Mathews interviews the master portrait photographer in New York
Newman Photo: David Mathews
Arnold Newman is now 83; he has been a professional photographer for
over 60 years, and in that time he has met and photographed some of
the most famous, infamous and powerful people of the 20th century. Indeed,
on my first visit I was treated to a slide show of some his most famous
images. As each one came up on the screen, he would recount memories
of the shoot, adding snippets of information about the person or how
the shot was achieved or what influenced the structure of the picture.
For example, his photograph of Alfried Krupp, the condemned World War
II Industrialist, was lit in a particular way that revealed Newmans
rather sinister vision of the man. Often he would refer to his friendship
with the person being photographed. Artist Piet Mondrian became his
friend and a particular influence on his work, and he is proud to own
several of Mondrians sketches.
The studio is on the ground floor of a quite ordinary building on 67th
Street that was originally built for artists. Arnolds apartment
is just a couple of doors away. Having lived and worked in the same
building for over 50 years, he recollects having purchased the property
at "rock bottom". The studio has no photographic display to
tempt clients, there is only a small label next to the bell in the lobby
that gives a clue to the existence of the studio.
The studio perhaps 10 metres square, had a very high ceiling, and windows
down one side. There was a workbench, lots of flats, background panels,
and posing boxes; relatively speaking the working studio space was quite
small. A bank of rather ancient looking, yet functional, electronic
flash brollies with modelling lights supplied light. These were fixed
in position, as a standard lighting set, and controlled by an equally
ancient control panel on the opposite wall. The darkroom which is upstairs
along with the main office and workroom, is small, and ideal for one
person. It has a wet bench down one side, and enlargers down the opposite
side. Again, the equipment is perhaps 30/40 years old, but the enlargers
are fitted with modern high quality lenses. It reminded me of the darkroom
I used when starting out as an assistant in the sixties. Although I
did notice a computer in the corner of the workroom, little concession
has been made to new technology. Everything is hand printed and finished.
The negatives, I was assured, were stored in a bank vault, not on the
premises. Arnold added, that this was primarily to protect the social
and cultural value of the work, rather than for any financial concern.
Newman says that he is interested in people, not because they are famous.
It started off with magazines asking him to photograph them, although
he also did images for himself. He says it fascinated him because of
what they did in their lives be it a painter, a scientist or
politician etc; and "what kind of standing they had in the eyes
of the public, in the sense of, do we like their work? do we accept
their work and so on?"
He believes that you have to train yourself into what makes a good composition,
even if it is a momentary thing, you must automatically recognise it.
Newman admires the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, which he says "is
so beautifully put together". He tells the story of going around
with Cartier-Bresson on a couple occasions while he was shooting. "He
would just walk around, looking around, then he would just go snap,
and he would have that picture framed perfectly".
When you started photography, did your parents give you encouragement?
They absolutely encouraged me, which was unusual for Jewish parents,
in the middle of the depression
I read somewhere the most successful
men were encouraged by their parents.
Did your parents want you to move to New York?
Well I jumped about a little bit, I was born in New York, raised in
Atlantic City, and finished High School in Miami Beach. I did an Arts
course at Miami Beach University; I wanted to be a painter. But during
the depression nobody could earn a living as a painter
I was offered
a job in Philadelphia with some friends who had just finished studying
under the great Alexey Brodovitch (later to become a celebrated Art
Director of Harpers Bazaar). Then two and a half years later I
came north, and I was advised to see Beaumont Newhall who was the only
curator and historian, at that time, that we knew of
me. Then that same day I went to the Museum of Modern Art and they sent
me over to see Steiglitz, who took me in. And the next day, Ben Rose
my childhood friend, who became a well-known photographer, and I, were
offered a two-man show at a commercial type gallery.
That suggests that you considered your work as Art.
At that time were you already photographing well-known people?
Well at that moment, June1941, I got discovered, I had that show in
a Gallery just off Times Square, everybody in town came, and I was a
big creative success, but it was a financial disaster.
