Right around the same time that photographer Yousuf Karsh was working on his incredibly evocative and minimalist portrait style, another portraitist was taking a different approach. While Karsh relied solely on the subject to bring out the portrait within, fellow portrait photographer Arnold Newman believed that the opposite was true. For Newman, placing equal emphasis on the subject's environment was just as important to producing a great portrait.
The story of Arnold Newman's early life draws some similarities with many famous pioneering photographers of the 20th century; he grew up wanting to be a an artist, but due to the financial constraints, he had to put aside his artistic ambitions and instead had to work at a photographer's studio for the time being. During these early years, he learned the technicalities of the photographic medium, but more importantly, he learned how to interact with the people in front of his camera lens, something that would be of great benefit in his later years.
Even after he established his own studio, he didn't forget his early education in the arts, especially his exposure to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art; the modernism movement he encountered would have a heavy influence in his photographic style.
By the middle of the last century, Newman's portraits were on the covers of some of the most famous magazines. He became known as one of the pioneers of Environmental Portraiture (although he himself did not like the term). In portraits such as these, the subjects surroundings, be it their home or workplace, must be able to convey a sense of what the subject is like. Thus, even without knowing who the subject is, a reader can identify the artist in his studio, or a musician at the keyboard, or a president at his desk.
Newman insisted that a picture of a celebrity or politician by himself wouldn't be as meaningful as one taken in the subject's workplace. Moreover, anything caught in the frame should be able to communicate to the viewer something revealing about the subject. As he put it, "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."
Even with other photographers copying his environmental portraiture style, Newman set himself apart from everyone else through his work process. Even though these were carefully planned portraits, they come off with a candid and in-the-moment quality akin to Henri Cartier-Bresson's street photography. The viewer of course knows a split second later that it is indeed a planned portrait because of the carefully composed environment and the deftly posed sitter.
Indeed, these pictures are more than just environmental portraits, but rather impressionistic of what the subject is, was or could be. It didn't matter whether it was the president or an artist or a worker, Newman treated them equally and the results show in his photographs.
Newman continued to work well into his later years. Despite his portfolio giants including President John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe and many others, Newman continued his passion for photography. His last days saw him teaching, planning books and arranging and planning trips for himself and his wife. He passed away in 2006.
More of Arnold Newman's environmental portraits as well as his earlier abstract photographs can be found at the Arnold Newman Archive. Some of the books written about and by Newman include Arnold Newman, another book entitled Arnold Newman and Arnold Newman: Five Decades.