How a Portrayal of Realness Makes Iconic Photographer Helmut Newton Relevant in Our Present Era

Helmut Newton, Self-portrait in Monte Carlo, 1993. © Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation.
Helmut Newton, Baby Sumo. Installation view. Image courtesy of Taschen.
Helmut Newton 100, installation view, Köpenicker Straße 70, Berlin-Mitte. Photo: Max von Gumppenberg.
Helmut Newton, Self-portrait at Yva’s studio, Berlin, 1936. © Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation.
Helmut Newton at home, Monte Carlo, 1987. © Foto Alice Springs, Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation.
Inside excerpt of Baby Sumo, published by Taschen, 2020. Imgae courtesy of Taschen.
Inside excerpt of Baby Sumo, published by Taschen, 2020. Imgae courtesy of Taschen.
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October 31, 2020 marked the 100th birthday of the late legendary fashion photographer Helmut Newton. On the occasion of celebrating his legacy, we take a look at how Newtons oeuvre is still relevant and why he continues to captivate people today.

 

TEXT: Dawn Hung
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

To celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of legendary photographer Helmut Newton (born Helmut Neustädter; 1920–2004), the Helmut Newton Foundation opened a large public outdoor exhibition in Berlin on 31 October, entitled “Helmut Newton 100.” In London, Hamilton Gallery and Zebra One Gallery have both recently mounted exhibitions paying tribute to the influential, and at times controversial, photographer. Meanwhile in July, German director Gero von Boehm made headlines with his second documentary on the “King of Kink,” titled Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful. Most recently, art book publisher Taschen launched a new edition of Newton’s infamous monograph SUMO, in honour of the centenary anniversary. Shrunk to exactly half the size of the monumental book, Baby SUMO, like the 1999 original, is being produced with a limited print-run of only 10,000 copies worldwide.

 

Helmut Newton, Self-portrait in Monte Carlo, 1993. © Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation.
Helmut Newton, Baby Sumo. Installation view. Image courtesy of Taschen.

 

All the tributes serve as a timely reminder of Newton’s influential and provocative photographs, especially in this digital age of smartphones, when people have easy access to a constant flow of images on social media. However, as Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, says in von Boehm’s documentary, “You could look at any image and say, ‘That’s a Helmut Newton photograph,’ and there aren’t that many photographers of which you can say that.” There is a certain eccentricity to his work, which differentiates him from other fashion photographers of the same generation, such as Irving Penn or Richard Avedon. All are famed for their black-and-white photographic work, and are honoured as important fashion photography maestros of the 20th century who contributed to powerful fashion titles such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. While Penn captured the grandeur of women, and Avedon honed in on women’s elegant movements, Newton created numerous show stoppers in various magazines with stunning images by unveiling the alternative state of realness of women.

 

Helmut Newton 100, installation view, Köpenicker Straße 70, Berlin-Mitte. Photo: Max von Gumppenberg.

 

Newton’s work is often labelled as misogynist, cruel, and even pornographic. The term ‘sexist’ may be concluded from a simple glimpse at his work. Yet, upon closer examination, the subjects of his photographs undeniably constitute a narrative of female empowerment and the representation of femininity in a state of realness, whether nude or clothed.

In the 1995 documentary, Helmut by June, filmed by the photographer’s wife, June, Newton shared his admiration for strong women, not only relating to the physical but also the intellectual. His sentiment may be traced back to his formative years, influenced by German film director Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Nazi propaganda sports film Olympia, and his apprenticeship with German Jewish photographer Yva (Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon).

 

Helmut Newton, Self-portrait at Yva’s studio, Berlin, 1936. © Foto Helmut Newton, Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation.
Helmut Newton at home, Monte Carlo, 1987. © Foto Alice Springs, Helmut Newton Estate. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation.

 

Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, celebrating Newton’s anniversary may be viewed as a precarious undertaking; his juxtaposition of sexuality and female empowerment is still at times regarded as controversial by today’s standards. In his documentary, von Boehm sought to defuse the possible provocation of celebrating Newton’s legacy, weighing-in female voices by presenting 11 candid interviews, from Jamaican model Grace Jones, English actress Charlotte Rampling, and Italian-American actress Isabella Rossellini, to German model Nadja Auermann, and Wintour, among others. When we spoke by email, von Boehm said, “I realised that there were … just statements and brilliant scholarly essays mostly by men, male gallerists, male journalists, male collectors, and male curators. And there were anecdotes by some of his assistants. But I rarely heard women speak or write about him. That’s why I wanted to give carte blanche to women who knew him well, who had worked with him.”

These women were often not only Newton’s muses, also his closest female collaborators. Their collaborations have conceived some of the iconic works that accelerated their careers, such as Charlotte Rampling at the Hotel Nord Pinus II, Arles (1973), part of Newton’s first nude series and Rampling’s first nude portrait; or Grace Jones, Downtown, Los Angeles (1985) depicting Jones lying naked on a cot exuding an air of confidence.

 

Inside excerpt of Baby Sumo, published by Taschen, 2020. Imgae courtesy of Taschen.
Inside excerpt of Baby Sumo, published by Taschen, 2020. Imgae courtesy of Taschen.

 

Newton’s work can be regarded as a product of voyeurism, a re-enactment of reality, and a time-capsule of a certain period. Most of his works were photographed in non-studio spaces, such as garages, hotels, and outdoor areas. He preferred natural light. Yet the simplicity of the set-up did not diminish his vision, but rather, allowed him to capture women with unprecedented honestly. His voyeuristic vision is hinted at by von Boehm’s film title, as the director explained, “There is a 1952 melodrama by the same title, The Bad and the Beautiful, directed by Vincente Minelli … it is a story of Hollywood behind the scenes. Helmut Newton loved Hollywood and [the] behind the scenes [aspects], for decades he lived part of the year in LA, although he didn’t want to be a part of that glamourous world—he didn’t want to belong to anything, just to himself and to his beloved wife June. But as a voyeur he loved to look behind the scenes everywhere.”

In von Boehm’s documentary, Wintour describes how she feels his work can provoke a deep examination of culture at large. In one clip, Rossellini says, “…the expression of machismo is an expression of a culture,” and elaborates on the tortuous complexity of attraction and resentment between men and women, delineated by the perceived state of realness in the women portrayed in his work. Rossellini elaborates further in another clip, how Newton’s nude photos were embraced in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and opened doors for later visionaries such as Robert Mapplethorpe, who is known for his black-and-white portraits, male and female nudes, and still-life images, in particular his portrayal of New York’s BDSM subculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By documenting the voices of his muses, von Boehm’s film shares unheard insights into the perpetual debate over feminism and Newton’s body of work, reiterating the empowerment of the female body.

 

 

 
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