HANS NAMUTH: Portraits

Carolyn Kinder Carr
Smithsonian Institution ($30.95)

by Elizabeth Culbert

Stop for a moment to imagine the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack at work on a canvas. More than likely, that image in your head is based on a Hans Namuth photograph. Between July and October of 1950, Namuth made more than 500 photographs of Pollack loosely tossing paint from his brush onto a canvas spread over the studio floor. When several of these images appeared on the cover and pages of Life magazine, the painter was viewed by the masses in the act of creating. Namuth's portraits elevated Pollack to near-heroic stature. Beginning with these photographs, and in going on to capture images of artists, architects and writers through the late-1980s, Namuth drastically influenced the public's vision of the twentieth century's greatest American artists.

Hans Namuth: Portraits is a beautiful and thorough collection that not only represents the seminal Namuth portraits, but also reveals his breadth of subject. The book comprises a portfolio of images recording one of the great cultural periods in American history, including portraits of Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, Jasper Johns, Joseph Albers, and Hans Hoffman. But the real pleasure is in finding some of Namuth's less familiar work; his portraits of Julia Child, Edward Albee, Jerome Robbins, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Louis I. Kahn are masterful and intimate. Extensively researched, the book provides a detailed account of Namuth's life in an informative chronology and a scholarly essay by Carolyn Kinder Carr of the National Portrait Gallery. It expands our understanding of his subjects and the connections he felt among artists working in various genres and media.

In the years following World War II, American art's sudden gain in national and international stature drew the attention of the general public and raised its interest in the artists' private lives. Hans Namuth's portraits coincided with this rise of the artist as celebrity; they fed the public's fascination and understanding. Many of Namuth's commissions and exhibitions were generated by the nature of his subject, and Carr addresses this undeniable link between fame of subject and fame of photographer. She notes that his interest in photographing artists and intellectuals seems to have little to do with commercial aspiration and more with personal identification with the community of artists, writers, and musicians he photographed. Since his early days in Europe, Namuth had sought out artists and intellectuals and he relied on his charm and ability to create a rapport with them.

After a brief stint in the Midwest, where he first settled after arriving in the U.S. in 1941, Namuth moved to New York. His work was scattered until a chance meeting with Jackson Pollack led to a group of images about the creative process. Namuth knew these were important to his development as a photographer and he positioned himself to "capture the contemporary masters at work." He pursued this for the rest of his life. The creativity of his subjects fueled his own creativity; his interest in the symbiotic relationship between an artist and his or her work became the basis of a similar symbiosis in his own work.

Namuth was uncomfortable with the idea that people might view him as carrying out a paid assignment when he in fact felt personally compelled by his subjects and believed that he and they were "on common ground." He depended on the development of personal relationships with his subjects. He commented: "I must confess that I personally consider many of the photographs of these men and women the fruits of great rapport. They bring good memories and offer a challenge too. It still fascinates me to go out there and meet new subjects, and try to persuade him of her to become entrapped —forever, I like to think—in my mystical little black box."

Stylistically, Namuth used a minimum of tricks to create succinct portraits that reveal the artist's personality. He mythologized and humanized his subjects simultaneously; they were creators, yet they were mortal and susceptible to vice and folly. His portrait of Elaine and Willem de Kooning was not so much about Willem's Woman painting tacked to the wall behind them, but about the relationship between the two artists. Elaine, sitting to the side of the canvas, is as distracted as Willem is confrontational. She later commented that she wanted to be in the photograph to prove that she "did not pose for these ferocious women," but when she saw the image, she "was taken aback to discover in Hans's photograph that [she] and the painted lady seemed like one flesh."

Namuth will be remembered as the great chronicler of the New York art scene of the '50s and '60s, but he was not a passive recorder. His passion for contact with creative personalities drove him to actively participate in this world, using his talents for establishing friendships and making pictures. He worked from a vantage point few could rival. Namuth's goal was to "create an iconic portrait that would speak to present and future generations." This collection of portraits demonstrates his consistent success.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999