Helmut Newton: Controversial Fashion Photography. A Review.

Helmut Newton was a German-Australian photographer whose provocative images contained numerous components which created a form of ‘hybrid photography’. His work included elements of fashion, portraiture, erotica and documentary. Newton’s work was inspired greatly by his mentor Elsie Simon, also known as Yva, whose work focused on creating elegant fashion and nude photographs. Newton reached celebrity photographer status in the 1960’s when he was featured on the pages of French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He was also featured on the pages of numerous other publications including Playboy, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire and Elle, as well as creating many of his own published photography books.

In the year 2000, Newton’s photographs were catalogued by his wife, June Newton, and published as a colossal photography book, Sumo, as a tribute to Newton’s work. Sumo represents Newton as one of the most renowned and influential photographers of the twentieth century and, equally, one of the most controversial. Compiled within the gigantic pages of the ‘coffee-table book’ is a range of Helmut Newton’s iconographic works, including fashion, fetishism and eroticism. There are few other books like it, and few to rival the photographs held within its pages.

Many of the images which Newton created convey a sense of voyeurism. Yet, Newton was not afraid to delve into the world of what was generally deemed to be ‘the unacceptable’ and, as a consequence, completely changed the way in which people looked at images of others. Although his images stopped short of being pornographic they were heavily influenced by, and contained elements of, the sexual overtones of lesbianism, sadomasochism and fetishism[1]. He used these risqué elements to his advantage in order to create beautiful yet shocking images that would leave a mark on the world of fashion and photography. Newton himself once said that ‘If a photographer says he is not a voyeur, he is an idiot’[2]. He believed that to capture the essence of reality it was necessary for photographers to peep through the keyholes of life and record the private as well as the public. Helmut Newton’s images not only created a source of controversy, they also created a whole new brand of photography; one that was documenting that which would have once been considered as too explicit for the public’s eye.

Within the world of fashion Newton changed the way in which photographs portrayed the latest style. Instead of just photographing women wearing the clothes, he created a story and a mood, to which women could aspire. Even on the pages of high fashion magazines Newton’s work portrayed his love for creating scenes of lust, sexuality and flawless style. Vogue’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, said, ‘Helmut was very clear that he liked a big girl and blond girl, in an impeccable suit and high heels … He would take that girl and put her in some wicked or naughty situation, kissing another woman or in handcuffs’[3]. An example of this was the occasion on which Newton shot the Yves Saint Laurent campaign for French Vogue in 1975. Whilst one of the models wears the new Yves Saint Laurent designs the second wears simply a pair of stilettos and a pillbox hat. The use of nudity in the image emphasises sexuality and transforms the image from that of just two models to one that is more erotic and enticing to the viewers. Furthermore, the image plays on undertones of lesbianism, the stance adopted by the two models suggesting a sexual attraction between them. In addition, the combination of the pose, clothing and lack of clothing respectively on the models, hints at the masculinity of the model wearing the suit. The image as a whole suggests the idea of the suit being more masculine and powerful compared to the femininity of the female nude, endorsing the idea that every woman has both a feminine and a masculine side.

Helmut Newton 1

Newton integrated his love of sexuality with his work for the fashion industry. His portrait of the Italian model Elsa Peretti for French Vogue, shot in 1975, combines his erotic tendencies with his love of glamour. Helmut had Peretti dress in a bunny outfit which was commonly associated with the American men’s lifestyle magazine, Playboy. Whilst the bunny outfit accentuates the sexual connotations associated with the Playboy Empire, Newton’s composition of the image gives the frame a modernistic twist. The juxtaposition of the overtly sexual stance and style of Peretti is contrasted against the strong lines of the high-rise buildings of New York, creating a more elegant image that depicts underlying shades of sex and pornography without detracting from the image’s panache. Even some of his more overtly sexual images lacked sexuality due to his empowerment of strong and confident women. His two-part image ‘Sie kommen’ looks at two images of the same women in the same poses, yet in one they are fully clothed whilst in the other they are completely naked. Despite the obvious sexual display the image lacks sexuality due to the ferociousness of the posture and composition, which Newton has created.

Helmut Newton 2

Helmut Newton 3

Despite being one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers of the time, after he suffered a heart attack in 1971, Newton’s work changed course to focus more primarily on nudes[4]. Having already introduced sexual themes into his work as a fashion photographer Newton wanted to delve deeper into exploring sexuality within his photography. Although many of his images concentrated solely upon the naked female form to express sexuality, eroticism and fetishism, some are a little more covert and display such ideas without being overly explicit. An image he shot in Paris in 1979 titled, ‘Two pairs of legs in black stockings’ illustrates this perfectly. Although there is no actual nudity within the image it still shows signs of the erotic. The way in which the image is framed causes the viewer to focus chiefly on the two pairs of women’s legs in the foreground of the image. Due to the low camera angle, the perspective of the photograph ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn up and down the image. Yet, the obvious signs of eroticism within the image are the scantily clad women whose derrières create the main focus of the frame. There are also signs of fetishism which can be perceived from the shot of the male figure in the background, which is out of focus, and the shot of the two female figures in lingerie in the foreground which, conversely, is in sharp focus, hinting at the notion of multiple sexual partners. Newton’s concept and images create a story within a photograph yet leave enough unsaid so that the viewer can fantasise about the situation and mood created by Newton’s lens and artistic mind.

