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November 19, 2018
Helmut Newton is holding out a gun for my inspection. "It's a Beretta!" he says, brightly. That this tanned, octo-genarian, in his smart-but-casual, v-necked Côte d'Azur attire, should be armed with a pistol seems a little surprising. Perhaps it shouldn't be. Being professionally "dangerous" has been Newton's thing ever since the 60s, when his fashion photography brought nudity and overtly sexual imagery on to the glossy pages of French Vogue and Germany's Stern. His pictures are known for their cold, voyeuristic mood, and even now they have the power to shock.
Yet Newton's longevity - and his legendary status - point to something more. His photography is beautiful, powerful and disturbing too. The portraits are elegant and coldly revealing, and the fashion photography - unfurling, inexplicable dramas depicted in night-time settings and peopled by sleek, Amazonian women - have for decades been consistent in their vividness and vision. But they are not always easy to understand; they're unsettling and chilling.
He concedes that the decadence that so famously permeated 30s Berlin left its mark on his young psyche. Newton was born there in 1920, and was 12 when he first tried photography, with a Box Brownie. First, he tried some night-time shots on the darkened Berlin underground, but they didn't come out. Next, he shot, successfully, the city's Radio Tower ("a mini Eiffel Tower") in daylight. As a child, his mother would take him to tea dances at grand hotels, which he loved. Soon, he started to take pictures of his mother and his girlfriends, and before long it was accepted that he would not be going to work in his father's button factory.
In 1936, he was apprenticed to Yva, a society photographer. He loves the night-time photography of Brassaï - the two became friends a few years before the latter died - and says he's influenced by him still. Another inspiration is the work of the Berlin doc umentary photographer Erich Salomon, who died in Auschwitz. Trials, political conferences and embassy soirées were Salomon's specialities, often shot in dark light and amid imposing architecture. A sense of intense but unexplained drama permeated his work - as it does Newton's.
Being Jewish, the teenage Helmut and his parents fled Germany in 1938, his parents to South America and he to Singapore, where he worked for a very brief spell as a news photographer - "I was thrown out after two weeks 'cause I was no bloody good, ha ha!" - then, for a while, he had a portrait studio. From there he went to Australia, served in the Australian army as a truck driver, and worked as a fashion photographer in Melbourne, before returning to Europe in 1957. Does he still feel German? "Of course I don't!" he exclaims, clearly affronted. "I like Berlin, but that's a different matter." Does he feel Jewish? "I'm what they call a bad Jew." He hasn't set foot in a synagogue since he was a schoolboy.
There's certainly a feel of 30s Berlin (or at least our perception of it) in his scenes of darkened decadence. There's also a black wit. You get the feeling with much of his fashion photography that he is mocking the very notion of fashion, or the vanity and artifice of it. In his elaborate and elegant mise en scènes, always shot on location rather than in the studio, there is invariably a sly subversion - often a reminder of real life. Two models in ultra-glamorous evening wear pose languidly at a public swimming pool as sunbathers look on. A model - gorgeous, but also faintly absurd-looking - runs down the street in her underwear past bemused onlookers, or tears along an aeroplane runway, apparently pursued by a low-flying plane.
The "X-Ray" series of pictures are darkly witty, too - though Newton claims that they're not meant to amuse; he wanted to see what was going on "under the flesh" and took some of his models, draped in millions of dollars-worth of Van Cleef and Arpels jewellery, to a radiologist. The jewels disappeared, leaving only the skulls and the metal settings. He re-visited the technique in 1994, with an x-ray shot of a foot in ankle-chain and stiletto shoe (he fetishises high heels) that is particularly macabre, but also beautiful. The picture of a model's hands, also from 1994, bejewelled with Bulgari diamonds and dismembering a chicken outraged the jewellery company, which threatened to withdraw its advertising from French Vogue as a result.
Of course, it's not just fragile fashion industry sensibilities that Newton has offended, and he certainly gives his critics plenty of ammunition. Since the 70s, when he blazed the trail of "porno-chic", his more extreme pictures - women clad in no more than high heels and suspenders and some or other riding accoutrement - made him one of the photographic world's few brand names. His outrageous 1976 picture of a model kneeling on a bed with a Hermès saddle on her back enraged many women. He says it was meant as a playful subversion: "You see so many images of women riding men." (One wonders what kind of magazines he reads.) Nowadays, his comic nihilism has become the prevailing mood in fashion photography, and his once-extremist vision of decadent luxury and cruel chic - and, of course, the exposure of bare flesh - have emerged as the norm: Newton anticipated the current climate in fashion of wealth, sex and excess by decades.
