Arnold Newman

In the late 1930s he began photographing artists and writers among their own paints, pianos and books, using the settings to convey more information about the subject than the traditional studio head shot. Newman’s compositions are so widely imitated that it’s hard to remember how radical they once were. Even Prince Philip of England lashed out at Newman when the photographer wanted to take his picture outside. “I’ll skip his foul language,” Newman recounts, “but he said, ‘You don’t know how to take a portrait. You’re supposed to do it in a studio.’” Newman has photographed for Life, The New Yorker, Holiday and Look magazines, published more than a dozen books and won scores of awards. He’s a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and the PDN Survey named him as one of the 25 most influential photographers of the past 25 years. In May of 2006, the National Arts Club in New York awarded him the Gold Medal for Photography and mounted a show of his work in its gallery. Newman is as proud of his family as he is of his work, calling them the “anchor” that rooted him during his years of globetrotting. He and his wife, Augustus, have been married 57 years; they have two sons and four grandchildren about whom Newman never tires of bragging. “I’m a Jewish grandmother,” he jokes.

What was your early life like?
 I was born in New York in 1918, in what was a big Jewish neighborhood, Lexington Avenue and 102nd Street. When I was about two, my parents moved to Atlantic City. My father lost all his money during the bank crash. All we had left was what was in our pockets. My parents started in the hotel business and we traveled back and forth to Miami Beach and Atlantic City according to the seasons. I wanted to be a painter. I was painting ever since I was a child. I went to the University of Miami, where there were two wonderful art teachers. My father showed them my work without telling me and I got a partial scholarship. I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the morning and 8:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. at night. I put most of the money back into the family. You were glad you had a job. I was painting when I could.

How did you get started in photography?
 At the end of the second year, I wondered whether I could manage another year of working and going to school. I was on the boardwalk at Atlantic City and bumped into a family friend. His father, Leon Perskie, was a photographer. This friend said, “Why don’t you come to Philadelphia and learn photography?” Perskie offered me a big $16 a week to make portraits at the Lit Brothers department store for forty-nine cents apiece.

Describe your early work.
 After I got to Philadelphia I borrowed a 1920s camera from an uncle of mine in New York, a 2 1/4 x 3 3/4 German Contessa-Nettle camera. When I was able to buy a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, my work changed because I was able to get more detail. I was doing mostly street photography, but rarely did I do a candid picture. Whenever I did anything up close, I always asked permission. Then I fooled around on my camera. When they had almost forgotten I was there and started to relax, I snapped the picture. A lot of work I’m still selling was done when I was 20 to 23. A lot of that work is in museums.

What gave you the idea to start making environmental portraits?
 I was getting disgusted with portraiture in the studio. You’d see 50 or 100 framed photographs. Two of them side by side of two men. One might be a little younger than the other. They each had the same pose, the same blue suit, the same lighting, the same background, white hankie, same everything. You couldn’t tell who owned the big factory in town and who worked in the assembly line. You have to say more about people.

When did your photographs first start getting attention?
 In June of ’41, just short of being three years in photography. The Museum of Modern Art had just established a photography department. I came on the day Beaumont Newhall would see photographers, by accident. I had about 12 or 15 pictures, carefully mounted on board. He put them on his lap and turned them over one at a time, very slowly. He didn’t say a word, reached over to his telephone. He said, “Nancy, come in here, I want you to see some wonderful pictures.” I almost fainted. I was all of 23. He said, “You ought to see Alfred Stieglitz,” who of course was god. He called Stieglitz. It was like a dream. I walked over to Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. He went through my work very carefully. He said, “You see that letter over there, lying on top of the table? You can add your name to that.” It was from somebody from the Royal Photographic Society. It said, “Please send us a list of names. We want to put on a show representing American photography.” When I saw what it was, I could barely write. The next day Ben Rose, my childhood friend and I, were offered a two-man show at the AD Gallery. In September 1941 Ben and I had our first big show and every single art director showed up. The show was a big success. Beaumont brought over Ansel Adams. Ansel wrote me a very long letter how much he liked my work. My father died of a heart attack four days before the opening. I went home after that and gave my boss three-months’ notice planning to move back to New York. I felt to hell with that kind of studio portraiture, I wanted to show where people lived, where they worked, give an impression about them. So, I returned to New York and began to knock on artists’ doors. I photographed Chagall, Reggie Marsh, Edward Hopper, Léger. Even in Life, they were just doing the usual standard portraits. I was photographing people in their offices, their studios. Nobody had done this sort of thing. I worked out of a family’s factory just below Union Square run by my cousin. I slept on his couch in Brooklyn and threw a blanket over the window at night to make a darkroom.

