The most revealing objects in “Arnold Newman: Masterclass,” the monumental exhibit now at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center?
Not necessarily Newman’s elegant black-and-white portraits of influential cultural and political leaders.
Certainly, with more than 200 of those photographs in the exhibit, its rare treat to see so many of Newman’s now-vintage photographs.
But what’s most revelatory are the contact sheets and the work prints with Newman’s cropping notes or printing instructions jotted out in red wax pencil.
Newman, who died in 2006, was nothing if not painstakingly detailed about his process, thoroughly working through multiple shots — he often took more than 30 of an individual sitter — with a meticulous perfection until he created the perfect one.
“Arnold Newman: Masterclass” is organized by William A. Ewing for the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and the Ransom Center. It’s the first posthumous retrospective of Newman, arguably one of the best portrait photographers of the 20th century, and it was exhibited in Germany and the Netherlands last year.
The show’s expanded iteration in Austin, organized by Ransom Center curator Roy Flukinger, features additional material from the center’s Newman archive, which it acquired in 2006.
Born in New York in 1918 to parents who always struggled financially, Newman initially studied art but dropped out of college when the Depression took a toll on the family’s finances. He got a job with a department store photography studio in Philadelphia, a baptism-by-fire education as he took 60 to 70 portraits a day.
By the early 1940s, Newman was working in New York. Early in his career he decided to train his lens on artists, writers, musicians and other cultural types, later writing that what compelled him to do so came from “the tremendous curiosity I had as an art student about these (people) who actually created the work I had studied.”
And Newman also decided from the beginning of his career that he would photograph people in their studios, offices or homes, those surroundings being integral in revealing more of the person’s character.
Newman photographed writer Truman Capote, for example, dramatically lounging in his New York City apartment.
And Newman captured Alexander Calder next to one of the artist’s signature mobiles abstract sculptures, portrayed architect Philip Johnson through a window of Johnson’s iconic Glass House and, in one of Newman’s most famous portraits, framed composer Igor Stravinsky with an open grand piano.
That practice garnered Newman the title “the father of the environmental portrait,” a label he hated. After all, the one-time art student pointed out, he was doing nothing more than the Old Master painters had done centuries earlier with their painted portraits, situating subjects in their own environments.
Though Newman’s portraits might read today as casual candids, they are anything but.
Of fascinating interest in the exhibit is Newman’s “sitting book,” the loose-leaf notebook he kept his entire career in which he noted every photo shoot he scheduled and every negative he made.
Newman often shot dozens of photographs of an individual, each shot slightly changed from the one before. Sometimes Newman’s adjustment could be minuscule. But though minute, those changes could have a profound impact on the final portrait.
Graciously, the exhibit highlights Newman’s obsessive process using a sitting with Pablo Picasso as an example. Newman shot more than 50 negatives of the artist before getting right one.
But even then, Newman’s creative process was hardly over.
He championed the art of cropping, thoughtfully exercising more compositional choices onto his already well-composed photographs. Trained initially as a painter, Newman’s cropping was his method of exercising his artistic vision.
And what vision it was.
There’s a reason so many of Newman’s portraits have become the iconic images of artists such as Stravinsky and Picasso. Entering their space, Newman managed to capture something of these artists’ inner lives.