So it's perhaps no surprise that he has been blamed by his detractors for taking fashion photography to the edge of pornography, from whence, they believe, it has never truly returned. Even as recently as the mid-90s, an exhibition of his was spattered with paint by protesters. Certainly, his photography is a matter of taste, and some of his more extreme, fetishistic images are, to many of us, just plain nasty. In fact, he's happy not to be liked by everyone, though flamboyantly exasperated by those who believe that his work is demeaning to women. To me, the woman-in-saddle shot is funny in its absurdity but, equally, I can see why it might be regarded as offensive. He gets rather cross when I say so. "It's bullshit!" he says. "As far as I can tell, and women friends have told me, the feminist movement has evolved into something more serious." He audaciously counts himself as a feminist: "I'm against this ghetto that women are put in, often by themselves, 'women photographers', 'women artists', what counts is the work."
"Triumphant," is how he describes the women in his work, and he disagrees that he often makes them look absurd or objectified. It's certainly true, however, that the men who appear in many of his mini-narratives are in servile roles - waiters, chauffeurs or aged, frail-looking sugar daddies. In Newton's 1999 "Miami" shot, for example, a nondescript, barely visible man looks on from the shadows at the main attraction, a peroxide blonde in bikini and mirrored shades who is sprawled on a table in exhibitionist mode. Women, on the whole, are menacing, dangerous, frequently exhibitionist femmes fatales. Dangerous is a word he likes. In his portraiture as well as in his fashion work, he sometimes says to his subjects - Luciano Pavarotti, for instance - "look dangerous".
In Helmut's world, things are either "interesting" or "boring" - it's as simple as that. Recently, one of the major galleries in the US - "I'm not saying which one" - refused his work on the grounds that it might be detrimental to its future funding. Newton says that he finds Americans to be obsessed with such judgments. "It's boring, boring, boring! As I get older, I hope to get more and more politically incorrect!" He seems to relish his agent provocateur status (he's giving a talk to coincide with the Barbican show, introduced by Alexander McQueen: "Now he's a true agent provocateur"). And if everyone found his work acceptable, there would be no boundaries to transgress, surely? "Exactly! If you can do whatever you want, where's the fun? Because forbidden things are more interesting."
These days, he says, there are so many explicit images in magazines or on the catwalk that "sometimes, when I see all those nipples being bared and all those bottoms, I think, 'My God! I don't want to go to dinner with a lady dressed like that!' I don't understand it." Demureness is not his thing, surely? "No. A woman who is a shrinking wallflower, who is not intelligent and strong and self-assertive, is uninteresting - to put it mildly. I have a lot of male friends who prefer having bimbos at dinner than interesting women, but not me. But a woman can be extremely sexual without showing everything."
So, he likes dominant women? "I like strong women! A domineering woman, like a macho man, is boring." Yves Saint Laurent's designs signify to him everything he wants a woman to be: "Elegant, desirable, sensual, very classy, very expensive-looking." (He often places his models in bourgeois settings - grand hotels, genteel arrondisements.) "But I never wanted my ladies to be ladylike," he adds. "I wanted them to look like they are somewhat available, given the right situation and the right conditions."
Paparazzi photography is another obsession of Newton's - he even shot some fashion photographs alongside the paparazzi in Rome in the 70s, when they were still a new and strictly Roman phenomenon. These days, however, he considers the French to be masters of the craft: "And some of their exploits I admire greatly, very much to the surprise and dismay of certain people I know." Yes, there is a cruelty there, he agrees - and if he were a movie star he would probably feel differently - but he respects their tenacity and technical prowess. He particularly loves the famous shots of Jackie Onassis sunbathing nude on the island of Skorpios. He has often used pseudo-paparazzi scenes in his fashion work, another enduring influence on current fashion photography. "When it's bad, it's dumb, but when it's good, it's amazing."
For all the elaborately fake fantasies that Newton sets up in his pictures, his work is closer to documentary style than much current fashion photography. He "takes a picture", but he doesn't "work on it", or re-touch it, and so, as far as he's concerned, he's just "a real old-fashioned photographer". For this reason, Newton has always dismissed the label of "artist". "What is on the film is what appears on the photographic paper." Sometimes, society ladies whom he meets at dinner ask him to do their portraits. "I say to them, 'You wouldn't like what I do.'"