When did you start contributing to Life magazine?
 In 1945, I got a call from E.M. Benson at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was 25 and he wanted to give me a one-man show. In December of 1945, the show “Artists Look Like This” opened with about fifty prints. The New York Times magazine gave me a two-page spread. My family met me at the train station and handed me a telegram from Life congratulating me and saying if I had any more portraits, they would like to do a spread. Life gave me two and half pages. You have no idea what Life magazine meant in 1945. There was no television. It was the number one magazine to see what was going on in the world. If you made Life, you were in.

I told Life I didn’t want to go on staff but would work freelance. They offered me $75 a day. I hesitated. The head of photography, Wilson Hicks, finally said, “I’ll give you $125 a day. I can’t give you more than that. But I’ll give you your name and copyright on the page.” This is what made my reputation. C in a circle, Arnold Newman, right on the page. I owned my own pictures, which after sixty years is the best business decision I ever made. My first Life assignment was Eugene O’Neill. He was wonderful and cooperative. I also did a series of theater pieces, where I met a brand new playwright that everybody considered a genius. So I photographed him, in the wings, leaning up against a door — in the background they were rehearsing a play. It was Arthur Miller, at the time of his first big hit, “All My Sons.” After I got married, they gave me a big museum story about what museums buy over a year. My wife was very pregnant. I said, “Can’t we postpone this until the baby is born?” They said, “We’re holding 16 pages.” So I started on the West Coast, spent a week in each place, Portland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Louisiana. We would build a 30-foot wall inside the museum, hang everything from Cézanne to a local artist. I got to New York and began working at the Museum of Modern Art. I posed Alfred Barr, the head at that time, in front of a Modigliani nude. He liked to kid me, saying, “You placed me not to show pubic hair.”

Picasso greeted us in his underwear with a big hello. His son Paul would be his interpreter. He said, “Follow our car to the studio, but I have a one o’clock appointment.” I said fine. I kept shooting and shooting. One o’clock came by. I said, “Didn’t your father want us out?” The answer was, “Tell Newman to stop talking so much and keep shooting.” We kept shooting until four in the afternoon. The only reason we stopped was that I ran out of film.

You are well-known for photographing artists. What were some of your famous subjects like?
 Edward Hopper I got to know very well. He was about to give me a bunch of etchings and while he was showing them to me, his wife came in and forbid him from giving them to me. He was henpecked like hell. She wouldn’t let him have a model, even in old age. Look at the picture I made of them. She insisted on being in the picture though I was only asked to photograph him. I went out to photograph one artist living out of town. Life was doing a big story on him. I went out and spent a day kibitzing with him and photographing in color. You had to photograph in color two weeks before the black and white. He said, “Arnold, I’m broke. If you have $150, you can have this painting.” It was about four feet high.

I said, “I’m coming back in two weeks. Hold onto it, Jackson.” It was Jackson Pollock. When I got back to New York, I found they decided to shorten the story. They used just two pictures of him painting made by a staff photographer who had been out there before. I never got my Jackson Pollock. It would be worth $8 to 10 million today. One of the greatest artists that I ever photographed was Igor Stravinsky. He was one my first assignments for Harper’s Bazaar. He was visiting New York and staying in a hotel suite so I couldn’t photograph him in his own study. I hit upon the idea of the shape of the piano. It was bold, strong, linear and quite beautiful and looked like a b-flat. We found the perfect piano and the perfect simple background and it worked beautifully. Carmel Snow, the editor did not understand it and killed its use. It is still in great demand by collectors and being reproduced all over the world. On the basis of that I began a complete book on the master of music of the twentieth century.

You’ve worked all over the world. How did you begin working overseas?
 My wife, Augusta and I realized in 1954 if we didn’t go to Europe together, we wouldn’t be able to go for many, many years. We had two young sons about to be two and four and they could not travel with me when they would soon be starting school. I made arrangements with several clients to help pay for the trip. I had hoped to get enough work — three month stay, but I found the editors were so eager that after six months I practically had to fight my way home again. Among the clients were Life, Sports Illustrated, but especially Holiday magazine who gave me most of my commissions. For the first three months, I worked out of an apartment in London, arranged by Life. They also helped find a nanny to take care of the boys, because my wife frequently worked with me. Traveling from there to Scotland, Germany and all over England. When we went to Paris, the art world took us in. Picasso was living in the south of France in the early ’50s. I got an English-speaking driver to drive my car there.

We knew he would come by about five or six. We stationed ourselves. After about half an hour, his car came roaring by. He was very annoyed that tourists were camping on his doorstep. The best thing we could do was thrust the letter of introduction from his dealer in his hand. His eyes opened up. I had a little book of pictures I carried, original photographs, about 15 to 18 pictures, presidents, artists, people like that. I tried to show him the pictures. He said, “No, no, tomorrow I’ll pose.” Next morning it was totally different.

