On Saturday, July 1, 1950, Hans Namuth, who had rented a house for the summer in Water Mill, Long Island,Jackson Pollack attended an opening in East Hampton at Guild Hall, a small community arts center. Jackson Pollock was among those featured in the group show devoted to the work of artists living in the region, and he was present at the reception. Namuth had seen Pollock's work at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City the previous November. He did not particularly care for Pollock's painting, but Alexey Brodovitch, his teacher at the Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research and art director of Harper's Bazaar, had persuaded him that Pollock was an important artist. That hot afternoon Namuth introduced himself to Pollock and asked if he could come to his studio in the nearby town of Springs and photograph him. Pollock's wife, painter Lee Krasner, aware of the importance of media attention, encouraged Pollock to work with Namuth. From July through early October 1950, Namuth took more than five hundred photographs of the artist. As Pollock danced about his huge canvases and articulated their surfaces with dripped and thrown paint, Namuth captured the kinesthetic essence of the artist's work.

Jackson PollackThese seminal photographs forever changed the way the public viewed Pollock's paintings; they also forever changed Namuth's life. While Namuth earned his living with a variety of photographic assignments, both before and after he took his landmark Pollock portraits, his avocation--no, his passion--from this time onward became photographing creative personalities. His oeuvre--at least the part of it that was most important to him--is a forty-year chronicle, mainly of artists, but also of architects, writers, and musicians, who have made significant contributions to recent American cultural history.

Namuth was born on March 17, 1915, in Essen, Germany. His otherwise uneventful early life was shaped by his interest in political ideas and the arts, the former fostered by the German Youth Movement, the latter by his mother. In July 1933, Namuth was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi literature. His father, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1929 after a series of economic losses, secured his release and, to assure his safety, obtained for him a tourist visa for France.

In Paris, the charming and gregarious Namuth supported himself with a variety of low-paying jobs and made numerous friends among the German expatriate community. Of particular importance was his friendship with fellow German Georg Reisner, who, in the summer of 1935, invited Namuth to assist him in a portrait photography studio that he had established in Puerto de Pollensa, Majorca. This casual, serendipitous introduction to photography would forever shape Namuth's life.

In November, when the season in Majorca was over, Namuth and Reisner returned to Paris, where they maintained a studio and lived with Georg's mother, who ran a "pension à famille" at 58, rue Perronet, Neuilly-sur-Seine. They supported themselves primarily as photojournalists, although from time to time they made portraitsrevolutionaries of friends and acquaintances. In July 1936 an assignment from Vu magazine to photograph the Workers' Olympiad placed them in Barcelona at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. During the next nine months, the two took dramatic and compelling photographs, which were published in leading European newspapers and journals, of the conflict's impact on the citizens of this divided country.

Namuth and Reisner returned to Paris in the spring of 1937 and remained there working as photographers until fall 1939 when, with the escalation of hostilities between France and Germany, they, like other adult German males, were interned by the French. In December, Namuth joined the French foreign legion to escape confinement. Discharged in October 1940, he then fled to Marseilles where, with the assistance of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee and with the political and financial support of the American composer Samuel L. M. Barlow, he made his way to the United States, arriving in New York City in April 1941. Regrettably, Reisner, terrified by the thought of further imprisonment and probable repatriation to Germany, committed suicide in December 1940. In 1943, anxious to support his new homeland in its fight against the Nazis, Namuth joined the U.S. Army and served with the intelligence forces in Western Europe.

After the war, Namuth's goals were to raise a family (he had married in 1943), to travel, and to photograph as a hobby. To "brush up," Namuth first took classes with Josef Breitenbach, a fellow German immigrant, and then, in 1949, with Alexey Brodovitch.

Brodovitch played a crucial role in Namuth's life, psychologically and practically. He not only restored Namuth's confidence in himself and his ability to fashion a career from photography, but he assisted his reentry into the professional world by placing Namuth's early efforts at advertising photography in Harper's Bazaar. Culturally attuned, he alerted Namuth to Pollock's significance. He also recognized the importance of Namuth's Pollock photographs and, in spring 1951, was the first to publish them.

Walter GropiusThroughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Namuth photographed an extensive number of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, among them Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. These images were complemented by assignments from magazines such as Holiday, Harper's Bazaar, and Horizon, which enabled him to add architects, writers, and musical personalities to his oeuvre. Among these stunning and sensitive portraits are images of Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Allen Tate, John O'Hara, Edward Albee, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein, and Richard Rodgers.

Louise NevelsonBeginning in 1979 and continuing until March 1983, Namuth had nineteen covers on Art News. These assignments led to insightful images of such art world notables as Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Jim Dine, and Romare Bearden. Subsequently, the French publication Connaissance des Arts became a major outlet for Namuth's portraits of artists and architects, and from 1983 until his death, the magazine published more than one hundred photographs by Namuth, including images of Philip Johnson, Isamu Noguchi, and George Segal.

Namuth was able to convey the essence of a wide range of talented individuals, but he was drawn to artists in particular because he identified with their goals and aspirations:Julian Schnabel "An artist it seems to me, is more accessible, easier to come to terms with. We [italics added] are related, and therefore on common ground. . . . There is a mutuality of outlook, and a respect for the other person's vision." Namuth also considered rapport with his subjects to be a key ingredient in successful portraiture. "Without it," Namuth once wrote, a "photograph might just as well have been made in one of those booths that take passport pictures by machine."

Namuth was fortunate. He possessed an innate ability to meet and charm people. These talents--fundamental to rapport--along with obsessive determination, served him well as a young man in making his way in politically turbulent Europe before World War II, and they servedJulia and Paul Child him equally well in America after the war as he focused on his goal of recording, both in still photography and in films, "the great contemporary masters at work." Namuth may have arrived in America homeless and stateless, but in the half-century that he lived in this country, he forged relationships that enabled him not only to make telling portraits but also to create for himself a community of lively and interesting friends and acquaintances.

The seventy-five photographs that form the Namuth collection at the National Portrait Gallery are only a sample of the portraits that the photographer created from 1950 to 1990--that is, from the time of his first image of Jackson Pollock to Namuth's untimely death in an automobile accident on October 13, 1990. They nevertheless serve to demonstrate both the range of his friendships and his approach to portraiture. For Namuth's goal in his relatively simple and direct images was to portray the essence of an individual's persona with a minimum of tricks.

Carolyn Kinder Carr
Deputy Director
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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Images: Jackson Pollock, 1950, National Portrait Gallery | Jackson Pollock, 1950, National Portrait Gallery | Departure of the Republican Troops, Hans Namuth and Georg Reisner, July 1936, Image courtesy Center of Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona | Walter Gropius, 1952, National Portrait Gallery | Louise Nevelson, 1977, National Portrait Gallery | Julian Schnabel, 1981, National Portrait Gallery | Julia Child and Paul Child, 1977, National Portrait Gallery

All images copyright Estate of Hans Namuth

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