And that is the strength of Newton's portrait work - his cold, uncompromising eye. Yet, interestingly, celebrities still queue up to be snapped by him. He likes to photograph "the famous and, especially, the infamous". Sigourney Weaver posed for him in a wet, transparent shirt. Anthony Hopkins stares intently into the lens, every crease in his face laid bare. Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi photographer, powders her extraordinarily lined features (Newton has never been apologetic about his admiration for her work, despite the obvious criticism such a stance has provoked). Princess Caroline of Monaco with tiara and a dog on a lead: "I think royals can be as boring as everyone else, but they can also be pretty wild people."
Most of his subjects are happy with the result - though not Jean-Marie Le Pen. Newton persuaded France's far-right leader to pose with two dobermans, and Le Monde published the picture alongside a shot of Hitler with his own two Alsatians. Le Pen hadn't wanted to pose with the dogs, and though Newton says he usually doesn't make his subjects do something they don't want to do - "All they have to do is say no" - this time he persisted.
Catherine Deneuve, too, took a few years to get used to a Newton portrait of her. "She was very professional, quite cold, very beautiful." He is the only photographer she has allowed into her apartment, he says, and at the time she was horrified by the resulting shots - seductive, in lingerie, cigarette clenched between her teeth. "She wants to be very ladylike, and an ambassador for France and so on." But then, a few years later, he says, she had a change of heart and loved the images. And, yes, he says, he would love to photograph Camilla Parker-Bowles: "It's something to do with power - she's an interesting woman."
Power and sex. Sex and power. How sex makes you powerful. These are the Newton obsessions. He hates the word "love", thinks it's overused (like the word "erotic", which he also hates). And there's certainly no trace of tenderness in his pictures. "No, you're quite right, they're very cold and calculating."
At home, however, there is always June. They've been married for 40 years, and have no children. She is also his collaborator. She has not only curated his recent shows, but has art directed many of his books. He loves strong women, as he's said (June is reputed to be rather fierce), so is that what attracted him to her? Not really, he says, it was more because she was the first actress he had ever met. "I thought that was quite a gas." He liked the idea of the changing persona of an actress, the artifice of it. Although that wasn't quite what he got, he adds.
They joined forces on a book Us And Them, which is "all about our personal lives" - the portrait of Newton in jaunty hat and high-heeled slingbacks, taken in Monte Carlo by his wife in 1987, is from this series. So, is she a big influence on his work? "Of course she's an influence, but often we don't agree and when I feel very strongly about something I'll do it, anyway." Would he say he's a romantic person? "I'm romantic about funny things, but in my pictures I reject it." And in real life? "My wife and I get on tremendously well, and that, I guess, is love, true love, going on between two people. I think romance is cute . . ." he trails off. "But I don't want it in my pictures," he says firmly. "And whether I'm romantic or not is nobody's business."
His private life is very different from his professional life, he says. "If I was to live like the people in my photos, I'd be dead a long time ago. I lead a very quiet life. But my pictures are very personal, truly personal."
Raquel Welch once commented, "Here you are, thinking Helmut is this little sweetie pie, this little honeybun, and here he has this perverse lens trained on you. There was such a paradox." And she's right: Newton is not at all cold and creepy, as you might expect. In fact, he's very good-humoured and amiable. But what about the pistol on his desk? He says it's to indulge his Philip Marlowe fantasies, and "It's for people like you! Ha ha! British journalists." His wife has said that he puts all of the cruelty into his work, and that in real life he's a complete pussycat.
Cold voyeurism can be something more than it seems, of course - and a camera can be as much a shield as a weapon; behind a camera, a photographer can be detached. He tells me that when June was in hospital a few years back, recovering from a serious operation, he was very upset, and he went in to see her in hospital and took pictures of her, baring her scar. He's very squeamish, even faints at the sight of blood, and says this was the only way he could deal with it.
He'll keep at it, he says, because he loves taking pictures. But since he's a "street and beach" photographer rather than a studio photographer, that will depend on his health, which at the moment, "touch wood", is good, despite a little arthritis. For some of his more recent pictures, his assistant has had to help him clamber over the Monte Carlo rocks - they're landscapes, moonlight on the sea, that kind of thing. "Quite romantic, I suppose," he says, a bit shiftily.
Article: Lindsay Baker, 2001
Helmut Newton: Work in Progress is at the Barbican Gallery, May 10-July 8, 020 7638 8891. The book, Helmut Newton: Work is published by Taschen.
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