Marvin E. Newman’s work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, and he shot assignments for LIFE, Look, Fortune and Esquire, among others. But as Lyle Rexer writes in a new book, the “very diversity of Newman’s work and the fact that so much of it appeared in popular magazines, including several that no longer exist, [explains] why it has taken until now for his photographs to be recognized as a singular oeuvre and for Newman himself to be acknowledged as a major American postwar photographer.” His first career monograph, Marvin E. Newman, a large-format book published recently by Taschen, aims to change that. Along with a chronology of his life and work, it presents a handful of color projects, a mix of assignments and personal work that show Newman’s innovative and sensitive approach to both formalism and storytelling.
Newman was born in the Bronx in 1927 and joined New York’s Photo League in 1948, before moving to Chicago to study with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design. On summer break he worked in the darkrooms at LIFE. Back in New York after graduation, he quickly began a career as a magazine photographer, working for Sports Illustrated, Sport and other magazines, while his experimental street photos were shown and collected by MoMA. For the rest of his long career, Newman continued on both tracks, shooting award-winning sports photography along with nature, street photography and travel work for both himself and for assignments.
The focus of the monograph is his work in color, starting with early studies of New York. As Rexer writes, Newman “took color photography where it was not used to going: into the street.” Among the essays are Newman’s 1950s explorations of the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy and the lights on Broadway, places that are familiar in black and white to fans of mid-century street photography, but which are a revelation in Newman’s saturated but subtle color. His images bring to mind Saul Leiter’s contemporaneous color street work, which also went unheralded for many years. Newman records the glow of neon lights on wet pavement, sometimes collapsing reflections into near abstraction. He also pays attention to human subjects, catching the complex gestures of winter sunbathers at Coney Island, or pensive gamblers in Las Vegas. As Rexer writes, Newman paid attention to expanding both visual and narrative forms. “His formal intelligence in the service of human sympathy, his acute sense of life’s irony and beauty, provide touchstones for photographers. And not just for them, but for everyone seeking to understand, amidst the rising tide of images in the digital age, what photography can communicate about the lives we lead and the world around us.”