The Photographer’s Eye

The Boca Raton Museum of Art celebrates the work of photographer Arnold Newman in a new exhibition “Arnold Newman: Masterclass,” on display April 21 through July 3. One of the most prolific photographers of the twentieth century, Newman crafted iconic portraits of some of recent history’s most influential cultural figures, from Marilyn Monroe to Pablo Picasso. He preferred to capture his subjects in their most comfortable and appropriate settings—whether that be in a gallery, at the White House, in a desert, or overlooking a cityscape—an approach termed “environmental portraiture.”

   Curator William Ewing was a personal friend of the late Arnold Newman and has chronicled his career closely, to include a book release of the photographer’s greatest images. caught up with Ewing to discuss the art of photography and the significance of Newman’s intimate work, which portrayed subjects in a way that spoke to their character. Below, Ewing also provides a glimpse into how this traveling show is being planned and assembled especially for the Boca Raton audience.

Self-portrait, Philadelphia, Arnold Newman, 1938 You followed Arnold Newman’s career closely. What do you find so intriguing about his work?

Ewing: When I was starting out in the ’70s, I invited him to talk at my gallery in Montreal. … I was quite enchanted because he was a funny mix of a kind of master of his craft but also quite concerned about his career, wanting more attention and more appreciation, and I liked that aspect. He was still kind of a young kid deep inside. He needed the public to appreciate what he was doing. Then I watched him go on and on and on and on and never slow up. … He always saw [photography] as a challenge. He famously said, “I go out there because I’m not sure what I’m going to find.” He knew that if he was in people’s homes or their studios, he would get some kind of intimate connection.

Could you pick a favorite of Newman’s pieces?

My favorites change all the time, but there are several pictures that continue to fascinate me. One of them is John F. Kennedy and his cabinet on the balcony of the rose garden. It looks as if Arnold has just kind of walked by and noticed, “Oh, there’s Kennedy! Oh, there’s his cabinet, all hanging around!” It’s that informal. … The whole thing is so real, you feel privileged to be there. And yet we know that it was a big deal for Arnold Newman to get invited to the White House. He must have been very nervous—he’s only going to have one shot at this. Most photographers [would] just line these guys up and it would look like a bunch of bankers, but he makes it look as if he was just walking by. That’s genius, I think.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Painter, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, Arnold Newman, 1968

Arnold Newman is well known for his “environmental portraiture.” Can you discuss this concept in greater detail?

What it meant is literally the environment in which the person was: the home or house, or the gallery for artists sometimes, or the street for some people, or even a city, like Robert Moses, the famous reformer and planner of New York. … I just don’t like the word now because you think, “Environmental? Is he for global warming?” And also, he didn’t like it. He said, “What about the symbolic aspect? What about the psychological aspect?” The word environment doesn’t really convey that. He knew how to pose people in such a way that they would reveal something. He didn’t believe in the soul somehow being revealed by a photograph, but he believed that [people were] part of their environment; they created it, in many ways.

How does your book, Masterclass: Arnold Newman, differ from the exhibition of the same name?

A book is much wider in its distribution because you can buy a book living anywhere, or you can find it on Amazon, or whatever. A book is intimate—you sit back (ideally), you put your feet up, and you browse through it at your own speed. An exhibition, though, has original prints. It’s just so much more vibrant. A silver print, a black-and-white print from that period, made by a meticulous craftsman—and that’s what he was; he didn’t always make his own prints, but he supervised them in his own darkroom—somebody like that is going to make the print to the maximum that the chemistry will allow. Silver salts on photographic paper give continuous tone, whereas printer’s ink [is merely] shades of black. You’re tricking the eye with the dot structure so it looks like shades of gray, but it’s not the same thing. A book will never have the richness of an exhibition, of original prints. For me, they’re really two pillars that lean against each other: the book and the show. Ideally, I’d like someone to come to the show and go home with the book.

How did this exhibition come to be at the Boca Raton Museum of Art?

The organization for which I did the show is called the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography. … FEP organizes major traveling exhibitions of photography. While we’re producing the show, we look for institutions that will take it. We look all over the world. We have, at any one time, probably 15 exhibitions that are traveling, and they travel in an interesting way. They’re never fully planned at the beginning. … We never quite know, but the exhibitions tend to go on and on. The last showing was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Before that, it was in Austin, Texas, at the Harry Ransom Center. And I’m sure it will go on. It’s like good wine; it gets better with age. And I think, also, that people are beginning to appreciate—there’s so much color photography now, and it’s so overwhelming—[so] a lot of people are responding favorably to black and white. It’s calming in some way and it’s a little more distant from the subject, but somehow that also enables you to appreciate it more.

Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor, New York, Arnold Newman, 1946

What will be the process of getting it there, setting it up, and staging it in the Boca Raton Museum of Art?

That will be fun. We don’t send exact plans and insist that each museum takes them. Each museum has its own space, its own atmosphere. It’s a mistake to try to impose an idealized form of the show on any museum. … The exhibition, I can say with almost complete certainty, will look in Boca Raton the way it’s never looked anywhere else. Anyone who has seen our shows in two locations says, “That’s amazing! Is that the same show?” because we always tailor it for the actual museum.

What do you hope museum patrons take away from this exhibition?

Photography is always about something. That’s another wonderful thing [about photography]; you can’t really say that about painting. Painting is about painting, mostly. In the past, it used to be about the world. When photography came along, painting retreated inwardly. Now you go to a painting show and it’s totally abstract or totally geometric or totally decorative—but photography is still about the world.

People coming—perhaps just because they want to come and see some great photography—suddenly discover an artist they’ve never heard of. … It sort of passes the torch. On the one hand, I want them to admire the art and craft of Arnold Newman, photographer and artist; on the other hand, I want them to be able to discover part of the world they didn’t know existed. I think that no matter how much you know, there will be surprises in this exhibition.

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