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A Unique Approach

Arnold Newman combined deep attention to the formal design of pictures with the ability to suggest aspects of a personality through setting. His commitment to showing figures in context distinguishes his work from portraits by his peers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, who both preferred to photograph their famous subjects in the neutral setting of the studio. Newman’s approach has been called “environmental,” a term he rejected. Rather, he considered himself a modernist who used all the formal elements of his medium to produce compelling pictures.

Newman considered himself a modernist who used all the formal elements of his medium to produce compelling pictures.

Most of the portraits exhibited here are public images of famous people, including artists, writers, and performers. Several others are equally public depictions of regular subjects—James VanDerZee, Mike Disfarmer, and Seydou Keïta all operated middle-class commercial portrait studios in their respective cities.

Portraiture, however, is an intimate art as much as it is a public one. Photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothy Norman, and Jay Leyda record their own friends and close acquaintances. These images variously convey their personal nature through the size of the photographs, proximity between camera and subject, and the individual poses of the sitters.

W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of Doctor Ernest Ceriani and the nurse-midwife Maude Callen, both from photo essays made for Life Magazine, depict everyday people in heroic terms. Similarly, Smith’s photograph of Tomoko Uemura, a victim of mercury poisoning from industrial pollution, presents her as an iconic image of suffering in the modern age, albeit one with a name. August Sander and Walker Evans also treat their subjects iconically, although without heroism, and as often as not without proper names. Their efforts to harness the individual and the type towards a broad societal portrait represent one of the most powerful, if under-explored, veins of photography.

 

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