Category Archives: masters of the medium

The Environmental Portrait as Visual Metaphor: Select Photographs from Alfred Eisenstaedt and Arnold Newman

While any good portrait presents a challenge, the “environmental portrait” presents the special challenge of placing the subject in surroundings that tell us something about the person. Shooting someone in their place of work — a teacher in the classroom, a film editor in the cutting room — well achieves the goal. In the best of such portraits, the background seamlessly becomes an extension of the subject, and in the best of these, the result often moves into metaphor.

One of my favorite environmental portraits — and certainly the one that opened my eyes to the greater possibilities of the genre — is that of Darius Milhaud by Alfred Eisenstaedt. On first glance we see a portly man seated at a table in front of a blackboard, dreamily looking out into space. This is no rock star, movie icon or super athlete. It’s all quite sleepy, and after a few seconds one might be tempted to move on to more exciting stuff. But a second glance tells us to slow down. The clues lie in the

Darius Milhaud by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1961)

props, and by props I mean almost everything except the subject himself (for if Shakespeare was right that all the world’s a stage, then the objects around us tell our story). First, we see the glasses. They occupy center stage, disdainfully lying face-down on the table. They almost distract from the subject, and by doing so tell us there’s a message here, for it’s clear that Eisenstaedt, well aware of their presence, chose to leave them as is. To my mind, they suggest that as he sits in his chair, the composer is looking within, not without. Confirmation lies in Milhaud’s dazed eyes, which also suggest he is musing more than thinking. Given who he is, one can easily surmise the composer is composing, and indeed, if we look to the blackboard behind him, we see a visual representation of that thought in the musical notes that float above. In short, the photographer has presented the environment in a manner that suggests precisely what lies in the subject’s mind — a composition. The result is an image that transcends the mundane, giving us a kind of visual poetry.

The Milhaud portrait is not unlike the portraits of Arnold Newman, one of the great pioneers of the genre. Among Newman’s best is the iconic portrait of Igor Stravinsky. In this image, the photographer creates a background that obeys the rule of thirds by placing a middle gray field alongside a lighter field of gray and white. In front of this he boldly paints the piano in true black. The result fully takes advantage of the black and


Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman (1946)

white medium by giving us light/dark contrasts that energize the image with a strong graphic design. The contrast is continued by a half-lit face that adds a psychological density to the subject. Interestingly, the composer, too, obeys the rule of thirds when viewed against the gray field behind him. And the piano? It almost looks like a musical note, adding depth to the photograph by taking us, like Eisenstaedt’s portrait, into the realm of metaphor.

Newman is, in fact, a master of metaphor.  In his portraits of Robert Oppenheimer and Kurt Godel, for example, he uses negative space to suggest the mental arena and playing field in which each subject works. In the Oppenheimer portrait, the shadowy wall dominates, telling us that everything here is big. We are looking at a grand mind devoted


Robert Oppenheimer by Arnold Newman (1948)

Kurt Godel by Arnold Newman (1956)














to the grand task of tackling a grand universe.  The delicately-held cigarette with ashes ready to fall, make a great prop, suggesting intensity and focus. And as we look down at the great physicist, taking in the vastness of the nothingness that surrounds him, we can’t help but feel that we’re in the presence of a visionary. To similar effect, and perhaps more concretely, the emptiness of a large blackboard dominates the later portrait of Kurt Godel. The great mathematician sits frozen in his seat, face dramatically half-lit, hands clenched and ready to spring into action, while the blackboard, clean and tidy like his mind, looms from behind, waiting to be filled. As in the Oppenheimer portrait, given the nature of pure mathematics, it isn’t difficult to surmise that the tabula rasa behind Godel represents both his mind and the abstract field of thought he must enter as builds his equations.

Three additional Newman portraits sharing elements with the above are those of Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Norman Mailer. In the first, the photographer places the architect next to a towering door that reminds us of the mighty skyscrapers Johnson


Philip Johnson by Arnold Newman (1977

Frank Lloyd Wright by Arnold Newman (1977)

Norman Mailer by Newman (1964)









conceives. In the Wright portrait, the photographer places the architect one-third into the photograph and one-third into a drawing which, like Eisenstaedt’s Milhaud portrait, suggests a work as a thought. And in the Mailer portrait, where a sheet of paper is surrounded by a blank wall, the photographer conveys the isolating and daunting task that the writer must feel as he confronts his work. By placing Mailer in split lighting, Newman also tells us that his subject well knows the dark side, and in allowing Mailer to press his knuckles into the arm of the chair, the photographer portrays a well known attribute of the author: a restrained intensity ready to explode.

