Ṗhotographer Helmut Newton
Helmut Newton loved to repeat his father’s admonition that he would end up in the gutter because his young mind was so singularly focused on girls and photographs. Instead, the feckless, unscholarly boy grew up to transform fashion photography and glory in the rarefied jet-set lifestyle he documented on the pages of glossy magazines. Probably the most imitated and controversial) fashion photographer of his time, Newton earned the nickname King of Kink as well as a fortune. “If a photographer says he is not a voyeur, he is an idiot,” Newton once said. His erotic and dream like images were like a peep through a key hole, spied moments of a heightened reality.
As a person, Newton was unsurprisingly complex. A bohemian and yet very pragmatic, he insisted that he was not an intellectual and did not stand for much. His sardonic humor, delight in mischief, and nonchalant sense of irony are obvious in his work. He considered America weird, exotic, and outrageous; the suburbs, funny; and claimed to carry a monocle, a cigarette holder, and a pair of false nipples in his camera bag at all times. though a slave to his own imagination, Newton claimed that his photographs were entirely based in reality. “There’s not one photo, including the one I did of a woman pushing another woman down the toilet, which isn’t based on truth,” he said he was inspired by film noir, Expressionist cinema, S & M, and Surrealism in equal measure; his many obsessions were rooted in his childhood in the decadent, avant-garde capital that was prewar Berlin. Spoiled when he was growing up, he traveled with his parents to many of Europe’s grandest hotels, where he spent hours splashing in pools (later becoming a champion swimmer). In 1930s Germany, adolescent boys were told that excessive masturbation produced dark circles under the eyes; decades later, he would tell the makeup artists at his shoots to either keep the “masturbation rings” or add some. His use of uniforms and prosthetic devices, particularly the neck braces known as Minervas, can be traced back to propaganda films from the Weimar Republic and the actor and director Erich von Stroheim.
As a photographer, Newton moved fashion tableaux from Norman Parkinson’s staid and still illustrations of the season’s styles to a very radical and racy reflection of the zeitgeist. “The 1960s and seventies was a most creative time for fashion photography,” he would later write. “We didn’t need money to produce our photographs.” Instead of decorous compositions of, say, autumn leaves, Harris tweeds, and white ladies’ gloves, he ushered into Vogue the realms of cocaine, Patty Hearst, lesbians, bondage, sadomasochism, voyeurism, murder, pornography, prostitution, and threesomes. Though Newton’s models and their provocative poses were a direct reflection of the sexual revolution of that liberated era, his neo-noir settings reflected a leap backward in time—and, as a result, in the words of Karl Lagerfeld, “his pictures have survived better than the fashion they were meant to represent or illustrate.”
Feminist critics often condemned Newton’s suggestive and risque work much to his delight but the women in his photographs do not in general appear to be victims; more often, they are the powerful and manipulative perpetrators of some dark crime. The immaculate, Amazonian, and assertive figures in his multi layered mise-en-scenes take the lead rather than follow, and indeed seem capable of dominating the Masters of the Universe, both mentally and physically. Unlike many of his colleagues, Newton preferred to work with lesser-known models and hated surgically amplified breasts. “He’d always say, ‘Don’t send me any of your scrawny, undernourished models,’ Vogue’s Phyllis Posnick remembered. Newton insisted, “I am not looking for a perfect body, whatever that means, because I find that boring.” Still, his subjects tall and Teutonic, blonde and beautiful, confident and cruel consistently achieved a glossy perfection. Though they are often naked and surrounded by the accoutrement's of sexual desire, they remain immune to seduction and are never consumed by passion. Posing insolently in richly ornamented chairs or reclining with spread legs, his haughty, high-society belles convey a blasé aristocratic demeanor, untouched by their surroundings and their circumstances. Sinister props (a pistol, handcuffs, medical corset, wheelchair, or dog collar) mingle with status objects (stilettos, dark lipstick, furs, an Hermès saddle, a chauffeur and his limousine), giving the erotically charged scenes a sense of palpable menace.
Newton avoided working in studios, preferring to arrange his set-pieces in the lushly appointed and darkened rooms of turn-of-the-century mansions or hotels, or in the half-decayed gardens of elegant villas. Instead of the measured light of a controlled studio, he preferred either the harsh glare of the midday sun or nocturnal shots, illuminated by headlights or a lone street lamp.
In Helmut by June, an hour-long documentary by his wife, the photographer confessed, “Shrinking-violet women really give me the creeps.” Fortunately, the love of Newton’s life his source of inspiration, frequent model, editor, confidante, curator, and art director was a zesty agent provocateur who urged him to push boundaries even further. Newton called his wife “Junie” or “powers that be”; she called him “Helmie” or “Helmut the Hermit.” The gregarious, complicit, and deeply loving duo never lost their spontaneity or sense of fun. Childless, the constant couple initiated family dinners with friends at the best restaurants around the world Mr. Chow in New York or Los Angeles, Dave or Fouquet’s in Paris, and the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo.
June later said that her husband “broke the taboos. I could name quite a few [photographers] who couldn’t be working in the way they are working, as freely and as liberated, if it hadn’t been for Helmut.” And, indeed, Helmut the Hermit’s techniques can be seen in the work of a generation: Ellen von Unwerth, Deborah Turbeville, David Bailey, Mario Testino, Steven Klein, and the late Herb Ritts. His aesthetic had an impact on film directors, too, including Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, and Roman Polanski. And, of course, his sensibility has also influenced designers, including, notably, Yves Saint Laurent, Helmut Lang, and Tom Ford. The Lucite jewelry in Ford’s fall 2003 collection, for instance, was based on his memory of Newton’s late-seventies series of naked women in orthopedic body braces.
Helmut Newton once wrote to a friend that photographers, like well-behaved children, should be seen and not heard. Fortunately for posterity, his photographs speak volumes.