Picasso greeted us in his underwear with a big hello. His son Paul would be his interpreter. He said, “Follow our car to the studio, but I have a one o’clock appointment.” I said fine. I kept shooting and shooting. One o’clock came by. I said, “Didn’t your father want us out?” The answer was, “Tell Newman to stop talking so much and keep shooting.” We kept shooting until four in the afternoon. The only reason we stopped was that I ran out of film.

You’ve photographed every President since Truman, with the exception, so far, of President George W. Bush.
 You can understand my interest in history. I met the people who made history. I got to know history at least from peeking through the keyhole. I spent a great deal of time in Washington. Truman was the earliest President I photographed.

In ’51, I got a call from the New York Times. Would I do a series of ads? I photographed all of their top writers, columnists, reporters and editors. I did about 46 of them. One was James Haggerty, an older man who wrote about politics. One day, he said, “Mr. Newman, I would like to get a couple of pictures, one for me, one for my son. I’m willing to pay for them.” I said, “Let me send you a couple of prints, my gift.”

When Eisenhower ran for president, everybody in the world wanted a photograph of him. In a small hotel that was across the street from Columbia University, where Eisenhower was still President. They arranged that everybody would photograph him in the ballroom, eighty photographers. But I wanted him, all to myself. The son of the editor to whom I had gifted prints had become Eisenhower’s press adviser. I got on the phone to him and explained my predicament. He arranged a private session. The manager of the hotel had a little apartment downstairs. We turned the living room into an art studio. I did a three-quarter shot, not the greatest shot I ever made. It wasn’t an environmental portrait by any means. We brought a simple background for it. The emphasis was on the lighting.

The other eighty photographers spent an hour waiting. Eisenhower said, “I think I better get upstairs. There’s a lot of people waiting for me.” We started to walk out the door and we found we were locked in so that we would not be disturbed. We started yelling and banging on the door until somebody heard us. We were in there about ten minutes. Boy, was Eisenhower mad. I heard a lot of army curse words. I was asked to photograph the Senate. In three weeks I photographed three future Presidents while they were still in Congress, including Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was the Senate Majority Leader and Nixon, who as VP presided over the Senate. Another Senator I photographed was John F. Kennedy. I had fun photographing this unknown junior senator and finally I photographed him on a little veranda, with columns and a view of Washington DC in the background. It turned out to be the most popular photograph I took of him, next to the one I did of him as President on the South Lawn with the White House in the background.

The only bad picture I ever took of a President, and he was Vice President at the time, was Nixon. He was posing in the Vice President’s room behind the Senate. I was using a 4 x 5 and I put the holder in the camera, pulled the slide out and as I looked at him he was thinking of something else with a scowl on his face. I couldn’t resist. I made the photograph and it is in one of my books. The first President Bush was a down-to-earth guy; my wife and I spent the day with him. He has a tiny little office on this large spit of land in Kennebunkport. It’s the family summer home, with tennis courts, swimming pool. The current president I’m still planning to photograph.

What’s one of your best portraits of a politician?

I flew to Germany to photograph the new Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. We were all set up in the Chancellery when we were told he was sick and couldn’t come down. When nobody was in his bedroom, he got up, dressed and shaved.

He didn’t want to break an appointment. He knew where we were and sat for us when he had a raging fever. Then, the doors burst open. There were the doctor and two nurses frantically looking for the disappeared Adenauer. We got a great picture of him. It’s still one of my better photographs.

How has the practice of photography changed since you began?

In my time it went from, “Go around the back door, boy” to being an artist and having big exhibits in museums. Of course, techniques have radically changed. Some people think if they take a better camera, they get a better picture. I still say “We don’t take photographs with our cameras. We take them with our hearts, we take them with our minds.”

What are you up to now?

The last two or three years, I cut down on my traveling, but I’m still working. I just finished a job last week. I did an artist in my studio. I did a portrait on location. Two months ago, I was asked to photograph the editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky. I have 13 books already, another one in the works and two others if I live long enough. They’re turning all the work I did from age 20 to 23 into a big show here in New York and I’m making a book out of it — not counting my memoirs and another book I want to do on recent work and abstractions. I have a lot of books in me. I was always the kid starting out. Now I guess I’m the old man. At age 88 I’m trying to straighten everything up so I won’t leave a big mess behind for my family. I hope I live to 120, the number of years Moses is supposed to have lived.

Publisher’s Note: Arnold Newman passed away less than three months after this interview was done. We wanted to publish this interview as a living testament to the memory of a great man and photographer. Arnold will be remembered for his portraits, but also -n endearing personal warmth and unparalleled generosity.

Margaret Regan is an arts writer based in Tucson, AZ. She has been published internationally, in Camera Austria and Make: A Journal of Women’s Art (London).

Originally published at Focus Fine Art Photography Magazine.