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January 25, 2004

Helmut Newton--Some Thoughts

Helmut Newton passed away on Friday, and the standard obituaries are slowly trickling out (New York Times, Washington Post, wire services, etc). The words spilled on him to date in the wake of his death have been surprisingly superficial and tame ("the King of Kink" is as deep as the descriptions have gotten), odd given the nature of his life and career, and given that he only recently released an enjoyably gossipy autobiography. I'm hoping that more thoughtful retrospectives on the man, his outsized work and equally outsized personality eventually appear...most likely from the arts and culture journals in the coming weeks/months.

It's been said that Newton polarizes people with the explicit, cold and frequently sadomasochistic nature of his fashion and nude photographs, and I can certainly see what the fuss is about, particularly looking historically at what he introduced to the fashion world in the 1960s and '70s. But my personal reactions to his work, especially the most explicit stuff, has been mostly boredom...perhaps I've been desensitized by the permeation of his concepts and presentation (in watered down form) into popular culture the last twenty years.

Or maybe I'm just bored by S&M fashion, though I admit that looking back on some of Newton's '70s work recently, there's a wit I detect in some of his best images that I missed when I first felt the thrust of all of his Amazonian models. I still prefer Guy Bordin, though, when it comes to clever, creepy and cold kink in fashion work.


I can easily play the purist or elitist and even say that Newton feels lightweight when I view his work back to back with some of my artsier favorites like Sally Mann or Sarah Moon (who did fashion work at the same time as Newton)...but this really misses the point of Newton, who never wanted to be put up on a pedestal with other photographic "artists" (or self-appointed artists). Newton always made his desires and fetishes open, and in his most compelling work, even with his cold, unsentimental tendencies, he had an intriguingly playful and even warm approach at times. And for better or worse, he seemed to be a sensationalist on his own terms...after a reportedly disappointing and heavily compromised stint with British Vogue in the late 1950s, Newton went to French Vogue in the 60s and got the support he needed for his pioneering work.

One area where Newton excelled was celebrity portraiture...I have his book, "Portraits" from 1988, and though there's a reasonable amount of plumbing of Newton's pet themes, the sexuality on the whole is fairly restrained. And when he is engaged with a person as a friend or loved one, it's clear how good he can be...the touching portraits of his wife, the clever self-portraits, and the memorable portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Jack Nicholson (who are a bit overphotographed, to put it mildly) among others, demonstrate a surprising sensitivity.

The interview with Newton by Carol Squiers that starts the book makes it clear (as does his recent autobiography) that whether one loves or loathes his work, he is a character that marches to his own drummer. In my opinion, he's a fairly enjoyable personality ... but of course who knows what future revelations will bring about the kink beyond the images in his life (though all parties associated with him maintain in stories that it was strictly a photography thing, and that Newton was actually quite prudish in real life).

An excerpt from the interview:

Squiers: You've said you're not capable of being anything other than a photographer. What's the difference between being an artist and a photographer?

Newton: Enormous difference. I say, and not for the first time, that art is a dirty word in photography. It'll kill photography. All this fine art crap is killing it already. I'ts very serious.

Squiers: There seem to be many overt references and allusions to mortality in your work. The most obvious reference is the picture of the Xray of the skull and necklace with the quote from Shakespeare in the beginning of Big Nudes: "Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust". You're shaking your head. Do you disagree with this?

Newton: Totally. I'm not at all interested in death. I'm not preoccupied by death. My wife, June, once said, Helmut, don't you want to discuss this subject? And I said, it doesn't interest me. I don't want to discuss it, it's a waste of time. She has a friend she discusses it with. But I don't want to know her opinions. I don't care about it. I'll spend a lot of time being dead, I'm sure, like most everybody. So there you are: I couldn't disagree more.

Over the holidays, I picked up, purely randomly, a publication put out by Reporters Without Borders that features roughly 50+ black and white images from Newton, which were donated royalty-free to support press freedom. It's a curious mix of some of Newton's greatest hits (like the YSL image of the woman in the suit smoking in an alley) and some recent street photography, with a healthy amount of women...though again, the sexuality is mostly restrained, so it's a good introduction. I was entertained by Newton's affirmation of women in more humble occupations (messengers, road engineers, soldiers) through subtle highlighting of their sex appeal and attractiveness, and it's quite tame and very in keeping with what is done by magazines as mainstream as People these days. Newton's legacy is quite a bit more risque, of course, but it's nice to see that in his later days, even though he wanted to outrage the world more than ever, that he had the ability to dial the volume up or down as the subject warranted.


"Messenger Girl" Helmut Newton 1990

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Explicit or not, I think the reason why he has become so important is because he switched the male female role. Typical example is a seated woman smoking, leg apart - as a man would - watching the man undress. Many of his pictures contain similar scenarios and this is what elevates him a notch above other photographers.

Posted by: Philip at Jan 29, 2004 2:02:30 PM

hey,im doing a photography project on helmut newton and was wondering if you could send me some information on him.
please.most appreciated.
x x x

Posted by: isabel roberts at Jan 29, 2006 11:45:21 AM