That quality, restrained intensity, is also apparent in one of the great portraits of evil: Eisenstaedt’s 1933 capture of Joseph Goebbels. Like the Prince of Darkness surrounded by


Joseph Goebbels by Eisenstaedt (1933)

Alfried Krupp by Arnold Newman (1963)














attendant subjects, the Reich Minister of Propaganda grips the arms of his chair, a document awaiting his signature, while he stares at the Jewish photographer with an aversion that is frightening. All the more frightening is the fact that here is an environmental portrait in which the subject is not acting.  And in another great portrait of evil, we see Newman’s image of the German industrialist and war criminal, Alfried Krupp, looking very much like the devil. This photograph is all about the light, as explained by Newman in the below video.


Arnold Newman on his Krupp portrait


More information on Newman may be found at The Arnold Newman Archive, and in particular, one can see many of his portraits here and here. A 1981 interview of Newman from the Visions and Images series appears below.



While I’m sure there are many fine books showing Newman’s portraits, one I can personally recommend is Taschen’s: Arnold Newman. In addition to essays by Newman and Philip Brookman, the book contains quality prints which inspire and instruct. For videos on Eisenstadt, take a look at youtube Eisenstaedt search.


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Henri Cartier-Bresson: Finding a Decisive Moment for The Waiting Stage

If Henri Cartier-Bresson isn’t my favorite photographer, he’s certainly in the top two or three.  And while many of his images don’t speak to me, those 20 to 25 that do continue to amaze.  If ever there was a genius in 20th Century photography, it was this man.

The most well-known photographic concept attached to Cartier-Bresson is, of course, the idea of the decisive moment.  With one image — Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France (1932) – he taught us that if one captures a subject at precisely the right instant, one can shatter normal life to retrieve a transcending moment.  The location of the right heel of the man jumping from the ladder in Behind the Gare – so perfectly timed – reveals an unseen world, flashing before our eyes, normally veiled by the flow of time.  The inspiration is a simple one:  it is up to the photographer to search out that moment and seize it with his or her camera.  And though the challenge can be daunting, there is some comfort in knowing that if your timing is off, if you’re just a little too early or late, or if some other component is slightly off — exposure, sharpness, composition — you really don’t have a choice, it’s simply not good enough, you’ve failed.  In other words, a little can be a lot; Behind the Gare wouldn’t have worked had it been shot at any other instant.


Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932)

Like many of Cartier-Bresson’s images, there’s more going on in Behind the Gare than perfect timing.  Too much has been written about this elsewhere to spend much time on it here. But three often-noted ironies are: the playful dancer on the poster in the background, providing a counterpoint to the rigid Everyman walking on water; the ladder from which the man springs, mimicking the railroad tracks of a station; and the play on words arising from the “Railowsky” poster appearing in a railway station.

Regardless of how much time Cartier-Bresson waited to capture the image we see in this photograph, the setting is a good example of what I’ll call a “waiting stage.” Sometimes, as we walk through the world, we come upon a scene that is ripe for something special; all that is needed is an actor to enter and hit the mark in our mind’s eye.  So it is with Behind the Gare. The dancer, the ladder and the Railowsky pun were already there, static props, waiting with Cartier-Bresson for the running man to appear.

Another waiting stage can be seen in the photograph, Mexico, 1964.  To most people walking down the street shown in this image, the wall probably didn’t catch the eye. But Cartier-Bresson, schooled in the sensibilities of Surrealism, saw something other-worldly in such items as the suspended watch, swordfish, and symbols at the top right of the image.  Again, all that was needed was a subject, properly placed, to send the wall into another dimension.


Mexico, 1964

Like the running man in Behind the Gare, the running boy in this image was probably previsualized by Cartier-Bresson; and like the running man, the boy was captured at just the right time: his head is perfectly placed in the lower left corner of a rectangle where the vertical line dissects the head while the horizontal line holds up the chin.  As with so many great photographs, the more one looks, the more one sees.  Like the swordfish, the boy is in motion, yet he also belongs on the wall, precisely where he is, while the watch floats above, freezing the time at ten past ten.  Because the boy, swordfish and watch are equally sized, the image takes us out of the ordinary world.  Behind the boy is a room with a man defying the vacancy sign to his left, and in front of the boy is an entrance containing frames with frames within frames.  Foreground and background merge into a dreamlike vision where life (the boy) and object (the drawings) co-equally inhabit some strange Semiotic and Surreal plane; one which surely would have put a smile on Dali.

