Sunday, April 26, 2009

Photographs from Beaumont Newhall's Autobiography

These are the photographs that came with the press packet for Beaumont Newhall's autobiography, Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Co., 1993.) They're the same photos as are in the book itself. Still, they depict the intersection of some rather luminous lives.

It's been a while since I've read it, but I remember it full of interesting vignette's from the history of photography. You can read Vicki Goldberg's review at the end of this post.

The first one is Newhall by Henri Cartier-Bresson followed by Newhall signing a print of his portrait of Cartier-Bresson.

Next up, Newhall in Ansel Adam's backyard by Nancy Newhall and Nancy Newhall and Alfred Stieglitz by Ansel Adams.

And finally, Newhall with Arthur Rothstein at the George Eastman House and Newhall with Edward Weston.

All photos are 7 x 5 inch silver prints.

From the New York Times, Sunday, August 15, 1993:

Depth of Field
By Vicki Goldberg

FOCUS Memoirs of a Life in Photography
By Beaumont Newhall
Illustrated. 264 pp.
Boston: A Bulfinch Press Book/ Little, Brown & Company.

BEAUMONT NEWHALL (1908-93) has a secure place in photographic history, for he himself made that history widely available to Americans. In 1937, at the Museum of Modern Art, he mounted "Photography 1839-1937," the first comprehensive show in this country to trace the course of photography. The catalogue from that exhibition became in effect the first textbook on the subject; generations of students used it, partly because little else was available. The book has often been criticized as being too narrow -- few women or non-European photographers appear -- and Newhall made some attempts at correcting its defects in the fifth edition in 1982.

In 1940, Newhall also became the first curator of MOMA's department of photography, the first such department in any American museum; then in 1948 he became the first curator of George Eastman House, the museum of photography in Rochester, and later served as its director, from 1958 to 1971. "Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography" turns out to be a very pleasant if quite undistinguished account of a distinguished career, nicely illustrated with portraits by Newhall, his wife, Nancy, and others.

Scholarship was Newhall's long suit, writing mainly a means to stay in the game. Although he wrote movingly in letters to his wife about their shared passion for photography when he was overseas as a photo interpreter in World War II and she had taken his place at MOMA, his style in this book is easy but colorless and his passions disguised. "Focus" is a good deal more valuable for its history than for its literary charm or its insights into character.

It also serves up generous supplies of information. Newhall's mother was a "semiprofessional" photographer in Massachusetts, but his intense involvement in the medium was precipitated when he saw a German experimental film in 1926. Ph.D. candidates will be relieved to note that he failed his orals in art history at Harvard. (He does not mention that the university gave him an honorary degree 43 years later.) Though he was hired by MOMA in 1935 as a librarian, the staff soon knew he was interested in photography because he set up his darkroom in the men's lavatory, making it difficult to use the room for standard purposes. His own photographs weren't exhibited until he was 70; he was a good photographer, a better historian.

He rolls out some revealing and amusing anecdotes. Ansel Adams was so appalled at the print quality of an abstract composition by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy that he requested permission to reprint it, then tore up his newly detailed version when he realized it was no longer an abstraction. Moholy-Nagy, on the other hand, liked to look at Edward Weston's pictures upside down, which did not endear him to Weston. And Man Ray used the arm of a dressmaker's mannequin rather than a pointer when lecturing.

One of Newhall's more absorbing accounts is of his early commitment to Alfred Stieglitz's view that photography should be seen primarily as art, whether that pleased a large audience or not, and of the countercommitment to large audiences at MOMA. "Photography 1839-1937" had 841 items, including scientific, X-ray and infrared photographs. It failed to get Stieglitz's blessing but attracted good crowds and traveled to 10 major museums. (Newhall pointedly omits mentioning the nonart aspects of this show.) In 1938, when the catalogue was revised and published, Newhall dedicated it to Stieglitz. By then, both the Newhalls were acolytes.

In 1946, he resigned rather than work under Edward Steichen, who became director of the department, and whom Newhall thought self-centered, difficult and cursed with aggressive megalomania. Steichen had mounted two shows of war photographs at MOMA that had kept the turnstiles clicking. He planned to expand vastly the activities of the department, and he was devoted to the idea of photography "only as documentation of the social scene, or as a journalistic medium used for propaganda," as Newhall disparagingly remarks.

Long before Thomas Hoving invented the blockbuster show for the Metropolitan, museums needed crowds. As an officer of MOMA told Newhall, "Steichen's plans are the equivalent of Harvard football, while what you propose can be compared in popularity to crew on the Charles River." The populist-versus-elitist position in museum programming has seldom been put more succinctly; the populists, then as now, generally had more muscle.

Still, Newhall -- curator, teacher, lecturer and author of several books and more than 650 articles -- was a trailbreaker who influenced a great many people. This book is not his most engrossing, but in it he writes, as he often did, a few more footnotes to history.

Vicki Goldberg's most recent book is "The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives."
© The New York Times


Anonymous said...

I'd like to add to Vicki's article a little story about the personal quality of Beaumont. He was my mentor in 1961-63 as I studied at RIT. He became my boss as I worked as head of the reproduction department at George Eastman House and we became friends for life.

Beaumont had arranged for Ansel's huge exhibition, The Eloquent Light, to be shown at the House. The exhibit was installed and when Ansel arrived a day or two prior to the opening, Beaumont gave him a reception at the House for the staff only. Beaumont left out nothing as the caterers supplied an elligent table. Normally one would expect the major staff only to attend but that was not Beaumont's way. He invited all of the staff, the gardners, the guards, the maintenance staff, everyone, including their families! Ansel was extremely friendly with everyone and thus this showed just how gracious Beaumont Newhall was.

I've never been to such a reception before nor after.

Don Eddy, student, employee, friend

Anonymous said...

Oh, one other thing about the book. In August 1993 I moved from Colorado to Carmel, California to stay with a friend for some time. Visiting Maggie Weston's "Weston Gallery" I introduced myself and the receptionist thought I would be interested in the newest book by Beaumont Newhall, which was "Focus". As I leafed through it I spotted, to my astonishment, a photograph of Beaumont sitting at his desk! Why, you might ask. Because the photograph is mine and I was totally unaware of its use in the book.

The caption included the copyright by me with a ca. 1970 but credited the use of it courtesy of the George Eastman House.

I had made only three prints from the 4x5 negative. One I gave to Beaumont along with a more dramatic one as he sat under one of the curved windows. (See my website The other two I have in my possession. I visited the House and discussed this with a staff member, Mary Ann Fulton. She contacted another staffer and within an hour it was determined that some six images were credited as courtesy George Eastman House, which they had not been. So, what's going on?

I never really found out but I contacted Jay Meisel in NYC who said the going license for 1/4 page in such a book was around $350. I contacted Bullfinch Press and within a couple of weeks I had a personal check from someone in New Mexico!

Hmmmmmmm . . .

Don Eddy