Helmut Newton 4

Other of Newton’s photographs clearly display women in their naked form, yet fall short of being pornographic. As Barthes says ‘the erotic photograph … does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame’[5]. Despite the obvious erotic and fetish undertones to the photographs there is also a sense of humour. All things luxurious, especially those that were handcrafted, fascinated Newton. The Parisian saddle maker Hermès was of particular interest to him. Newton used the leather equestrian equipment for a shoot which he did for Vogue Hommes in 1976. The shoot featured high fashion models in submissive and dominating poses whilst wearing the equestrian equipment, thus showing Newton’s humorous take on fetish photography.

Helmut Newton 5

The surrealist movement inspired some of Newton’s work. By looking at the work of artists such as Man Ray, Newton was able to use the knowledge that surrealism gave him to create beautiful yet, oddly striking images for the pages of high fashion magazines[6].

The composition which Newton used for his photographs is an extremely important aspect of his work. The set up of the frames adds enormously to the mood that he tried to create within his images. His strong use of lighting to create sharp lines and elegant highlights, but few shadows, gives his photographs powerful imagery. They are simple yet bold and create a sense of longing. Viewers are enticed by them and want to experience the story which is created by his lens. His careful arrangement of the frame gives his images an almost cinematic quality, similar to the popular twentieth century film noir, particularly when placing emphasis on sexual motivations.

Newton became known as ‘the king of kink’[7]. His images were both sexual and erotic but above all they created a desire within the eye of the beholder. The women which he used for his photography were strong characters, unafraid of being sexual and undeterred by the fact that millions of people would see them at what many thought to be their most vulnerable. What makes Newton’s photographs so appealing is that they do not overtly show sexual fantasies, ‘their sexuality is all the more profound for its seeming absence’[8]. Ultimately Newton perfected the art of seduction within the medium of photography.

Helmut Newton 6

[1] Helmut Newton Biography, Hamiltons, [Available at: http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/37-Helmut-Newton/biography/] Accessed: 28th December 2014

[2] Guy Hepner, Helmut Newton – The Photographer, The voyeur and The Nomad, Guy Hepner Diary, [Available at: http://www.guyhepner.com/helmut-newton-the-photographer-the-voyeur-and-the-nomad/] Accessed: 28th December 2014

[3] Jesse McKinley, Helmut Newton, Who Remade Fashion Photography, Dies at 83, The New York Times, [Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/24/obituaries/24NEWT.html] Accessed: 28the December 2014

[4] Helmut Newton (German 1920 – 2004, Artnet Auctions, [Available at: https://www.artnet.com/auctions/artists/helmut-newton/%20two-pairs-of-legs-in-black-stockings-paris] Accessed on 29th December 2014

[5] R, Barthes. Translated by R, Howard. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (London: Vintage, 2000) p.59

[6] Luc Sante, Camera Men, The New York Times Magazine, [Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/26/magazine/26PHOTOGRAPHERS.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0] Accessed: 29th December 2014

[7] Jesse McKinley, Helmut Newton, Who Remade Fashion Photography, Dies at 83, The New York Times, [Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/24/obituaries/24NEWT.html] Accessed: 28th December 2014

[8] Pete Silverton, Helmut Newton Profile, Professional Photographer, [Available at: http://www.professionalphotographer.co.uk/Magazine/Legends/Profiles/Helmut-Newton-Profile] Accessed on: 29th December 2014

Bibliography

Barnet, L. Helmuts On, Vogue, [Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2008/06/05/topshop-tribute-to-helmut-newton] Accessed on: 28th December 2014

Barthes, R. Translated by R, Howard. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (London: Vintage, 2000)

Coghe, A. The Erotic Stylish World of Helmut Newton, Alex Coghe Photography, [Available at: http://www.alexcoghe.com/the-erotic-stylish-world-of-helmut-newton/] Accessed on: 28th December 2014

Elsa Peretti, Vogue Australia, [Available at: http://www.vogue.com.au/people/designers/elsa+peretti,325] Accessed on: 28th December 2014

Gkiouzelis, D. Helmut Newton At The Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens, Greece, Yatzer, [Available at: http://www.yatzer.com/Helmut-Newton-occ-onassis-cultural-centre-athens-greece] Accessed on: 27th December 2014

Helmut Newton Biography, Hamiltons, [Available at: http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/37-Helmut-Newton/biography/] Accessed on: 28th December 2014

Hepner, G. Helmut Newton – The Photographer, The voyeur and The Nomad, Guy Hepner Diary, [Available at: http://www.guyhepner.com/helmut-newton-the-photographer-the-voyeur-and-the-nomad/] Accessed on: 28th December 2014

Marshmallow, L. Fashion photographers we LOVE: HELMUT NEWTON, Lady Marshmallow, [Available at: http://www.ladymarshmallow.com/blog/fashion-photographers-who-we-really-love-helmut-newton/] Accessed on: 27th December 2014

McKinley, J. Helmut Newton, Who Remade Fashion Photography, Dies at 83, The New York Times, [Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/24/obituaries/24NEWT.html] Accessed: 28th December 2014

Paskanoi, A. Helmut Newton Retrospective – Paris, Alexandre Paskanoi Photography, [Available at: http://paskanoi.com/helmut-newton-retrospective-paris/] Accessed on: 27th December 2014

Sante, L. Camera Men, The New York Times Magazine, [Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/26/magazine/26PHOTOGRAPHERS.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0] Accessed: 29th December 2014

Silverton, P. Helmut Newton Profile, Professional Photographer, [Available at: http://www.professionalphotographer.co.uk/Magazine/Legends/Profiles/Helmut-Newton-Profile] Accessed on: 29th December 2014

Voguepedia – Helmut Newton, The Looking Lab, [Available at: http://lookinglab.com/press/voguepedia-helmut-newton] Accessed on: 27th December 2014

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