artists for whose portraits Newman is best known, but also a great many other mid-century public figures: authors (Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote), composers (Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein), world leaders (John F. Kennedy, David Ben-Gurion, Richard Nixon), architects (Robert Moses, Frank Lloyd Wright) choreographers (Geoffrey Holder, Agnes De Mille, Martha Graham) and scientists (James Watson, Robert Oppenheimer).
Newman’s problem with their approaches, and with portraiture in general, was a lack of context. “With only a close-up of a face or a head you are not saying a bloody thing except showing what a man or woman looked like,” Newman is quoted saying in the exhibition catalog. “Every artist,” he continued, “is a different human being, a different kind of person, a different kind of personality, a different kind of psyche, and all of this the photographer should reflect.” Newman’s solution was to photograph his subjects in their studios or in workplaces, an approach that was subsequently dubbed “environmental portraiture.” He didn’t invent the term, nor did he like it; he preferred “symbolic portrait.” Nevertheless, he vastly elevated the concept by injecting into it the compositional mannerisms that defined mid-century Modernism: grids, geometric forms, biomorphic shapes and so forth. Backed by extensive research into the lives of his subjects, Newman located those elements wherever he went and he fused them with his subjects in ways that made them appear inseparable from their work.
reacting to a bawdy joke. (The Capote photo we do see, showing the writer reclining seductively on a sofa, is suitably louche, but not half as effective as the close-up.) In other instances – as with Gore Vidal and Philip Guston – who he photographed against backdrops in the manner of Avedon, the results were successful for having isolated the subjects.
an easel perpendicular to the wall. Its interlocking three-dimensional parts appear to rest both outside the picture plane and on it. The stiff, linear portrait sums up Mondrian, exactly. Alexander Calder Newman stationed at the intersection of two walls, one white, the other black. At the center he placed a wood sculpture containing two upright wires, each of which suspends a different small object, one dark, the other light. Calder stands in the middle of the setup, the very picture of kinetic equipoise. Max Ernest, the surrealist, Newman pictured in a high-backed wood chair next to a Kachina doll, his face and blonde mane swathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke: a sorcerer. Duchamp, Newman shot pipe in hand, standing behind his installation of 16 Miles of String, a room-sized cat’s cradle that fractures the artist’s face and body into intersecting planes, suggestive of the sort of geometric abstraction that would enter painting a decade later. If there’s a single career-defining image, it’s the one Newman made of Igor Stravinsky seated at a grand piano with the lid up. The gigantic, bulbous shape of it dominates the picture and looks very much like forms that Jean Arp and Adolf Gottlieb were making at around the same time, 1946. It’s one of the greatest photographic portraits ever made. That it was commissioned and later rejected by Alexey Brodovitch, the famed Harper’s Bazaar art director, now seems ironic in view of the fact that it subsequently became Newman’s most circulated photo.
Teasing out the crosscurrents in a career as lengthy and as variegated as Newman’s couldn’t have been easy, but William A. Ewing, the curator of Masterclass, does a superb job of it. He organizes the exhibition into eight categories that reflect Newman's thinking and work modes : “Searches,” “Lumen,” “Geometries,” “Sensibilities,” “Weaving,” “Signatures,” “Choices,” and “Habitats.” Visually, the differences between them aren’t always clear-cut, since certain devices like Newman’s preference for strong geometric shapes, is something of a through-line. But certain headings, like “Habitats,” are truly instructive. It traces Newman’s preference for abstraction to his early days, when he was working at a 49-cent portrait studio by day and roaming the streets of Philadelphia in his time off, recording architectural details that – no accident – strongly resembled contemporary painting. “Weavings” a section devoted to Newman’s use of collage, shows how he conceived the intermingling of abstract elements and human faces though double exposures, sandwiched negatives and cut-up prints. With Louise Nevelson, he combined two negatives to make it appear as if her body had grown organically out of her sculpture. Warhol’s face, a composite of ripped prints, gives off the spookiness of a ransom note. While such images are outliers within Newman’s oeuvre, they serve as a pipeline to his brain, key examples being the “straight” photos of a similarly “woven” character that he took of so many artists, Isamu Noguchi’s being a particularly strong case in point. In this, Newman makes Noguchi’s face part of a sculpture: a dimly lit silhouette framed by stark black lines.
No doubt, each of these photos has a backstory. The most amazing one concerns how he managed, on assignment for Newsweek in 1963, to secure a sitting with Alfried Krupp, the German industrialist (and convicted war criminal) who supplied armaments to the Nazis. Newman’s ghoulish, green-tinted photo of him in a derelict factory ranks among the greatest character assassinations of all time. As he told an interviewer for the Getty Archives: “I deliberately put a knife in Krupp's back, visually. He was a friend of Hitler's and Hitler let him use prisoners as slave labor. If the prisoners fell, he just unchained them and they went directly into the crematoriums in Auschwitz.