What were the images?
I have a book out called "Arnold Newman" by Taschen... it
has right from my very first picture I took a mother and a child
(1938). I was offered a job in one of those studios in a department
store, and I got tired of doing the same pose. A guy could be the President
or the owner of a Company, and another man could be working on an assembly
line, and you couldnt tell the difference who was who.
I said this is not the way to take portraits, and I started experimenting
with the artists, because they were my heroes, though I did all sorts
of people. Then the war came along.
Do you still have all the negatives from the early time?
We have just mislaid two negatives, so we are going crazy trying to
locate them. But the point is, I wasnt concerned (at the time)
if it was art or not, I just wanted to take the best dam pictures that
So who were your heroes at that time?
Oh there were a number of them... when I was a painting student my heroes
were from all over the place
they range from cave drawings to
Picasso, Mondrian and so on, who I got to know
of course we had
a lot of American painters and they started to hand me prints in exchange
for my work I have the original drawings to Mondrians "Broadway
Boogie Woogie", two little 9 inch drawings in black & white
You are considered to be the father of the environmental portrait?
I did a lot of abstractions, still lives; I did a lot of advertising
when my kids were growing up
I was a photojournalist, now Im
a historian my work is in so many history books, Ive been
at it for 62 years.
How do you react to the phrase "father of the environmental
Well I get a little embarrassed, I didnt aspire to be a public
figure or anything like that. I dont look for (fame), although
I have eight honorary Doctorates including one from Bradford, England.
The Ritz named a bar after me! Its fun, but its not my aim,
I am glad people recognise my work, but I am now overwhelmed by paperwork!
Do you find you are now working more on your archive of work, instead
of on the new work?
Too much of that, but it is keeping us afloat and in comfort. I am selling
prints that I did right in the beginning, to galleries, at prices, that
one print would sell for more than I made in the first two years altogether.
Like any other artist thats how we earn our living, by selling
the reproduction of our work.
How much "control" do you have over this?
As strict as possible, Getty (Getty Images) are the people who handle
the reproduction of our work. But you have got to have pictures they
Has you wife influenced you in your work?
Until recently she worked side by side with me, she is not far behind
me, and Im 83.
Do you think the status of photography and the photographer has changed?
I think that Princess Margaret when she married Snowdon, helped change
a great deal of the snobbery. It was true here in the United States,
life became so successful around 1936, that a Life (magazine) photographer
became important. Too many photographers now, think that they are the
above hoi polloi.
When you are commissioned to photograph somebody especially of the
rich and famous, what goes through your mind?
Well, I want to know as much as I can about that person.
Do you think of a single image?
I can look around and I can see pictures no matter where I am. Its
a matter of knowledge, instinct, years of training and everything else,
although my painting prepared me for a lot of them.
When you go on a shoot do you have a plan "B"?
I have a plan based upon desperation!! I carry two or three times
the equipment that I need. If the job is in New York or Manhattan then
I might go a couple of days before to see what its all about and
I can prepare not only physically and technically, but creatively.
When you go to a location how aware are you of the light?
I try to make it (the image) so believable, that people accept it as
reality. I took lots of equipment to photograph a writer who wrote about
loneliness. I walked in, and there was a single light up there, he stood
there, and I said my god I dont need anything else. That was one
of the most successful pictures I did that year.
Do you mix with photographers?
Oh yes, I enjoy being with them like I enjoy being with painters. I
have a big collection of other peoples work a museum collection,
Ive even bought a few pieces because I loved them so much. I dont
think of them as a collection so much, as something to enjoy.
What photographs do you like?
I just love good pictures, and they can be so different. From Coburn
not only the sentimental pictures but also his abstractions. Caponigro,
the farm security administration, I could go on and on. When
my wife and I were young and in love, I got two Julia Margaret Cameron
images. What did Julia Margaret Cameron invent? Nobody seems to recognise
it! She invented something terribly important! What? She invented the
Your work is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
I had a big show there, and a book, then I had a show at the National
Portrait Gallery in Washington. I think I am the only photographer to
What is a good photograph?
