Sex sells! The works of Helmut Newton, the surrealistic artist renowned for capturing 1920s Berlin with uniquely stylised images, are powerful aphrodisiacs. His classic yet erotic black-and-white pictures advocate a tough femininity. Of 20th Century photographers, few but Newton could fully elaborate the tender sensation of a woman’s skin. Dramatic and powerful, his works shed light on fear, desire and decadence, making him a pioneer in the field of erotic photography.
The Arielle Portfolio I-X, 1982-1999
Me & Courbet, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, 1996
Saddle I, Paris 1976
The marriage of emotion with a specific scenario always provided the framework of Helmut Newton’s art. A half-opened door, mirror or stairs, kitchen or lobby all became secondary characters in his photographs of women. His works are a medium of erotic poetry and speak of a sensational tension and soft sexiness. Glossy skin provides his attractive women with a measure of self-defence, giving them confidence and a stronger ego. In each woman’s face, the spirit glows.
The Rise of the Jewish Photographer
In 1932, the twelve-year-old Helmut Neustädter bought his first ever camera with 3.5 Deutsche marks, and became an assistant to the renowned Berlin photographer Else Simon at the age of 16. To escape the tyranny of Nazism, Neustädter left for Singapore, where he worked as a photographer for Singapore Straits Times. His Jewish heritage caused his eventual expulsion, and he went to Australia, where he began his career in 1944 as a photographer for Australian Vogue in Melbourne. He later changed his name to Helmut Newton, and returned to Europe in 1950 with his wife June Browne (also known as Alice Springs). Two years later, Newton established himself as the first photographer signed by American Vogue, and after a year with British Vogue, Newton settled down in Paris in 1957, where he began a collaboration with French Vogue that was to endure 25 years. His nudes caused a stir in international society, and he soon became a long-term contributor for Italian and German Vogue, Playboy, Stern and Life.
Exploring the Extremity of Female Bodies
Newton avoided shooting in a studio, where women could only pose before a flat white sheet in an unfamiliar scene. Though it made his days much busier, he preferred to use his camera on the street, capturing women in public and private. Living in an era in which images of women were heavily stylised, Newton explored the totality of the female body, fighting the prevailing prejudice that all women were either prim ladies or whores. The sensational style that he developed, a new aesthetic of the female body, further evolved into an approach to fashion, combining and surpassing refinement, sharpness, decadence, coldness and incisiveness. A true radical, Newton made fetishism and bondage the subject of fashion photography. He might dress a model in a resplendent outfit, complete with furs, or fishnet tights and a lace bodice. In a Helmut Newton photograph, a model’s delicate visage and sexy lips are charged with confidence and an ego that is suggestive of more dangerous temptations. This was in the 1940s, when conventional definitions of femininity tended to be negative.
The Bellicose Eroticist
In an interview, Newton boldly declared, “In my book, art is an obscene word. I like vulgarity, and am always interested in bad taste, which is more exciting than good taste, which, in fact, does not exist in anyone’s imagination. Good taste is nothing but a set of standards that people measure things against.”
In an interview with Newsweek, he revealed that for him, creation was a business service: “Others take photos for art’s sake, but not me. They love it if their works are exhibited in galleries or museums, but that’s not the reason why I take up my camera. I open the camera shutter for any price.”
At the end of the 1960s, he came up with the idea of celebrating avant-garde art by relating it to the female body. With a range of breathtaking erotic photos, he shook the foundations of the fashion world. He merged the gulf between fine arts and pop culture and earned the nickname “the Bellicose Eroticist”.
The Manifesto of Feminine Power
Newton primarily established his own photography style in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Disgusted by overly-elaborate images, Newton believed that the meaning behind a photograph should be free from encryption of any kind.
“In an era dominated by plutocracy and jet engines, the public admires superstars and celebrities, and poised women with flawless makeup and sumptuous jewellery. Newton was unquestionably the sovereign celebrity photographer of the time. He was in constant pursuit of a new definition of beauty. He outfaced accusations of misogyny, and […] sculpted many tough women with his flashlight, who fearlessly risked scandal and condemnation,” commented Philippe Garner, Head of the Auction Department, Christie’s International.
The Two Violettas, Paris 1991
American Vouge, Monaco, 1996
Jeff Coons and Cicciolina Italy 1991
Charlotte Rampling as Venus in Furs, 2002
The Semi-Erotic Album
Newton was obsessed with the fashion of Yves Saint Laurent. In the “Rue Aubriot” photo series, shot for the brand’s Le Smoking Suit, Newton depicted a multifaceted woman who eventually became an icon of modernity. This finely-crafted image expressed the aloofness of Parisian women, disdainful of convention. The image was subsequently acclaimed by fashion’s bad boy, Jean Paul Gaultier, as a classic. Newton captured the toughness and solitude of the woman in trousers in a sophisticated ambiance.
