Photographic historian, curator, and photographer. He served as the Museum of Modern Art's first curator of photography and later headed the George Eastman House Museum of Photography (now George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film), a leading museum and archive. As the first scholar to treat the history of photography from the point of view of art history, he wrote a landmark history of the medium, which remained essential for decades. His carefully composed, black-and-white photographs most notably record architectural subjects and portraits. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, Newhall studied art history at Harvard, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in 1930 and 1931. He continued his studies in Paris and London before becoming MoMA's librarian in 1935. There in 1937 he organized an unprecedented and wide-ranging exhibition surveying the history of photography. The show's catalogue, revised and expanded, became the classic History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (1949). In 1940 he was appointed head of the newly created department of photography. During World War II he served for three years in U.S. Air Force photographic intelligence in Europe and North Africa. He taught at Black Mountain College for two years before joining Eastman House in Rochester, New York, in 1948. There, as curator, he shaped its collection before becoming director in 1958. From 1971 until his retirement in 1984 he taught at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Subsequently, he lived in Santa Fe, where he died. His other books include The Daguerreotype in America (1961), Latent Image: The Discovery of Photography (1967), and Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (1993).
His wife, Nancy Newhall (1908–74), a writer on photographic and environmental subjects, created photographs as well. Also born in Lynn, Massachusetts, Nancy Wynne studied at the Art Students League after graduating in 1930 from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She married Newhall in 1936. In 1942, when her husband departed for the war effort, she was appointed his substitute as MoMA's curator of photography. Her numerous publications include Time in New England (1950), a collaboration with Paul Strand; the Sierra Club's This Is the American Earth (1960), with photographs mostly by Ansel Adams; and P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art (1975). Ansel Adams: The Eloquent Light (1963) accompanied an exhibition she organized. She died in Jackson, Wyoming, of injuries sustained in a boating accident.