Arnold Newman: America’s Distinct Portrait Photographer

Arnold Newman was an American portrait photographer born in 1918 in New York City.

May 11, 2023By Selin Oguz, BSc, Minor in Art History and Visual Culture

arnold newman portray famous people


Arnold Newman started his career as a photographer during the 1940s. The artist quickly established himself as a leader in the industry. He became known for his ability to thoughtfully capture the personalities of his subjects through their expressions and surroundings. Because of his use of deep focus in order to create a sense of context around his subjects, Newman became known as an environmental portraitist in his career. Continue reading to explore his photographic style and see some of his most iconic works.


Who was Arnold Newman? 

Arnold Newman in his studio, via Widewalls


Arnold Newman was a pioneering portrait photographer. He is remembered for his innovative, enlightening, and expressive images that show some of the most famous figures of the 20th century.  Born in New York City in 1918, the portraitist began his career as a photographer in the 1940s. He studied under the influential artist Berenice Abbott, who was known for her incredible portraits and photographs of architecture and urban design in New York City. Newman worked as a commercial photographer for various publications over the following years, including the New Yorker, Life, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and New York Times Magazine.


Berenice Abbott, via Financial Times


Over the course of his long career, Newman became known for his distinctive approach to portraiture photography, which often involved placing his subjects within a particular context that would show their job or their surroundings. He didn’t just ask for his subjects to simply pose for him in a generic studio setting. With his masterful use of the background which was supposed to help tell an insightful story, Newman came to be known as an environmental portraitist. This was a tribute to the fact that the environment served as such an important part of his photographic works. However, the portraitist did not quite agree with the nickname he was given. He didn’t care for this title, so he never adopted it himself. The artist simply did what felt natural to him, showing his subjects in their natural setting. With his continuous exploration of the art of portrait photography, Newman truly became a pioneer in this field.


Redefining Portrait Photography

Salvador Dali by Arnold Newman, 1961, via Howard Greenberg Gallery

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One of the key characteristics of Newman’s photography was his use of the environment in his portraits. By resisting the limitations of traditional photography studios and conventional lighting, Newman was able to capture the essence of his subjects and their achievements, giving the resulting images a depth and richness that was often lacking in more traditional portraits. The composition was key in all of Newman’s portraits.


Despite working with his subjects in their natural habitat in a way that seems effortless and candid the artist was known for masterfully conceptualizing his projects in detail, designing floor plans, equipment, schedules, and possible poses before the actual shoot even took place. For many of his projects, the artist took the time to set up the composition well before the subject was placed in it. This highlights just how much he valued the importance of photographic interaction between the subject and the background in an image.


Newman had the chance to photograph some of the most famous figures of the 20th century. He portrayed artists, intellectuals, political figures, and celebrities. All of his photographs of these various individuals capture the unique qualities that made each of them so important in their respective fields. Some of the famous figures he portrayed include John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Elvis Presley. Let’s take a look at some examples of these works.


Arnold Newman’s Portraits of Famous People

Portrait of Pablo Picasso in Vallauris, France, by Arnold Newman, 1954, via Musée Magazine


During his time as an artist, Arnold Newman made several incredible portraits of Pablo Picasso, the Spanish painter, and sculptor regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. In 1954 Newman however strayed from his usual use of background and focused directly on Picasso himself. Specifically, he focused on the details of Picasso’s face and his expression. In this portrait, Picasso looks directly at the camera with a hand resting on his forehead, looking more serious than in many other photographs of him.


In another instance in 1956, Newman captured Picasso in his studio where he was surrounded by paintings and sculptures. The photograph conveys a sense of the intensity, passion, and obsession that drove Picasso to create his body of work. The image also serves as an incredible testament to Newman’s ability to capture the essence of his subjects through the objects that surround them.


Pablo Picasso in his studio, photographed by Arnold Newman, 1956 via NPR


In the shot, Picasso is shown seated on a chair in a large room filled with both finished and unfinished artworks. The artist is dressed in casual attire. He seems to have his house slippers on while sitting backward on the chair in an informal way. The photograph shows us the ordinary Pablo Picasso. The portrait of Picasso in his studio is an example of Newman’s signature style. The photograph captures Picasso as an artistic genius in his natural environment. Newman’s portrait of Picasso is a memorable image that has become an iconic representation of the artist and his legacy.


Alfred Krupp by Arnold Newman, 1963, via The New York Times


Another one of Newman’s famous portraits is that of Alfried Krupp, a German industrialist and head of the Krupp family business. This photo is especially striking and noteworthy given that the Krupp business supplied Nazi Germany with warfare for years, many of which were manufactured using slave labor. Newman was a Jewish man himself, so this unsettling photo of Krupp becomes one of Newman’s most striking portraits on which he later commented by saying: It was my impression of a Nazi who managed to survive yet killed millions of people.


The portrait was taken in 1963 and shows Krupp seated at his desk in the Krupp family factory in Essen, Germany. The man is shown with a serious expression on his face, his hands folded in front of him while he gazes directly at the camera. The photograph is notable for its use of chiaroscuro lighting, with parts of Krupp’s face and hands well-lit while the rest of his face, along with the eerie factory in the back, is in the shadows. The image shows him in an evil-looking light as a reminder of the monstrosities created by the Nazis. Needless to say, Krupp, who was hesitant to have his photo taken by a Jewish man in the first place, was not happy with his portrait. Newman, on the other hand, commented that taking such a portrait was his own little moment of revenge.


John F. Kennedy by Arnold Newman, 1961, via Pinterest


Arnold Newman’s most iconic works show his various portraits of the 35th President of the United States John F. Kennedy. Newman’s intimate and insightful photographs of Kennedy are considered some of the most striking and memorable images of the President. Newman’s photographs showed him in various locations, the White House included.


Taken both shortly before and after Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, the photos capture the youthful energy and charismatic personality that Kennedy was known for. Newman’s ability to capture the essence of his subject through his candid expressions and surroundings, combined with his skillful use of the camera, makes his portraits of Kennedy some of the most iconic and enduring images of the 20th century.


Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg, by Arnold Newman, 1951


Newman also took photos of Marilyn Monroe, one of the most celebrated actresses of all time. Newman’s photograph of Monroe and Carl Sandburg is a famous image taken in 1951. The photograph shows Monroe sitting on a couch with her head tilted to the side, facing Sandburg, a renowned poet and novelist.


The photograph was taken in Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, where Monroe came to gather information for a magazine article she was writing about the poet. The photograph is notable for its composition, showing an intimate glance between the two subjects. The piece also shows the contrast between Monroe’s glamorous public persona and Sandburg’s more serious and scholarly image.


Throughout his career, Newman came to photograph many other influential public figures like Igor Stravinsky, Max Ernst, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jean Cocteau. Although he passed away in 2006, his legacy, along with the legacies of those he photographed, lives on through his incredible portraits. Admirers of Newman’s work may see his photographs in revolving exhibitions around the world and participate in various photography competitions in his honor, including one that is annually run by The Arnold and Augusta Newman Foundation which was established in 2007.

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By Selin OguzBSc, Minor in Art History and Visual CultureSelin is a writer and photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. When she isn’t writing all things art, she is either traveling, meditating, or reading old classics on her couch.