The character stands in the dark, shot against the light –a signature technique in Helmut Newton’s aesthetic. He was inspired by sunlight after dark clouds in Berlin to create this style, which he called “black light”. In 1977 Helmut Newton decided to make a semi-erotic album. In such a social environment, to carry out this idea would require great caution. He decided to buy dummies to create a tableau with real models that was imbued with suspense.
Before the Berlin Wall was dismantled, the city was suffocated under totalitarian rule, which, however, did not halt Helmut Newton from continuing to excel at what he was best at — shooting female portraits. An erotic desire covertly penetrated the vein of the city, especially in the Glienicker Brücke area between Berlin and Potsdam, where secret agents shuttled through. Events sometimes resembled those in John Le Carre’s spy fiction, luring Newton to press the shutter.
The Indictment against Feminist Criticism
In Helmut Newton’s photography, women dominate the frame. It looks as if they themselves decided how to dress and pose. Before his camera, women are never coquettish; they stand nude, a statement of independence in the 1960s.
Alongside critical acclaim came outbursts of wrath from feminists, who rallied against his works. In their eyes, Newton’s works did not celebrate the beauty of the female body, but propagated chauvinism. They criticized his glamorisation of S&M’s violence and humiliation, and splashed paint on his photos. Were Newton’s works expressions of his fantasies, or explorations of the power of women? Newton responded to Alice Schwarzer, Chief Editor of Emma about sexual discrimination and racism with a boldly defiant statement: “I’m a feminist. All women in my photos are strong! I love those girls! What the feminists think is totally a product of misunderstanding! To lock women in a beautiful appearance is to imprison them. Graceful looks and bodies are static; they are like a mask that anyone can project onto. But this idea has never crossed my mind.”
“All my images are raw. I use no technological media to alter existing reality. I capture only the reality that I see.”
In the surrealistic, ambiguous fantasy that Newton created, the borderline between imagination and reality completely vanished, and his undisguised images reveal the subconscious of the viewer.
“I only shoot those I like and admire from my heart, regardless of their fame,” he declared in an interview. “If a photographer denies being a voyeur, he is an idiot who is frigid about images.”
Newton’s iconic style has had a great influence on modern-day photographers such as Ellen von Unwerth, Wayne Maser, Jürgen Teller, and Terry Richardson. Newton’s works are like stills from a road-trip: Cannes, Monte Carlo, Venice, Rome, New York and Hollywood are all favourite scenes. Indoor space, streets, a kitchen, a park, the seaside or a garage, or even the balcony of his home in Monte Carlo, were the stages where his spotlight shone.
A Modern Metaphor
Helmut Newton fled to Australia to escape Jewish persecution during World War II. In October 2003, Newton donated his wealth of photos to the Berlin Museum of Photography and founded the Helmut Newton Foundation, which many considered a sign of reconciliation with Germany.
Throughout his life, the shadow of the Baroque-style building across from the old Berlin train station – once a casino, now the Berlin Museum of Photography and the site of the Helmut Newton Foundation – never faded from his mind, for it was the last building he saw as he left Berlin.
On 23rd January 2004, Newton was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, which Karl Lagerfeld described as his “last work.” He was laid to rest in West Berlin, next to Marlene Dietrich.
Nude, the Elegant Liberation
During his years of collaboration with fashion designers, ‘fashion’, ‘nude’ and ‘portrait’ were his core areas of creation. He used the term, ‘Minimalism’ to assert that ‘the less models wear, the more they express’ and accordingly liberated female bodies and imbued them with the power of attraction. Carsten Ahrens, Director of the Weserburg Bremen Museum in Germany, argued:
“Between fashion and lust is a kind of chemistry that intoxicates. What Newton was interested in was not just fashion photography. He brilliantly rendered a key that symbolized power and wealth to women’s self-aware sexuality. In these photographs, woman never appears objectified; Newton liberated a new generation of women with an elegant nakedness.”
Be it the ‘Big Nude’ series inspired by RAF Terrorists, the topless waitress flirting with a cruise passenger, the confident naked movie star at the poolside, or the thrilling night view from a motel, Newton never failed to capture the cold charisma of a confident woman.
Art critics regarded him as a solitary maestro who used photography to create a flamboyant vanity, portraying the dark side of humanity, while resisting common morality and politics. Perhaps it was his personal mixture of calmness, rationality, and an unruly nature that allowed him to create a contemporary humanism within his camera, and new, powerful visual language
Text: Chih-Hung, Lin English Translation: Ren Wan Photo Courtesy of Helmut Newton Estate & Weserburg Bremen Museum