Newhall’s parents, Herbert William Newhall, a physician, and Alice Lillia Davis, a photographer and homemaker, were both descended from the first settlers of New England. His only sibling, Ruth, died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of seventeen. He was privately educated until 1917, when he entered the Lynn public schools, eventually enrolling in Lynn Classical High School. In 1925 Newhall attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, to prepare for Harvard.
In his 1993 autobiography Focus, Newhall traced his interest in photography to the German experimental film Variety (1925), which he saw at age eighteen. He became fascinated with the technical aspects of the movie, particularly the camera work and special effects. He even hoped to go to Hollywood and become a film director, but his parents preferred that he attend Harvard, which he did, “in order not to disappoint them.” Newhall studied art history (there were no courses in photography or motion pictures at that time) and earned a bachelor of arts degree, cum laude, in 1930. He won a scholarship to Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, and in 1931 received a master’s degree in art museum management. He reentered Harvard in the fall of 1933, intending to study for a Ph.D. in art history, but after two years, to his “amazement and embarrassment,” he failed his oral examinations. Newhall met Nancy Wynne Parker, an artist, in 1933. They were married on 1 July 1936, in her hometown of Swampscott, Massachusetts. Their union produced no children.
In 1935, after two short-lived docent jobs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Newhall was hired by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City as librarian. The following year Museum Director Alfred Barr, Jr., asked him to curate the first major exhibition of photography. Newhall immediately saw this as an opportunity to elevate the appreciation of photography, “the most exciting and the most expressive art of our time,” to the level of painting, sculpture, and music. Newhall’s historical overview “Photography 1839-1937” opened on 17 March 1937. Its success led the museum to create a department of photography in 1940, the first such department at any art museum, and to appoint Newhall the curator of photography.
In August 1942, after the United States entered World War II, Newhall enlisted as a first lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. He served overseas for two-and-a-half years in the Third Photo Intelligence Detachment, stationed in Egypt, Tunisia, and Italy. Newhall’s wife Nancy acted as curator of photography at the MOMA during his absence.
Newhall returned from service in October 1945 and resumed his position at the museum until 1947, when the trustees appointed the photographer Edward Steichen over him as director of the department of photography. Describing the situation many years later, Newhall wrote, “Since Steichen’s interest was in photojournalism and mine was in photography as an art, I resigned from the museum.”
In 1947 Newhall was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to revise his 1937 exhibition catalog into a full-length book. Published in 1949, The History of Photography concentrated on the artistic development of the medium. Universally praised for its scholarship and elegant style, it became the standard text on the subject. Newhall received a second Guggenheim fellowship in 1975, which enabled him to publish a fifth edition in 1982.
In 1948 Newhall was appointed the first curator of photography at the new George Eastman House museum of photography in Rochester, New York. Ten years later he became director. Under Newhall’s leadership, and with his deep knowledge of the subject, he built an unsurpassed collection for the institution and guided its development into the world’s finest museum of photography.
Newhall’s scholarly output over the years contributed immeasurably to the field of photography. He wrote more than 600 articles and catalogs and 30 books, among them The Daguerreotype in America (1961), Latent Image: The Discovery of Photography (1967) and Airborne Camera (1969). In 1952 he founded the magazine Image to document the progress of the art and science of photography and cinematography. He cofounded the quarterly Aperture and was a contributing editor to the periodical Art in America from 1958 to 1965. Newhall also found time, between 1956 and 1969, to write 234 newspaper columns about food, the “Epicure Corner,” for the Brighton-Pittsford (New York) Post.
After Newhall retired from George Eastman House in 1971 he started a major program in photography at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and taught there for thirteen years. With his tall frame (six feet, three inches) and high, intelligent forehead, Newhall was a legendary figure on campus, long remembered for the generosity of time he made for his students.
In the summer of 1974, while vacationing in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall went rafting down the Snake River. Without warning, a huge tree, undermined from the unusually high water, crashed upon the raft and struck Nancy. She died on 7 July 1974 from the injuries she had received. Over the course of their thirty-eight-year marriage Nancy had been Newhall’s partner and collaborator as well as a noted photographer and author in her own right.
Newhall spent his life studying, writing about, and promoting photographers and photography, and beginning in the 1970s he began exhibiting his own work. In Plain Sight, a book of his photographs, was published in 1983. Newhall married Christi Yates on 22 May 1975 and moved to a house and garden in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Officially divorced in 1985, they continued to share the house until he died there from complications of a stroke. His remains were cremated.
“We may and can play an important part in fostering the appreciation of photography, but our quest for perfection, our passion for the expression of feeling in a photograph, are things that in general will be no more appreciated than the great chamber-music performers,” Newhall wrote Nancy in one of his letters during their long wartime separation. Although Newhall foresaw the challenge that lay before him, he could not anticipate how his own talents and achievements would one day foster the appreciation of photography that he so desired.
The Beaumont and Nancy Newhall papers and photographs, 1943-1993, are at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. A smaller collection of personal and business papers is at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Newhall’s autobiography Focus (1993) provides a detailed and comprehensive account of his life. Newhall wrote further autobiographical information in the introduction to his book In Plain Sight: The Photographs of Beaumont Newhall (1983). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 27 Feb. 1993), and London Independent (9 Mar. 1993).
Kenneth R. Cobb