In Armenia-USSR, 1972 Cartier Bresson uses the subject, a little girl standing on a man’s outstretched hand, to turn a dynamic waiting stage — the natural canvas of water, mountain and clouds behind the girl — into a static painting.


Armenia-USSR, 1972

And in Valence, Espagne, 1973, he does just the opposite.  By capturing a boy who looks off balance, Cartier-Bresson turns the static wall behind the boy into something dynamic, the illusion of an explosion.  While the photographer may or may not have stood by that wall, waiting for the right subject to appear, the end result defines many a Cartier-Bresson:  subject and background unite in a way that takes the image out of ordinary experience.  In short, the transcending power lies not in the subject or the background, but in their relationship.


Valence, Espagne, 1973

Immediately below are six additional waiting-stage images which, though tamed by the passage of time, still inspire one to rush out to a museum or search for larger-than-life advertising.  In the top row, the first image shows three billboard characters playfully watching a man smoke a cigarette; in the second, leaders of Russia, framed on the walls of a room, play Big Brother as they spy on the working-class inhabitants; in the third, a statue looks down on museum visitors who appear to be locked in a staring contest with another statue.  In the bottom row, the first image turns Lenin into an ominous stalker; in the second, a man walks from a heavenly setting (on the right side of the cross) toward a more hellish environment; and in the third image, spiraling steps neatly complement a cyclist in motion.


Adnre Pieyre des Mandiargues, 1933

Construction of the Hotel Mertropole, Moscow, Russia, 1954

Naples, Italy, 1960









Lenningrad, 1973

Knoxville, Tennessee, 1947

Hyeres, France, 1932









As reflected by the above museum image, and as made clear by the work of such great street photographers as Elliot Erwitt, museums are ripe for the waiting space.  They often provide clean, geometrically-interesting backgrounds with statues, paintings, and sculptures ready for animation or irony — and the good news is, many museums allow photography.  Below is an image I captured in the Picasso Museum in Paris, 2003.  Had I not been familiar with the images of Cartier-Bresson, I’m not sure I would have taken the shot.  Regardless of its merits, one fact is certain:  to my eye, the setting was an excellent waiting stage.  The bust presented possibilities of irony; the clean wall and lines behind the bust presented a nice contrast to the dark entrance on the right; and the entrance itself, neatly obeying the rule of thirds, provided perfect framing for someone to enter.  That someone appeared five minutes after I began waiting.  As soon as he stopped, I took my shot and moved on.


The Couple (Paris 2003)

More often than not, in the best of the Cartier-Bressons, the background is every bit as important as the subject.  It doesn’t provide a harmony, but rather, its own melody — one that competes in a way that turns the result into something transcending.  And while not every background is a waiting stage, you might find the idea of the stage helpful if you’re a photographer, prowling the streets, looking for the next shot.




Also posted in other photographers, street photography

review — Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edmund Weston and Charis Wilson




Eloquent Nude:  The Love and Legacy of Edmund Weston and Charis Wilson, a one-hour documentary directed by Ian McClusky, is an aptly titled study that isn’t interested in Weston or his photography as much as it is interested in the power of the muse, and in the case of Charis Wilson, the muse who collaborates.  Wilson, we learn, not only inspired Weston, but often posed without direction.  As a writer she also helped market and chronicle his work.  In short, for a few magical years, when love reigned, they were a team.

Made in 2007, the film is greatly enhanced by a 92-year old Wilson – (she died two years later) — whose poignant recollections are nicely complemented with sometimes scholarly and sometimes poetic commentary by Arthur Ollman,  Jonathan Spaulding, and Jennifer Watts.  And while I’m generally not a fan of recreations, those appearing in this film are so realistic one might think they were commissioned at the time.

