Hans Namuth (1915-90)
An important figure in the mythology of modern art, the German-American photographer won international fame as a result of his fine art photography documenting the work of action painter Jackson Pollock (1912-56). In all, he took 500 photographs and made two films of Pollock at work in his studio, which established his place as one of the greatest photographers of his day. This unusual portrait art, which documented Pollock's unique style of "action painting", led to a dramatic increase in the artist's reputation and a greater understanding of his work. It also helped Namuth to arrange portrait sessions with numerous other artists from the New York School - notably the colour field painter Mark Rothko, the gesturalist Willem de Kooning, the neo-Dada artist Robert Rauschenberg, and the reclusive Clyfford Still - as well as some of America's greatest architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius and Louis Kahn. Although acknowledged to be a technically skilled photographer, much of Namuth's success in getting his subjects to work in front of the camera, was down to his friendly and sociable personality. In addition to his documentary photography of modern artists, Namuth - at the instigation of Carmen Herrera, his Guatemalan wife - also turned his camera on the Mam people of Todos Santos, in Guatemala, whose lifestyle was under threat from alcoholism. Now regarded almost as an art historian, Namuth's principal stroke of luck was to choose Pollock as his first project, in that Pollock's technique of action painting was ideal for recording in a sequence of photographs. Moreover, for Pollock and others like him, it is the act of painting that is truly creative; the picture is merely the residue of this. Namuth's Pollock sequence has thus gone down as a milestone both in the history of photography and in the history of art.
For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?
Important Photo: Jackson Pollock in the act of painting (1950)
Born in Essen, Namuth is encouraged by his mother to take an interest in the arts, becoming a regular visitor to the Folkwang Museum, where he sees exhibitions of German Expressionism and French Impressionism. At 18, he travels to Paris, where he eventually teams up with the expatriate German photographer George Reisner, who introduces him to the fundamentals of photography. While covering the Workers' Olympiad in Barcelona in July 1936 for French magazine VU, the pair are caught up in the Spanish Civil War and duly provide photos to several European publications. When World War II breaks out in 1939, Namuth is initially interned as an alien by the French authorities, before eventually making his way to New York in 1941. Drafted in December 1943, he joins the intelligence services and works as an interpreter with the American army in Europe.
Returning to New York after the war, Namuth meets the photographer Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971) who is also art director of Harper's Bazaar. Namuth takes classes under Brodovitch and Josef Breitenbach (1896-1984) at the New School of Social Research, and soon begins working for Harper's Bazaar, doing fashion photography.
In 1950 Namuth opens a studio in New York and, at the instigation of Brodovitch, contacts the cranky, jeans-clad, chain-smoking painter Jackson Pollock and asks to photograph the artist while at work in his studio. Persuaded by his media-conscious wife Lee Krasner, Pollock agrees, and the rest is history. Namuth becomes the major photo chronicler of the New York School, and during the period 1950-1988 photographs more than 300 painters, sculptors, and conceptual artists, usually as they worked in their studios. In addition to those already mentioned, Namuth does photo-portraits of the modernist Stuart Davis; the pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, George Segal and James Rosenquist; the sculptor Richard Serra and the versatile postmodernist Andy Warhol, as well as films on the abstract painter Josef Albers and the sculptor Alexander Calder. In the process he develops into one of the best portrait artists in America. In 1979 he starts doing photographic work for Art News, eventually producing 19 front covers for the magazine over four years.
He dies in an automobile accident on Long Island in 1990, not far from the site where Pollock had died in a car crash, 34 years previously.
1967 New York (Museum of Modern Art)
For other renowned len-based artists best-known for their portraits, please see the following forthcoming articles.
Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
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ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ART