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Text from John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs

In 1857 the photographer Robert Howlett made a portrait of the ship designer I. K. Brunel standing in front of the monstrous anchor chains of one of his ships. This interesting photographic precedent for what later came to be called environmental portraiture bore few progeny, partly because the photographer could make more sittings if the subjects came to the studio, and perhaps partly because most people really didn't want to be identified with what they did.

One would have thought that the miniature camera would make such interpretive portraits common, but it did not work that way. The very ease and availability of the small camera tended to mean that the ship builder was photographed in the Automat, or getting out of an airplane. Howlett's idea depended on a conceptual approach, one thought first and executed afterward.

In the 1940's, at a time when most photographers were discovering the special potentials of the small camera (flexibility, quickness, spontaneity of response), Arnold Newman was learning to use the ancient virtues of the classic stand camera (enforced deliberation, precise framing, exact description) to help him make portraits that might suggest. by their graphics and their symbolic allusions, who the person in the picture might really be, or at the very least, what he might be famous for. One of the best known pictures that Newman made in pursuit of this idea was a portrait of Igor Stravinsky, his head small in a lower corner of the picture, with the great kidney-shaped sounding board of a grand piano silhouetted above him. It was an original and very handsome picture, and doubtless greatly enhanced Stravinsky's popular image as a piano player. Nevertheless, the picture did identify the subject with the world of music and, more important. with a kind of rigorous economy of form. which is saying a great deal.

The portrait reproduced here is more natural and less insistently formalized and symbolized than many of Newman's portraits. If one did not know that Kuniyoshi was a painter, one probably wouldn't guess it from the picture. Although one might. The classical stiff life with compote, the modified Madame Recamier chaise on the uncarpeted floor, and the gentle skylight quality of the modeling are all suggestive. More important, one would almost surely sense a man who did what he did with a relaxed and stylish elegance.

The chaise may be the one on which he painted those ethereal, alabasterskinned women.


 


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