional advice where he was encouraged by the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art; Alfred Stieglitz, an admired photographer and owner of an influential gallery; and Ansel Adams, the great landscape photographer. He had his first gallery show that same year and established a studio in the city. It was a good time for photography; Life and Look were becoming popular as photography-driven magazines, and fashion and lifestyle magazines were switching from illustration to the newer medium. Newman became a successful freelancer and for the next six decades among the most celebrated photographers in the world.
The photographs here begin in 1942 with shots of twins Moses and Raphael Soyer and Chaim Gross, all artists and close friends of Newman. The most recent are from 2002 of author Saul Bellow and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. In between are J. Robert Oppenheimer, David Ben-Gurion, Zero Mostel, Al Hirschfeld, Norman Mailer, Jonas Salk ... a panoply of famous, accomplished people.
Even with a broad range, they have a curious hermeticism to them. All the subjects are Jewish; the collection comes from the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach (where Newman grew up), assembled as part of its mission to "collect, preserve and interpret material evidence and stories that reflect Jewish life and history in our State." It's titled (even more curiously) "One World, One People." I read that at first as a we-are-the-world sort of unity statement to bring us all together; now I realize it describes a very specific world and those who populate it, all having in common the same ethnic heritage.
I have no problem with the didacticism of the show. I think, however, it comes too close to being more about the Jewish personages he chronicles than his artistic gift and limits one's appreciation of Newman's achievements. It also can give the impression that Newman assembled these documentations of Jewish accomplishment consciously and deliberately, which he did not, or that his specialty and interest was famous Jews, which it was not. Most were commissioned by publications for stories about luminaries in the arts, academics, politics and business. Newman was a proud, faithful Jew but ecumenical in his assignments, loving the opportunity to meet people of all backgrounds and put them in their best light.
Well, most of the time. One of his most famous portraits, and he claims his most important, was of German industrialist Alfried Krupp, taken for Newsweek in 1963. Newman accepted the gig while loathing his subject, a Hitler supporter who had used slave (mostly Jewish) labor during World War II. So he makes Krupp look like evil incarnate, a creepy greenish glow cast over his face as he sits in one of his factories. Krupp unsuccessfully tried to have Newman banned from Germany. Alas, that photograph is not here because Krupp was not Jewish.
That complaint made, one detail that makes this exhibition different from most and really charming is the wall label information. Instead of technical details about photography or third-person explanations of the people and circumstances of a photograph, we get Newman's words. When the collection was first assembled, the museum asked him to supply anecdotes and they are priceless: sometimes funny or poignant, always generous and insightful. He recalls of dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins, for example, a trip they shared to Israel and Robbins joining worshipers who were "singing, dancing and clapping hands ... he told me that one day he would make a ballet out of it. From this came Fiddler on the Roof in which our mutual friend Zero Mostel played Tevye."
Newman wrote that photographing Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, in the little attic in the Amsterdam house where the family hid until discovered and arrested by the Nazis, was "the most emotional experience I ever had in my life." Reading his account of that morning, we understand why. They were talking, Newman clicking away, when church bells began to ring. "Those were the bells Anne wrote about," Frank said and began to weep. Newman also wept. He never claimed objectivity, never sought it. He wanted us to know his subjects as he did, see them by his lights.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.
Arnold Newman: One World/One People
Exhibition, along with "Angelo Mantas: Epitaph/Roadside Memorials in America," at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 Klosterman Road, Tarpon Springs (on the campus of St. Petersburg College), through Nov. 8. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with extended hours to 9 p.m. Thursday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors. Children and students free. Free admission Sunday with free docent tours at 1 and 2 p.m. spcollege.edu/museum or (727) 712-5762.