Photography of Photographers
Portraiture is about revelations. Either for the subject or the artist. So often in painting, El Greco, or Singer Sargent – exemplified by his most famous portrait, Madam X, the subject is somewhat incidental, especially out of the cultural context of the era. But in photography, the subject is paramount. Some portraitist assume the highest position, as with Annie Leibowitz, most are circumspect. There is a grand tradition of portraits in photography; in fact it was the ‘studio’ portrait that gave most credence to the burgeoning art form in the mid-nineteenth century.
Due to the limitations of materials and equipment, the subject remained static for minutes at a time, and it required elaborate developing processes. Now especially with the digital age, the process has been stripped away entirely, and only the subject and artist are revealed to the viewer. In the other direction, the celebrity images in Vanity Fair and T Magazine are stuffed with ornate details and references, to the point of distraction.
In this powerful exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the mastery of Newman is keenly evident. I took a workshop from Newman in the seventies, after which he offered me an assistant position, for meager $50 a week which I could not afford in New York City, but thankful none-the-less.
What is unique in this retrospective, rich with gorgeous silver prints, was in the inclusion of portraits of many photographers of the day. Here you have an interesting confluence, a master portrait photographer capturing a master perceptor of visual content – namely themselves. I can speak for myself, having shot many portraits for Time and Forbes, as well as corporate subjects, that an experienced photographer can ‘visualize’ themselves in a the portrait. Cartier-Bresson claimed the ‘decisive moment’ term but also ‘pre-visualization,’ along with Minor White. It is evident here that the subjects are very keenly aware of their own presentation, and stage themselves accordingly.
So my focus here is on the image resulting from the collaboration of Newman with famous photographers. His Stravinsky portrait is his most famous, but his images of photographers are a less known oeuvre.
Starting at the most self-conscience, is the dramatic theatrical master, Cecil Beaton. Like Dali, his close friend, he was intimate with the power of the ’set,’ which he used here to full advantage, with propping of a cane, hat and sumptuous surroundings, he presents himself to the viewer as he intends. There is little hand of Newman here to be seen, except for the rich lighting.
Ansel Adams poised approachably in his Yosemite studio, is surrounded with his trademark Natural elements. Newman has always employed environmental elements (but disdained his characterization as the father of environmental portraiture).
“For me the professional studio is a sterile world,” said Newman in a 1991 interview. “I need to get out: Be with people where they’re at home. I can’t photograph ‘the soul,’ but I can show and tell you something fundamental about them.” (Museum press release)
So Adams seems right at home here, a collaborative venture. This contracts dramatically to his two contemporaries, Avedon and Penn who trusted the studio to lay bare the innards of the subject which employes their own artifice.
Cartier-Bresson’s portrait is unique in that little is revealed about him as he glances away from the camera, while being flanked by a large negative space of emptiness. Camera in hand, and an intense gaze that seems to be his shaping up a decisive movement, he could be anyone of that era. This seems candid, especially in the oeuvre of Newman’s work, very casual, though the clothing is very revealing – like Man Ray painting in a suit.
Brassaï, original name Gyula Halász, from Romania, whose images of the night scene in Paris are captivating and passionate. I once had the honor of entering a room at night in the San Remo overlooking Central Park where the room was entirely lined with the jewel-like prints of his of Paris nightlife. Unforgettable. Here he is almost asserting his right over Newman on how to be memorialized. He is unshakably self-confident in his persona, and giving Newman the eyeball as to how he should be rendered – clearly on his own terms. The gesture of his hand over his heart is revealing as to his intention. There is a famous quotation from Bernard Shaw when he was sitting for a portrait. He asserted that “one should present one’s most important asset forward.” For him, it was his forehead. Here for Brassaï, it was his heart.
In complete contrast, Robert Doisneau, who has captured two for the most memorable images of the twentieth century (later disputed to be ‘staged’). His portrait here is the most contrived of the bunch. There is no apparent reason or rhyme for his peering around the edge of a sheet of seamless paper in Newman’s studio above the Café Des Artist Restaurant in New York. Unless one interpreted that seeking a street spontaneous image is like peaking into the world around a corner is the portrait here, but that is a stretch. His face is intently focused on the camera. He is a handsome man but no revelations are offered here.
Several of his other portraits of photographers range from brilliant, Edward Steichen whose environments says as much about his curatorial role as his photographic one; to the ordinary, as with the first Modernist photographer Paul Strand, with his wife standing just so. It is difficult to judge some of these, in an era of overkill of images from Instagram and Facebook. Clean, sparse and direct, they sometimes lack a certain hutzpah. William Eggerton poises with head and equipment, Manuel Bravo flirts with shadows reminiscent of his stark images of nudes, and Aaron Siskind sits before his signatory peeling painted walls. Sometimes the contrivance of the subject is unresolved, Bill Brandt’s decompositions, JP Witkin’s curious eyes, and Eugene Smith’s portraits seems to miss the mark entirely.
Newman set the bar very high for portraiture, especially the incorporation of the setting and props. There is still a very strong tradition of portraits, mostly now in the celebrities arena, led by the likes from Josef Karsh to contemporary Mark Seliger. With the death of some of the greatest image makers, Avedon, Penn and Newman, we are in a more disposable era. Are selfies the new portrait? I understand now that photographers must complete a hundred page contract before the sitting to restrict most aspects of the portrait session, and the usage of the resulting imagery. Media representatives hovering around the session does not a candid portrait make. But the honesty of Newman’s imagery is a breath of fresh air and well worth the visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I heartily recommend it, especially for those of us who can remember who these artist were and their importance in our culture.
ARNOLD NEWMAN – Master Class, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, on view until February 1, 2015