Well I dont know, perhaps its something that pleases almost
But it has to have a certain technical expertise?
Well we take that for granted, then again there some people didnt
have technical expertise and still turned out powerful photographs,
like Weegee. Bernice Lambert never made her own prints neither did Cartier-Bresson,
he had a man printing for him all the time.
After 62 years in photography, whats next?
I have a show coming up in Paris and I have ideas that I want to do
in photography. I also want to start on my memoirs, which I think is
important because there are a lot of misconceptions as to how I started.
Sometimes I dont believe how well known I am.
Whats your reaction to digital work?
Its the future! Right now, some of the images superficially do
not seem sharp when you get close to them. I have a feeling that itll
eventually replace traditional methods, but film will always be better,
I was then reminded of something that Arnold Newman had said to students
a few days before "You can take a picture outside, on a
porch, or in a doorway, of a mother and a young baby, and any of those
photographs even the blurred or out of focus, would interest
nobody except maybe the parents or grand-parents. But it takes a much
better photographer to take a photograph of that same mother and baby
to interest the whole neighbourhood. And theres still a third
possibility. It takes truly a great photographer, to take a photograph
of that same mother and infant, to interest the whole world; and thats
what we call an artist. Can you interest the whole world with your photographs?
Not just your friends, not just your teachers. You are going to have
to work your backsides off, and you have to keep looking and looking.
You have to look until your eyes begin to blur, and then you may be
able to understand what makes a good photograph."
Arnold Newman clearly believes in the traditional craft and values of
photography, and that photography is an Art. He recognises that there
are a lot of "wonderful visual artists" now working with computers.
However, he thinks that it is just another technique, in principle,
no different from film in a camera. He says "What is there, what
you create, the kind of image you create, is the most important thing.
Today, too much emphasis placed on the subject matter. Now any kind
of subject matter is fine, that is entirely up to you. But, if that
is all that interests you, you havent put a picture together.
I dont care if it is two people making love, or a whole bunch
of people killing each other, or if it is a famous person. What difference
does it make if it is not a good photograph?"
Whilst many of us can tell stories about the photographs we have taken,
in the case of Arnold Newman, these stories relate to people who are,
or have been important well known world figures, particularly within
the arts, politics and science. After over 60 years as a photographer
and so much public attention in his work through exhibitions and books
(he has published 13 books), one might expect a certain level of arrogance
and self-importance. Not so, he was the consummate professional, modest
about his success, yet clearly a businessman. He was enthusiastic about
his influences, and passionate about "good photography". My
lasting impression of Arnold Newman was of someone who lives and breathes
photography, and enjoys his status as an artist. Of someone who has
embraced the world of painting and Art, and that this has fundamentally
influenced his life and his work. And, of someone who has enriched society
with his images. I also take away a quotation, learned whilst in conversation
with him "Remember, we dont take pictures with a camera,
we use our hearts and minds".
Photos of Stravinksy and Georgia o'Keeffe by Arnold Newman to order
Among his best-known portraits are those of Max Ernst, Alfred Stieglitz
and Georgia O'Keefe, Igor Stravinsky, Alfried Krupp, Pablo Picasso,
and Jean Cocteau. The 76 photographic portraits of eminent Britons that
Newman made for the National Portrait Gallery in London were published
in the book The Great British (1979). Many other portraits are
collected in the books One Mind's Eye (1974), Faces USA (1978), Artists:
Portraits from Four Decades (1980), Arnold Newman: Five Decades (1986),
and Arnold Newman's Americans (1992).
"Arnold Newman" is published by Taschen, 276pp., 240ills,
price £24.99, ISBN 3-8228-7193-1. The book contains an essay by
Philip Brookman, and most of Newmans famous images from the "Mother
and Child" (1938) to Bill Clinton President of the United States
© David Matthews
David Mathews lecturers on photography at
Falmouth College of Arts in the UK