38 Pages


HansNamuth, best known for his portraits of artists, began his career as a photojournalist and enjoyed commercial success as an advertising photographer. Namuth’s status in twentieth century photography, however, rests on his sensitive portraits of artists and other creative people. His reputation as a portraitist was established by his photos of the preeminent Abstract Expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. Unlike his predecessors, Pollock worked with unprimed, unstretched canvases placed directly on the floor of his studio, fostering a dynamic technique with his media: he moved energetically around his canvas, stepped directly onto it, and attacked the surfacewith unprecedented vigor. Documenting Pollock’s movement, in both still photography and film, Namuth emphasized the performative aspect of this artist’s technique. Indeed, Namuth’s recording of Pollock’s energy is so closely aligned with the artist’s ‘‘classic’’ phase that the canvases are rarely considered without reference to Namuth’s photographs of their creation. Namuth’s career as a photographer consists of

two distinct phases interrupted by the tragic effects of Nazi Germany andWorldWar II. Born in Essen, Germany in 1915, Namuth was arrested by Nazis in

his hometown in 1933 for distributing anti-Hitler leaflets. His father, a member of the Nazi party, secured his release and supplied him with an exit visa enabling Namuth to flee to Paris. A fellow German acquaintance in Paris, Georg Reisner, introduced Namuth to commercial photography. Learning the trade from Reisner, Namuth sold his work to Alliance Photo and Three Lions who placed his work in publications such as ParisMatch. In 1936, Namuth and Reisner were assigned by Vu to cover the Workers’ Olympiad in Barcelona. Coincidentally, they arrived to cover the event the day before the Spanish Civil War began. They photographed the war for Vu and other European publications, eventually leaving Spain to work as freelance photojournalists in France for the remainder of the decade. In 1939, when France declared war on Germany,

Namuth was interned and eventually joined the French foreign legion. He was discharged a year later (1940), fleeing to Marseilles and eventually securing passage to New York in 1941. In an effort to secure Reisner’s freedom, Namuth sold his camera, but his friend committed suicide in late December before leaving France. Initially, Namuth worked in menial positions at various commercial photography studios in New York City. In January

1943, he joined the U.S. Army and left for Europe in December of that year. Namuth was discharged in October 1945, returned to the United States, and pursued photography as a hobby. However, in 1946, when the company he worked for, Tesumat, Inc., went bankrupt he returned to photography as a profession. In 1946, Namuth traveled to Guatemala and

photographed the natives of Todos Santos in collaboration with anthropologist Maud Oakes. These works were exhibited the following year at the Museum of Natural History in New York. During this period, Namuth took a few classes with Josef Breitenbach, an acquaintance from his days in Paris, at the New School for Social Research. Thereafter, he studied with Alexey Brodovitch, his most important influence, in an informal class taught at Richard Avedon’s studio. Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, provided Namuth with numerous opportunities in fashion and advertising photography, and from 1949 through the mid-1950s, Namuth routinely published photographs in this magazine. Simultaneously, he worked on advertising campaigns for clients like Ford Motor Company and Shell Oil for some of New York’s most prestigious advertising agencies, such as Pix Corporation and Doyle, Dane and Bernbach. Frequently, Namuth incorporated children into his assignments, taking pride in his avoidance of traditional poses by shooting his subjects as they played once they were no longer conscious of the camera’s presence. This technique became a hallmark feature of his subsequent portraits of artists, architects, writers, and composers. During this period of commercial success, Na-

muth sought ways to satisfy his ambitions as a creative artist. At an opening for Long Island artists, Namuth introduced himself to Jackson Pollock and asked if he could take pictures of him at his studio. Pollock had previously been photographed by Martha Holmes and Rudolph Burckhardt but was inclined to avoid photographers. Nevertheless, Pollock invited Namuth to his studio in late July 1950, and over the next four months, Namuth shot countless photographs and directed two short films of Pollock and his work. While neither Holmes nor Burckhardt had secured Pollock’s confidence to such a degree that he was willing to paint in front of them-their photographs are staged with the artist posed as if paintingNamuth gained Pollock’s trust and was allowed to shoot the artist as he worked. Due to flaws in the lens of his camera, Namuth

used prolonged exposure times, which emphasized the artist’s movement; the scale of the canvases

is reiterated by the blurred movement of the artist darting in and around the surface. This frozen-intime movement has been cited as the source of Harold Rosenberg’s formulation of the concept of ‘‘Action’’ painting in his landmark essay, ‘‘The American Action Painters.’’ However, this supposed influence is based on flawed conclusions; not only did Rosenberg deny this influence, but he developed his concept of ‘‘Action’’ before he saw Namuth’s photographs. Nonetheless, Namuth’s photographs and films, Pollock’s canvases, and Rosenberg’s essay were vital resources for the following generation of American artists who found in the work of all three men a new approach to art-making that encouraged such postmodern developments as conceptual art, installation art, and performance art. Aware that Pollock’s physical encounter with his

canvases was a quality that his camera could merely suggest, Namuth convinced Pollock that filming him would be even more compelling. Initially filming in black-and-white from afar, Namuth disliked the results. He struck upon the idea of Pollock painting on glass with the camera directly beneath the surface. Namuth convinced the artist of this project and, shooting in color, he finished filming on Thanksgiving Day, 1950. Namuth’s career as a portraitist took off after

the photographs of Pollock were published in Art News and Portfolio in 1951. Gaining the trust of his subjects, Namuth photographed countless artists in their studios, often while they were working. One of his most compelling portraits was of painter Barnett Newman in 1951. The opposite of the performance-based photographs of Pollock, this portrait nonetheless typifies many of Namuth’s compositional conceits. He preferred to show artists mise-en-sce`ne, surrounded by his or her work. In the case of Newman, the artist contemplates a few paintings propped against a wall in his studio; light from the windows bathes the scene with a somber mood that parallels Newman’s interest in the sublime. Namuth published his portraits of artists, wri-

ters, architects, and composers in many of the most recognized magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Holiday, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Fortune. He published many cover portraits for Art News from the early 1970s until 1983. In the 1980s, Namuth also worked closely with Architectural Digest and Connaissance des Artes, publishing numerous portraits for both magazines. One of his most significant collaborations was with Brian O’Doherty on the book American Masters, which was published in 1973. Namuth worked

on this project for 10 years, and it resulted in his most successful exhibition, American Artists. During this period, Namuth directed and produced many films of such luminaries as painters Willem de Kooning and Josef Albers, architect Louis Kahn, and sculptor Alexander Calder. Namuth’s skill at disarming his often formid-

able subjects and capturing them in unstaged situations that revealed the intimacy of the act of creation left him without an easily identifiable ‘‘signature’’ style, unlike many other well-known portraitists. He died in New York in 1990, however, leaving a visual legacy that not only documented the American art world of the latter half of the twentieth century, but considerably enriches its understanding.