Life & Culture

Arnold Newman: He clicked with the rich and famous

The photographer celebrities trusted.


When Life magazine wanted an Israeli leader on its front cover, American photographer, Arnold Newman was the first choice to provide the shot. His access and experience made him one of the most important portrait photographers. Indeed, his portfolio included every Israeli prime minister, every post-war US president to Bill Clinton, as well as cultural icons including Salvador Dali, Christian Dior, Woody Allen and Marilyn Monroe.

Known as the father of "environmental portraiture", Newman was the first photographer to capture his celebrated sitters where they lived or worked, using strong, graphic, black-and-white imagery to give insights into what made his subjects so successful. "He was always interested in people and what made them tick," says his son, Eric Newman.

According to Arthur Ollman, professor of photography at San Diego State University, a friend and former colleague of Newman: "You would never get as close as Arnold got. His head and shoulders shot of Picasso shows every pore in his face. You see the flesh - and the human being."

Now Masterclass: Arnold Newman, the first retrospective book since his death in 2006, juxtaposes his most famous images, such as Truman Capote lying louchely on the sofa in his New York apartment, with lesser-known works, including some landscapes. (The photographs are also on display in an exhibition in Berlin.)

Thorough research before any shoot gave Newman his edge. "He took time to study his subjects, their background, their passions, and would reflect this in his photos," says Roy L Flukinger, senior research curator at the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas at Austin, which houses the Arnold Newman archive.

According to Newman's former assistant, Elizabeth Greenberg, now dean and director of education at Maine Media Workshops and College, the photographer "would have an idea of who that person was and what he wanted to say about them. It was his own unique vision."

Some of his photographs are revelatory. "He showed Marilyn Monroe [months before she died] not as a sexy woman but troubled and unhappy, not usually seen in photos," says Eric Newman.

Yet for all his talent and success, Newman remained unassuming. "He was astonished that these things were happening to him - a poor Jewish boy from the East Coast," says Ollman.

Born in New York in 1918, Newman originally studied art but left to work in a portrait studio when the 1930s Depression bankrupted his family's hotel business. "My father never felt comfortable as always at the back of his mind he thought things might change, however successful he was," says his younger son, David Newman.

His innovative aesthetic developed early - firstly with street photographs and, by the mid 1940s, in portraits, mainly of artists, who remained his favourite subjects. "He saw artists as kindred spirits and they reciprocated," says David Newman.

Catching the sitter off guard was paramount. Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman remembers being shot by Newman for Time magazine when he exhibited an installation of live sheep at the 1978 Venice Biennale. "It took so long, I nearly fell asleep. Suddenly, he shouted 'Don't move!' [Newman's traditional cry when grabbing the shot]."

Newman's used his vast experience shrewdly. He knew how to flatter his subjects or relax them with entertaining anecdotes. Flukinger concludes by highligting his story-telling abilities: "He was the Shalom Aleichem guy with his camera, and with his words."

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