As noted by Weston in his diary near the end of 1933, when he first saw “this tall, beautiful girl, with fine proportioned body, intelligent face, well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders,” he knew he had to meet her.  The muse was equally smitten.  States Wilson:

“For anyone interested in statistics – I wasn’t – he was 48 years old and I had just turned 20. What was important to me was the sight of someone who quite evidently was twice as alive as anyone else in the room, and whose eyes most likely saw twice as much as anyone else’s did.”

It didn’t take long for Weston to invite Wilson to his studio, nor did it take long for the liberated Wilson to shed her clothing for the camera.  States Weston in his diary:

“I have not opened this book for eight months, and for good reason, I’ve been too busy …  busy living.  The first nudes of C were easily among the finest I’ve done.  Perhaps the finest.  I was definitely interested now and knew that she knew I was.  I felt a response.  But I am slow, even when I feel sure, especially when I’m deeply moved.  I made some 18 negatives, delaying, always delaying, until at last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers, and I was lost, and have been ever since.  A new and important chapter in my life opened Sunday afternoon, April 22d, 1934.”


“Nude” by Edward Weston, 1936

Nor was it simply a physical attraction.  As noted by Ollman, “he was a famous artist, and she was not a famous writer, but he was extraordinarily impressed with her ability to express herself with words.”  Indeed, it was Wilson who helped pen an application that won Weston a Guggenheim grant that allowed the couple to travel almost 20,000 miles through California, Nevada, Arizona and several other states — with camera and typewriter in hand – during 1937 and 1938.

Free to photograph anything he wanted, Weston made the most of these travels, as did Wilson, who produced a 300-page journal of their adventures.  At one point, the couple caught up with Weston’s younger contemporary, Ansel Adams; and together with Rondal Partridge, Adams’ assistant, the group went on a photographic camping trip.  Typical of the stories sprinkled throughout this documentary, curator Jennifer Watts observes:

“One of the things I love about that trip is that before they go, they contact Ansel and say, ‘Where can we buy dehydrated vegetables and things to bring on our trip?’  And Ansel says, ‘Dehydrated vegetables.  Why would you want those?  The only thing you need for a camping trip are salt, bacon, flour, whisky and jelly beans, and that’ll get you through.’  And I think that’s such a wonderful contrast because that really goes to show the difference between Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.”


“Charis, Lake Ediza” by Edward Weston, 1937.

Looking back at the trip now, Rondal Partridge makes it clear that Wilson well held her own in such great company:

“First I thought this is sorta funny, I mean, Edward was what, 45, 50 and she was 21 … and I thought this isn’t going to work, but she was 21 going on 40.  She was totally unselfconscious about her body, about her times, about her work.  She was my introduction to unselfconscious sexuality, and life and verve ….”

The road trip was a great success, Weston and Wilson married in 1939, and in the next two years they published two well-received books — photographs by Weston, text by Wilson.

Buoyed by this success, Weston sought and received another road-trip commission, this time to create photographs for a special edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  But in the face of restrictions, deadlines, and divergent interests, the couple did not experience the joy of their first venture.  When Wilson wished to explore areas not connected with the commission, a focused Weston would not allow it.  The relationship was tested.  The team began to splinter.  It was the beginning of the end.

In the years that followed, art imitated life in their final sessions together:  in contrast to the open sensuality of the early shoots, the final sessions show a clothed Wilson posing with closed body language.  Not aware at the time that the onset of tremors spelled Parkinson’s disease for Weston, Wilson filed for divorce in 1946.  “We both knew when we did break up, that it was a good idea, that we weren’t doing each other the kind of good that we had once been sort of selected by nature to do.”

On location still by Carson Michel © 2005

Although Wilson remarried and had children, she kept in touch with Weston, particularly through letters.  In 1957, knowing that he was greatly debilitated by his disease, she visited him in the home they had once shared.  Visiting the home once more, this time for the documentary, a 92-yr old Wilson, looking beyond the camera, tells us:

“One of the things I aimed to do when I was here was pick up a good many of my books, and I remember going over to the big bookshelf over there where a lot of the books were, and plucking these things out and stacking them up, but when I looked at this shelf it just made me feel kind of sick.  It was like looking at a … looking at a … jaw that had had the teeth taken out of it, and I put the books back and that was the last time I saw him.”

This is surely Eloquent Nude’s most poignant moment.  Mixing the sad with the sweet, it reminds us that sacred times and sacred space should not be tampered with, lest we destroy the sacred memories that give them meaning.

