Helmut Newton: A Retrospective
Along the stimulating streets and exciting window displays of Amsterdam, the image of a naked woman barely arouses shock, let alone reaction, among those familiar with the city’s many temptations. Female nudity and raw sexuality define the character of Amsterdam, a city floating on an undercurrent of bold erotica and blatantly pornographic content. Hence, a collection of photographs depicting naked women seems threatened to drown in the abundance of lustful imagery bordering the many canals and alleyways. That is, until one sets eyes on the breathtaking imagery of the current exhibition at Foam, a photography museum five minutes from Dam Square. The exhibit features the work of the brilliant, late Helmut Newton (1920 - 2004), a German photographer whose revolutionary photography depicting women, sexuality, fashion, and portraiture pushed the parameters of editorial fashion, erotica, and gender identity for nearly half a century. While most of the nudity found in Amsterdam is exaggerated, commercialized, and oftentimes unnaturally crude, Newton reveals the sublime power and majestic beauty in the elegant composition and carnal temptation of the female body.
Helmut Newton strengthened his artistic voice in spite of a series of personal and institutional limitations over the course of his lifetime. While Newton displayed passion for photography from a young age, his parents never approved of photography as a profession. Furthermore, due to his circumstantially unfortunate Jewish heritage, Newton was forced to abandon the life he loved and flee Germany and the rising threat of the Nazi regime. Finding early photographic success against the desires of his parents, and preserving his life against the threats of Hitler, Newton discovered his love for the thrill of risk-taking, and pushing the limits. His fondness for this thrill is evident in his early photographs for Vogue, featured in the first room of the exhibit. Until Newton’s compositions, editorial fashion photography was oftentimes bland, focusing on the clothing and designer rather than sparking interest through novel approaches to the scene, model, lighting, or composition. Featuring women in dream-like landscapes, mirrored rooms, and angular, powerful poses, watching T.V., or fondling pet monkeys, Newton flipped the traditional editorial shoot on its head. He somehow packed these groundbreakingly wild compositions into single images while effortlessly highlighting the beauty of the designer’s pieces he happened to be shooting. However, these radical risks cost him his first job at Vogue Paris (which he eventually recovered a few years later), as they deemed his style too outlandish. A few years later, Newton escaped another major risk — a heart attack in the middle of his career — which fueled even bolder risk-taking in his later compositions. In these images, Newton began to play with, and immediately master, the art of nude photography, erotica, fetish, and sexuality in a tastefully unique and provocative light. His images slowly begin to feature women sensually embracing and kissing other women, women dominating very feminine men, women dressing themselves with whips, collars, leashes, and saddles, and women in various stages of clothed and unclothed posture. While many of these images were shot for Vogue Paris, Vogue Britain, and other fashion editorials, they look and feel so much richer than any editorial photo shoot by one of Newton’s contemporaries.
Newton’s successful stretching of the editorial fashion industry stems from his tendency to tempt the viewer with varying levels of tension throughout his images. Wandering the exhibit, one’s eyes immediately fall upon a naked, slender figure, generally the only lighted area within an otherwise dark composition. After this figure registers, one then realizes the power of the image actually resides within the narrative of the scene constructed. Newton would frequently devote the most effort to selecting the room or street on which the scene would occur, crafting his plan for postures, expressions, motion, and content before ever selecting the model. Because of this thoughtfulness, the naked woman is more than just her body – she is a character in some narrative of conflict: nighttime arrest, a wild party, a forbidden lover, a wild warrior, police officer, victim of accident, or even murder. These scenes offer no resolution, as one cannot enter a dialogue with a photograph, and thus the viewer is forever tempted not only by the curves of the model’s legs and bare breasts, but by the mystery of her identity, her past, and her future as the character of Newton’s wildly creative imagination. But as to the temptation of her body, Newton also mastered this. The exhibit features many images of models in striking costume - police captain cap and coat, couture gown, or structured suit - alongside the same image and model, striking the exact same pose, but with a significant amount of the costume removed. His most famous example of this is a powerful scene set upon a white backdrop. It features four women strutting towards the photographer in suits and heels. They are juxtaposed against the exact same image, but the models expressions and positioning vary slightly so one can identify the shots were taken separately. However, the image on the right shows the models completely nude, spare the heels. While the symmetry of the two images harmoniously balances the pair, the striking bareness of the right image feels almost inappropriate and forbidden, while loudly irreverent and confrontational against the left. This creates an ever-rocking tension that threatens the balance of the seesaw suspending the two images against one another.
Newton offers further dissonance through what appears to be a blatant teasing of the genre of editorial fashion photography itself. His models aren’t just posing; they’re acting in scenes of which Newton is the master storyteller. He features more than the fashion advertised within the many pages of Vogue; he expresses his commentary regarding women, the privileged and wealthy, and even his own identity as a photographer. Helmut Newton is most widely known for his revolutionary depictions of women as truly powerful beings. While his symbols of female dominance and strength range from couture resembling shield-bearing warriors, scenes conquering wild bears, monkeys, dogs, and jaguars, to models wielding swords or fondling machine guns, Newton’s feminism shines brightest through his composition and gesture. Many argue nakedness suggests vulnerability; so of course, Newton turns this assumption on its head through his nudes’ incredibly mighty power-stances and confrontational postures. He repeatedly features portraits of bare-breasted models flexing their biceps, standing straight-backed and balanced on both feet. The women are also shot from below (one can see this in one of the images featuring his own reflection in a mirror) to make the women appear taller and even more powerful. Harkening back to times when Newton faced his own restrictions – ranging from his parents to the forces of Hitler – he likely sympathized with the societal restrictions forced upon women, and became obsessed with the concepts of female empowerment and liberation. But the female image wasn’t the only element of editorial fashion photography with which Newton toyed.
Just as Rembrandt maintained a dialogue with his audience by placing his self- portrait within many of his paintings, Newton’s appearance in his photography constantly reminds his viewers of the scenes’ counterfeit and the staged world of photography itself. He repeatedly frames the images with “unintentional figures” other than the model, such as a stylist or lighting assistant. He also includes the tools and backdrop of the set and his own image shooting the model, oftentimes in mirrored form. He does this repeatedly as if to remind the viewer that, “This is just a photograph. She is just a model. But this is my photograph, and she is arranged that way because I made it so.” One may see this playful detachment yet passionate interest featured from the outset of the exhibit. In the introductory room we see a photograph in which Newton stands in white, leaning against a studio spotlight. His posture is relaxed, almost tired, and his expression seems entirely disinterested. Yet, one can still glimpse a spark of curiosity behind his eyes and feel the very creative wheels that produced so many iconic images slowly, steadily churning.
In a city rich with a lively, but burlesque perceptions of female sexuality and beauty, Foam Museum’s exhibition of Helmut Newton serves as a panacea. His life’s work offers a new perspective on the identity and sexuality of women, revealing the glamorous and powerful feminine warrior to compete with the pretty yet lifeless doll of editorial fashion photography of an earlier era. This exhibit successfully traverses Newton’s lifetime of work, providing the viewer with a rare overview of the evolution and growth of an extraordinary artist and his tireless creativity.