Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Arnold Newman at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Jonas Salk, creator of the first polio vaccine, stands upright and stares with a steady gaze at the viewer. His figure takes up a small proportion of the right half of a composition that is dominated by the massive and enveloping concrete forms of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. A series of square architectural voids recede into deep space on the left. The formal qualities of the picture, with its stark geometries, harsh lighting, and evocative use of space, would make for an intriguing image no matter who the subject was.

It is an example of what makes Arnold Newman an exceptional portraitist. The photograph of Salk is part of an exhibit called "One World, One People" on view at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Credited with originating what has come to be known as environmental portraiture, Newman specialized in the placement of his subjects within settings that were both meaningful and carefully controlled.

"I didn't just want to make a photograph with some things in the background," Newman once said. "The surroundings had to add to the composition and the understanding of the person. No matter who the subject was, it had to be an interesting photograph. Just to simply do a portrait of a famous person doesn't mean a thing."

The Newman technique is clearly evident in the portrait of another famous personality, Leonard Bernstein. In the exhibition the image is printed with dark, moody tonalities and the precisely centered conductor seems to brood in the shadows of a slightly disarranged middle ground soon to be occupied by the orchestra. A seemingly enormous score in the foreground and the repetitious lines of white chairs for the chorus frame his pensive form. The stillness of the pose and the composition’s symmetry belie the passion that will soon explode onstage as it fills with the music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as revealed in the exhibition wall text.) Only the slashing diagonal of the baton that cuts across the outspread score suggests the imminent transformation.

Curators sometimes debate the virtues and failings of text panels – do they provide needed background or distract from the pure experience of the image? Well conceived labeling does the former without succumbing to the latter. The texts that accompany these images add supplementary narratives that I found helpful in humanizing what occasionally feels like overly engineered formal structures. They were well worth the time spent reading them and provided new insights for me into Newman’s working methods.

While the environmental approach lends depth to portraiture, Newman’s attention to abstract formalism can seem a bit forced – and sometimes repetitive. Authors, philosophers and politicians often appear in similarly book-lined rooms, as with the portrait of Golda Meir.

On the other hand, I was especially taken with the few portraits that broke away from Newman’s traditional methods. Woody Allen, for example, is portrayed in a tightly cropped but casual pose, splayed across his bed where he does his writing. He seems to have been arrested at a moment of creative insight, glancing up at the interruption by the photographer. We learn from the text panel that Allen had allowed only 45 minutes between takes on a movie. But Newman managed to strike up a conversation about “taking advantage of unexpected situations and other creative problems” and the session went overtime.

Highly atypical was the fragmented visage of a sculptor named
Yaacov Agam, the image constructed from crudely shaped slivers of collaged photographic paper.

By far the most moving piece in the show, for me as well as others I spoke with, was probably the least posed. In the house made famous by her unparalleled and heartbreaking story, the father of Anne Frank leans against a bare wooden pillar. In the unbalanced and deeply shadowed interior, the silhouette and simple posture of Otto Frank reveals what I can only imagine is a tiny fraction of the weight that he was experiencing by being there.

Here is a prime example of a picture that is worth a thousand words. We read that both subject and photographer wept and that Frank’s wife finally urged Newman to stop photographing because he “was killing my husband.” Newman himself is quoted as saying, “It was the most emotional experience I ever had in my life.”

In a lecture about portraiture in association with the exhibit, Lisa Hostetler, curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum, described Newman’s importance as one of the “triumvirate” of great mid 20th-century portraitists (the others being Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.)

At 39 prints this is not a major retrospective. But whether you are unfamiliar with his name or a long-time fan of Arnold Newman, as I am, this delightful show has something to offer.

For a medium in which monumentality has come to such prominence lately, it is also refreshing to see that modestly scaled black and white silver-gelatin images still can retain expressive power.

"One World, One people: Jewish Photographic Portraits by Arnold Newman" will be on display at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., through March 30.

This review first appeared in Art City.
Image credits, from top: portrait of Leonard Bernstein, 1968; portrait of Golda Meir, Jerusalem, Israel, 1970; portrait of Woody Allen, 1996; portrait of Otto Frank, 1960; all images courtesy the Jewish Museum Milwaukee and the Arnold Newman estate.

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