Like the placement of Wilson’s books, photographs also have the power to call up the sacred by suspending time.   “Photography,” Jonathan Spaulding tells us, “is about something evanescent.  It captures through the alchemy of its process a moment which you then send off into the future.” Stated differently, we can use the camera to freeze time, if only for an instant — but if it is the right instant, we can revisit that moment years down the road, and soak up its resonance as if we were there.

Describing Weston’s portraits of Wilson, Arthur Ollman expounds on this thought:

“Decades ago, in a place we’ve never been, at a time we weren’t even alive … there we are, transported back into his head, looking through his eyes at a woman he loves, and we get to feel that.  His pictures of Charis are probably the most intimate pictures he took in his life, the most personally exposed, and the most emotionally generous, perhaps.”

In the end, this is not a film about photography.  It is a film about love as the source of creation. “Edward did some of the best work of his career,” states Watts, “as a result of having Charis in his life, and Charis was able to explore and understand parts that she never would have without Edward.”  But time is relentless.  And as Spaulding observes, while “the relationship of Charis and Edward is all about the magic of creation,” it is also a reminder that given the time we’re here, we should try our best to seize as many of the instants that add up to a lifetime as we can.

For a short video from Eloquent Nude, click here.
To visit the official Eloquent Nude site, click here

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Vivian Maier — a new master is discovered

Imagine going to an auction and purchasing a repossessed box of film, only to later discover you’ve bought 30,000 negatives created by an unknown woman who promises to be one of the great street photographers of the 20th Century. That’s exactly what happened to John Maloof, a 29-year-old real estate agent who made his purchase in 2007, hoping he might find some vintage images for a book on a Chicago neighborhood.


© Vivian Maier –the Maloof Collection, LTD

The master Maloof discovered was Vivian Maier, a former nanny who died in obscurity not too long thereafter — at the age of 83 in April 2009.  Ironically, it was just about that time that Maloof seemed to have fully appreciated the treasure he was sitting on.  Although it was too late to contact Maier, it wasn’t too late to become her champion.  Seized by the excitement of having discovered a great artist, Maloof diligently searched out more of Maier’s work, and began to promote her genius.  As a result, he now owns no less than 100,000 Maier negatives, most of which have never been seen by the public, and many of which await development.

Although Maier has been a story for some time, I discovered her only recently, when a friend sent me an email promising to lead me to a collection of “amazing photographs.” I’ve received many such emails over the years, and while I’ve often enjoyed the result, I’ve never been amazed – until now.


© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier is quite a force. A recluse who apparently was loved by those few who knew her, she took to the streets with her camera during the second half of the 20th Century. The result is a collection of perfectly-exposed images that sharply capture the times in beautiful black & white. While the subjects vary, her portraits of random encounters are among her strongest images. In these we see isolated individuals — sometimes posing, sometimes observing, sometimes lost in thought — belonging precisely where we find them, in well-composed settings (usually slices of the city) that add to the story.


© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier








Looking at Maier’s images makes you feel like you’ve traveled through time to a place far far away — and it is this nostalgic fermentation which surely is part of the charm.  But the faces painted across her canvas — noble faces, fragile faces, faces of concern, anger, surprise, hubris, bemusement, concentration, joy, pain and quiet desperation — speak to a timelessness of condition common to all generations.

In Maier, we also see something of the chameleon at work. While her eye, sensibility, and technical expertise is that of a master, I wonder about her aesthetic, that special signature that sets her apart.  I’m sure that it’s there, but for now, as I continue to explore her images, I can’t help but see the style (if not the influence) of others — the street drama of a Helen Levitt, the humor of an Elliott Erwitt, the compositional geometry of a Cartier-Bresson, the conscious voyeurism of a Lee Friedlander. To be clear:  this isn’t a criticism; few photographers are so multidimensional.

Another master who comes to mind is, of course, Diane Arbus.  While Arbus appears to have had the darker vision, both women appreciated the Absurd, sharing an existential sensibility that surely inspired them to seek out souls caught in a moment of isolation.  And as others have noted, there’s also Lisette Model, who may have been a direct influence.


© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier








If you’re a lover of street photography, I strongly recommend that you explore Maier when you have some quiet time.   John Maloof’s website, simply titled, Vivian Maier, is a good place to start, as is the always excellent New York Times LENS.

See also:  The Curious Case of Vivian Maier’s Copyright



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