Born in 1908 in a town outside of Boston, Newhall attended Harvard University studying art history and museum studies. After receiving his Master’s Degree, Newhall’s professor, Paul J. Sachs, helped him obtain a job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1931. Continuing his graduate studies at the Institute of Art and Archaeology of the University of Paris, Newhall ran into financial troubles and settled on a job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Setting up a darkroom in the men’s restroom, his passion for photography could not be overlooked and in 1937, he was invited to curate a show on the history of photography where the first edition of his famous photo history textbook, The History of Photography, emerged.
During his time at the Museum of Modern Art, Newhall married Nancy Wynne Parker, a writer who would transform his artistic work through the addition of her words, in 1936. When discussing his relationship with Nancy, Newhall said, “ [We are] in every sense a pair. Through our blessed union we pull each other up. We continually build – and I know that we shall continue to do so, and that our future will be even more creative, constructive and sound than ever.” (1) They aided each other in the research of photography, writing and editing, socializing and interviewing people involved in photography, encouraging the appreciation of straight photography, as well as enjoying life together in general. Based on a search in the Newhall archives at the Getty Research Institute, Beaumont wrote 650 articles, with Nancy writing about ten linear feet of the material.
Following his marriage and the emergence of his work at the photography show, he was named the curator of the Department of Photography at the Modern in 1940. After being drafted to work in aerial photo intelligence in the military in 1942, Nancy Newhall took over his position until his return in 1945. After leaving the museum in 1947, the Newhall couple moved to North Carolina where they began to prepare work for the 1949 edition of The History of Photography. In 1948, he took a position as curator at the International Museum of Photography until 1958 when Newhall became the director of the Eastman House. While working at the Eastman House, he also demonstrated his passion for cooking through a column in the Brighton-Pittsford Post including recipes and writings that were recently turned into a cookbook entitled Beaumont’s Kitchen. He remained at Eastman House until his retirement in 1971 when he joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico to anchor the History of Prints and Photography program in the Art History Department. Also working as a graduate professor, he invited his students to come to his house in Santa Fe to complete research in his personal archives in his library every Friday afternoon.
In 1984 at the age of 76, Newhall retired from teaching and received the “Young Genius Award” from the MacArthur Foundation. Residing in Santa Fe, Newhall passed away in February of 1993 as a result of a stroke. Shortly after his death, the Getty Research Institute obtained the majority of his archives, as well as the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, the Houghton Library at Harvard, and the College of Santa Fe.
A booklet entitled Beaumont Newhall: Colleagues and Friends In Celebration, that was published for a 1994 memorial service in Santa Fe attributed Newhall for being courteous, spontaneous, and generous – and, of course, for his wild eyebrows, flying wispy hair, pack of dogs and for the fact that he always answered his mail.
In addition to his archives, a video entitled Focus on Beaumont contains an interview with Newhall was created by David Scheinbaum and Newhall’s assistant, dealer, and Christi Yates Newhall (his second wife). In addition to the video, Newhall’s personal photography collection is also a part of a traveling exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution. The photographs are reproduced in The Photographs of Beaumont Newhall: In Plain Sight (1983) and contain a memorable introduction by Ansel Adams, a longtime friend and fellow photographer.
Newhall not only had a significant impact on photography, but he also affected the educational aspects of photography and art through his work in museums and universities and left a profound impact on almost all those who encountered him, as well as his work.
To find out more details on the lives of Beaumont and Nancy, his autobiography Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (1993) elaborates on his experiences and accomplishments.
By Kyerstin Hill, Marquette University, For IPHF