James Brown: Godfather of Soul. Michael Jackson: King of Pop. Arnold Newman: Master of Environmental Portraiture. Really, he was a pioneer in creating images of people that expressed context. By context, I mean something about the place of the person that adds to or reveals something about the person being photographed. Before Newman, portraiture was people standing in front of a camera, getting their image taken for the soul purpose of the photographer recording their likeness and selling the client an image. “Portraiture” was boring, stringent and contextually void. It may have been tack sharp, it might have been well lit, but it lacked environment. Thus, Arnold Newman creates a whole new genre and approach to portraits. To quote David Hobby, “If you make environmental portraits, you can trace your photographic lineage to this man.”
There’s a great video on YouTube that is worth a watch. It gives more insight into Newman himself as well as his amazing craft that has influenced just about every current day photographer who employs that trendy photojournalism/environmental portraiture.
I was going through my own photo libraries, trying to see if I had any examples of truly environmental portraiture. And to be honest, I don’t have many good examples of it. And by modifying the comment with “good” I mean environments that actually support/reveal the person being photographed. A lot of what passes these days for environmental stuff isn’t really “Newmanian” environmental stuff. Take the famous example of Krupp. He looks reptilian, satanic even with the lighting, colour, mood and environment of his Nazi slave labour factory.
Every element of the photograph supports the core of who Krupp was. Its a far cry from chucking people into some random setting, just to have cool surroundings. The current trend of urban grunge photography when it comes to brides resonates with me this way. Sure, its a juxtaposed environment/subject mix. But it doesn’t necessarily get at who the subject is – unless your bride is actually a homeless person who naturally lives in alleyways.
My point is, let us learn from Arnold Newman, a truly amazing gift to photography. Think about the subject. Get to know the subject. Then make the photograph in a holistic, all encompassing way that weaves together lighting, colour, gesture, mood, and an environmental setting that reveals the true essence of the subject.