Obituary: Beaumont Newhall

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The Independent Online
Beaumont Newhall, historian of photography, born Lynn Massachusetts, married twice, died Sante Fe New Mexico 26 February 1993.

BEAUMONT NEWHALL was the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and later the first Director of George Eastman House, now the International Museum of Photography, in Rochester, New York. He wrote the first comprehensive history of photography in English and was the first to emphasise the medium's status as an art form.

From 1972 until 1985 he taught at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where he remained Professor of Art, Emeritus, until he died. Generations of curators, historians and students will remember him for his extraordinarily vivid anecdotes and his generosity with his vast store of research notes.

A graduate of Harvard in the class of 1930, Newhall studied Art History - since his early interest in photography and motion pictures, inspired particularly by the new work from Germany, could not then be met. He found Harvard too 'archaeological', and was more inclined towards the writings of Alois Reigl and Max Burckhard. He was indebted to Paul Sachs's museum studies course, which used a 'hands on' approach and was to produce many of the distinguished museum directors of his generation. He was also encouraged to travel. He visited Germany, and studied briefly in Paris and at the Courtauld Institute in London, where he spent his spare afternoons reading in the library of the Royal Photographic Society.

In 1936 Newhall was offered a job as a librarian at the new Museum of Modern Art by the director, Alfred Barr, also a product of Sachs's Harvard class. An unlikely candidate for curatorship in 'the most exciting museum in the world', Newhall was never part of the New York contemporary arts scene. But Barr was a strategist and in that year Iris Barry vacated a 'holding position' in the library to start the museum's department of motion pictures and Newhall was given dollars 5,000 to mount the first exhibition of the history of photography.

The exhibition, 'Photography 1839-1937', was researched mainly in France and Britain; although fluent in German, Newhall refused to revisit the countryin 1936. Considering the few organised public collections of the period and the low profile of the medium, his limited researches produced a remarkably coherent account of photography from its inception. The exhibition took place in the spring of 1937 in the old Rockefeller five-storey town-house which was the museum's first home. A series of sets designed to illustrate the importance of the changing technology of photography in setting the medium's own aesthetic started dramatically in the marble entrance hall with Herbert Matter's large transparency of a man holding a miniature camera to his eye, through which could be seen the earliest photographs. The catalogue was edited and enlarged and published the following year as Photography: a short critical history (1938) and through many revisions has become one of the few authoritative texts and perhaps the most elegantly written of all.

Over the years Newhall published over 600 articles, catalogues and books, including The Daguerreotype in America (1961), Frederick H. Evans (1975), Airborne Camera (1969) and Latent Image: the discovery of photography (1961) - perhaps the best illustration of his ability to fuse detailed research with the immediacy of contemporary accounts to produce compelling narrative.

Drafted in 1942 as a reconnaissance officer with the US Fifteenth Airforce, Newhall spent the war in Egypt, North Africa and Italy. It was on an official trip to London at this time that he met Helmut Gernsheim, and suggested that he should collect photography - advice that had far- reaching consequences. During Newhall's absence his wife, Nancy, had taken his place as acting curator and on his return he collaborated on an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs she had set up. By the time he was officially back in the department Alfred Barr had left the museum and the Trustees had decided to appoint Edward Steichen over him as Director of the Department of Photography. Newhall who had little regard for Steichen's attitudes to photography, resigned. He took up a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship to expand his History of Photography and shortly afterwards he was asked by Eastman Kodak to set up the new museum of photography at George Eastman House.

The debt owed to Beaumont Newhall as founder curator of two of the most important collections in the world is probably underestimated. Deferential by habit, he was decisive when given authority to collect. When in 1939 David McAlpin gave the museum and the Metropolitan dollars 1,000 each to buy photography with no conditions, Newhall immediately spent half of it on acquiring a collection of Moholy Nagy photographs, in direct contrast to the Metropolitan's cautious approach.

At George Eastman House he quickly acquired from France the historic Gustave Cromer collection which the French government was not prepared to finance. His courtship of the eccentric collector from Chicago Alden Scott Boyer was the source of many of Beaumont's most entertaining stories and resulted in the gift of his collection of photography to the museum, including rare daguerreotypes, apparatus and books amounting to four tons of the incunabula of photographic history. The curatorial approach instilled at Harvard informed his professional practice, while simultaneously he interested the people of Rochester with live demonstrations on photography from the new television station.

As a scholar there was a Darwinian touch to Beaumont Newhall; his students at the University of New Mexico, where he became professor in 1972, will remember his dominant, intelligent forehead and his tall frame loping amiably to lectures. His final years were spent living and writing in the house and garden he created with his second wife Christi, overlooking the vast landscape of New Mexico. In 1992 his manuscripts and related papers were acquired by the Getty Center. His memoirs will be published in August.

(Photograph omitted)

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