The King of the Portrait

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Among the legendary portrait photographer Arnold Newman’s contributions to the still image was this idea: that “photography is very unreal. You have to take a three-dimensional world and reduce it to two dimensions. You take color and reduce it to black-and-white. And you arrest the flow of time. There are many things that are very false about photography. You must recognize this, and build on it, and then maybe you will have art.”

This quote, taken from the book Interviews with Master Photographers, is not a minor observation. It essentially calls out the notion, persistent since the dawn of photography, that the camera is a neutral recorder of reality, providing a split-second snapshot of life in the moment. Other visual artists even adopted the term “photorealism” to describe paintings and drawings that attempted to simulate reality as a camera might.

By contrast, Newman’s images were proudly, carefully, emotionally, majestically staged, offering no pretense of objective veritas. They were most certainly art, with their creator’s imaginative hand either illuminating or obfuscating the personalities of his sitters, wresting autonomy over likenesses of some of the world’s most powerful people: presidents, prime ministers, world-class painters, choreographers, writers and musicians.

“Arnold Newman: MasterClass,” running now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, surveys more than 200 of his images, each of them confined in small- to medium-sized frames that reward intense scrutiny. Though Newman shot for publications like Fortune, Life and Newsweek, it becomes clear, through this flowing, representative and cohesive collection, that the vanity of his subjects and the dictates of commercial publication always fell secondary to the precise plans, elaborate schemes and spontaneous whims of his camera eye.

His greatest contribution, though he disliked the term, is the concept of “environmental photography”—of liberating his sitters from formal settings and shooting them in their studios, their workplaces, their habitats, the weird geometry of their daily lives. Thus we see abstract painter George Mathieu gazing intensely at the lens astride a furious painting that, it seems, he has just completed. Franz Kline and Frank Stella appear small against the vastness of their art, suggesting, accurately, that the work itself speaks more volumes that its creators possibly could. Henry Miller sits in front of a whiteboard scrawled with paragraphs, scribbles, doodles and random lines that seem to offer a peak into the great writer’s cluttered, restless mind. A portrait of science journalist William L. Laurence says it all: He’s plugging away on a typewriter in front of an image of the universe, merging the professional and the cosmic.

These works mentioned above are presented under the subhead “Signatures.” “MasterClass” continues with other such categories—“Weavings,” “Lumen,” “Geometries,” “Rhythms”—that speak to different facets of Newman’s genius. But all could easily fall under environmental “signatures,” so consistent was his vision through his 40-plus years in darkrooms. That said, some pieces are more playful than others. Andy Warhol’s portrait exists as a disembodied head with X-ray eyes, cut and pasted onto a canvas as if from a magazine. With Allen Ginsberg, a vast world of literature is refracted through the lenses of his glasses. Subverting the verticality of his frame, Newman presented architect I.M. Pei as a small headshot inside an open horizontal strip in an otherwise pitch-black building. Salvador Dali’s portrait is almost overshadowed by an expressive ceiling wire dangling beside him. For the most part, these are not images its subjects would prefer as publicity photos, which makes them all the more memorable.

In fact, some suggest concern, anxiety, even melancholy. In the section “Sensibilities,” Newman aimed to show the “chinks in the armor” of his powerful sitters. This is apparent in the unspoken tension between choreographer Hanya Holm and her son Klaus, and in the furrowed brow of sculptor Anthony Caro. Artist Jean Arp looks reticent, almost embarrassed, peeking from behind his sculptures, and Jasper Johns stands in front of a sculpture of a fork which, thanks to Newman’s darkly comic play with dimensionality, appears to be slicing through the artist’s neck, Frankenstein-style. In a two-shot, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz come across as solemn and off-guard, respectively, as if they’re in mourning.

Newman clearly admired the human face as much as Chuck Close, whose South Florida exhibition I reviewed last week on this site. He even saw faces in some of his early, searching exteriors of houses, such as the anthropomorphic “Door and Objects,” from 1938. But he was more imaginative to the possibilities of the forehead, ears, eyes and mouth than arguably any other portraitist.

Why, then, did so many of his sitters—from Pablo Picasso to Truman Capote, from Bill Brandt to Joan Miro to Henry Miller—obscure their faces with their hands? Perhaps Newman advised them to do so or, more likely, their surfeits of celebrity fell away under the pressure of posing for a fellow-artist, replaced by a literal self-effacement. In other words, they were, for a brief moment, regular humans.

“Arnold Newman: MasterClass” runs through July 3 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission costs $10-$12. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.