A HELMUT NEWTON WOMAN IS INSTANTLY RECOGNISABLE. THE LEGENDARY PHOTOGRAPHER’S SIGNATURE PORTRAITS FEATURE TOUGH, POWER HEEL-CLAD AMAZONIANS, STANDING HEAD AND SHOULDERS ABOVE ANYONE WHO MIGHT HOLD THEM BACK. PERHAPS THE BEST KNOWN OF THESE EXOTIC YET UNKNOWABLE WOMEN OWNS THE COVER OF NEWTON’S MONOGRAPH, SUMO. THE MODEL HENRIETTA ALLAIS STARES OUT NAKED AND CLENCH-FISTED, DEFYING YOU TO PASS HER BY.
WORDS BY RICHARD CHAPMAN
“IT’S THAT I DON’T LIKE WHITE PAPER BACKGROUNDS. A WOMAN DOES NOT LIVE IN FRONT OF WHITE PAPER. SHE LIVES ON THE STREET, IN A MOTOR CAR, IN A HOTEL ROOM.” HELMUT NEWTON
Published in 1999 with a custom-designed Philippe Starck bookstand, it was the largest, most expensive book of the Twentieth Century and is credited with turning around the fortunes of publishing house Taschen. To mark its twentieth anniversary, the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin is showing all 464 prints from the now iconic SUMO book as the opener of a new three-part show that runs until November. Newton’s work is shown alongside ‘Three boys from Pasadena’, a retrospective of his former assistants Mark Albeit, George Holz and Just Loomis. The show is completed with the wide-ranging photography collection of Newton and his wife June, known for her own photography by the professional name Alice Springs. Everything Helmut Newton did defied the odds. Born in Berlin in 1920, he always seemed bound for greatness. With an interest in photography blossoming in his teens, any idea of a conventional career evaporated with his flight from the Nazis aged eighteen, leading him first to Trieste, then Singapore and eventually Australia. By 1948 he had both married his wife June and opened a successful studio on Melbourne’s Flinders Street. In 1956, an invitation to work with British Vogue took him back to Europe and his subsequent career reads like the mastheads on a Newsstand. He was just as likely to be shooting for a fashion label as a magazine, his closest association being with legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent. Newton’s portraits of statuesque women, often naked or in bleak urban settings, were deliberately designed to shock an audience unused to the themes he explored appearing in the mainstream. His work pulls back a curtain on the hitherto unexplored worlds of sado-masochism, bondage or prostitution. Alongside this work he captured some of the great auteurs of the era – David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor or Charlotte Rampling – giving his portraits of each the same subversive energy as he brought to all his work. Newton was obsessed with his subjects being, as he saw it, who they truly were. He felt that often the first, relaxed, true image he took in a session was the best, later shots being increasingly contrived. He never liked artificial or set lighting, working instead with whatever was in front of him however complex, whether direct sunlight or the nocturnal glow of a streetlamp.
This notion of capturing the essence of a person is at its pinnacle in his arresting portrayals of naked women. Upfront and unapologetic, they evoke an owned rather than projected sexuality.
Newton explained that women seemed to love to pose for him, often stripping unexpectedly in his sessions. In the course of his career, Newton published ten collections of his work including ‘Big Nudes’ in 1982 which as his New York Times obituary explains, was ‘a title that many felt summed up his photographic obsession’. Obsession or not, these extraordinary portraits and the power they cede completely to their subject are perhaps his greatest legacy. Newton felt that ‘all photographers are voyeurs, more or less, myself more’. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that some of the less posed, more immediate shots he took are among his best. His more candid work, away from the worlds of fashion and fame, capture unknown subjects without a backstory. These were often taken in a brief moment on a 36-photo roll of film and regularly forgotten. Newton describes how he took photographs then sometimes weeks later printed incongruous series’ which jumped from nude models tied up in bondage rope on a staircase to candid shots of June at a party. Helmut’s marriage to June was central to his work and she gradually became his art director. The genesis of this followed a heart attack he suffered in 1971 when June completed a shoot in Paris, which led to her photographic career. One of the most fascinating aspects of their professional collaboration were the portraits each made of the other collected in the book ‘Us and Them’, also the theme of the Helmut Newton Foundation’s opening show. June’s portraits of her husband took other forms, leading to a fascinating documentary ‘Helmut by June’. Their work is symbiotic but contrasting. Newton’s photography captures strength, June’s finds vulnerability and intimacy. These projects offer a window into their 55-year marriage and an immediately apparent depth of love. One of the most remarkable aspects to Newton’s professional life is how strongly it continued right up until his death in 2004, aged 83. In the late ’90s he produced an uncompromising and provocative series of images for previously fusty hosiery brand Wolford that was deemed so shocking it was banned from billboards in Times Square. In the shots, the stocking-clad models often turn away, their attention seemingly caught elsewhere by a friend, the sea or even the process of climbing a ladder. Each woman seems to know exactly who they are – yet we never do.
He never liked artificial or set lighting, working instead with whatever was in front of him however complex, whether direct sunlight or the nocturnal glow of a streetlamp.