‘I can’t photograph “the soul,” but I can show and tell you something fundamental’: A look at Arnold Newman’s master class

Larry Rivers, painter, South Hampton, New York, 1975. (Arnold Newman/Getty Images)

Arnold Newman, the man widely considered to be the father of environmental portraiture, was not a fan of that description. “My portraits are not at all ‘environmental.’ The word was inflicted on me.”

William A. Ewing, curator of “Arnold Newman – Masterclass,” also finds the term deprecatory. In an interview with In Sight, Ewing noted, “He [Newman] felt it devalued his symbolic and psychological aspects, which he considered just as, if not more, important.” Still, Newman’s preference for photographing people where they felt at home is looked upon as a highly influential within the 20th century photography.

Newman was born in 1918 to Jewish immigrant parents in New York.  His career started at chain portrait studios in Philadelphia, Baltimore and West Palm Beach, Fla., until 1941, when Alfred Stieglitz and the Beaumont Newhall, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, discovered Newman’s work and offered him his first gallery show.

“Masterclass,” a retrospective exhibition of Newman’s work, showcases 200 of his photographs. His portraits spanned from pillars of the art world to leaders of industry, appearing in publications such as LIFE, Look, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and many others.

The exhibition divides Newman’s career into ten categories; Searches, Choices, Habitats, Lumen, Signatures, Weaving, Fronts, Geometries, Sensibilities and Rhythms. Some are straightforward, such as Geometries where there is clear use of line and shape. Weaving on the other hand, refers to the artist in the photograph becoming an extension of their artwork.

Ewing described these categories as a challenge to the audience;  ‘I prefer to think of the sections as ‘hypotheses’: “Here is how I, the curator, think about Newman’s pictures.” It’s a kind of challenge to the viewer, and I sincerely would like someone to come up to me and say, “Why didn’t you think about a section called ________? And I may reply “Damn it, that’s good, wished I had!”’

The Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida is showing “Masterclass,” which was organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Minneapolis and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, from April 21 through July 3, 2016. In the fall, the exhibit will be shown at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.