September 2013

The life and legacy of Helmut Newton, one of world's most (in)famous photographers and forefathers of the provocative aesthetics by which the likes of VICE and American Apparel swear today. Daniel Cantagallo writes.

So there I was with my wife as an imperious, six-foot nude woman towered over us, staring back with a glacial indifference that froze me in place.

Even though less than a decade earlier, Helmut Newton met his death in a car crash outside the Chateau Marmont not more than a few miles away, I couldn’t help but imagine him chuckling with perverse glee.

On a cool summer night, tingling with that classic Hollywood cocktail of magic and dread, we had come to see the first exhibition of Helmut Newton’s work outside of gallery shows in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Center of Photography. The exhibit, called White Women, Sleepless Nights, and Big Nudes, was housed in the marble and glass monstrosity of the CAA building. Overrun by day with the tailored suits of Hollywood’s biggest power brokers, by night the building’s vast and shimmering emptiness was a deliciously appropriate setting for the 100 or so naughty visual perversions that lie in wait.

Helmut Newton may have ended his life in the lap of louche Western luxury, but it began in a much different age of corrupt decadence and political tumult. Born Helmut Neustädter in 1920’s Berlin to a liberal, affluent, Jewish family, he had early designs on the two things that would come to define his life: photography and women. His father was a wealthy button manufacturer and his doting mother saw to it that he was dressed in velvet suits, had his own driver, and never touched a banister. A dreadful student, Newton was far less interested in grades than in the way the girls’ bathing suits clung to their pubescent bodies. His father gave him his first camera at age 12, and as he would later say that “there is something about a camera. I find it can act as a barrier between me and reality.”

Reality would explode a short time later for Newton as the Nazis stormed to power in Germany. But young Newton’s interest in politics only extended as far as adolescent longing for an Aryan girl (she turned him down). In his autobiography, he seems to shrug off the horrors of the Holocaust as a temporary obstacle for his outsized ambition and libido; regardless, the personal price was much more profound than mere boyhood rejection. Yva, the portrait photographer he apprenticed for at 16, was shipped off to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers. His father was arrested by the Gestapo and detained. On a tip-off from his mother, 18 year-old Newton escaped Germany for Singapore and later joined the Australian Army. A bottled youth, interrupted by history’s worst crimes against humanity, only to spill out later in images.

As his life as a wanderer-in-exile took shape, Weimar Germany would become the visual hallmark and sordid signature of his work. He bounced from Singapore to Australia to Paris and Los Angeles. Wherever he found himself setting up shop or on assignment, the past haunts each and every image. After Newton’s death, Karl Lagerfeld told The New York Times: “Berlin was him, he was Berlin.” More likely, Newton owes his obsession with that particular historical moment to the interruption of his boyhood fantasy of Weimar decadence by the Nazi’s exacting plan to control and channel the sexual impulse into a cult of death for the so-called “benefit of the community.” Newton’s photographs subtly evoke that era of depravity, a waft of the Berliner Luft that fueled the night’s excesses as well as the situations of control, submission, and virile posing found in Nazi aesthetics. In a Guardian newspaper profile that described Newton as a “perverse romantic,” his longtime collaborator and wife, June Springs, told him, “When you look at your pictures, you cannot deny your past.” In standard Newton style – a mix of playful self-parody and preening self-regard – he would claim to carry totems of that turbulent age at all times in his camera bag: a monocle, a cigarette holder, and false nipples.

During his long reign as the self-proclaimed “bad boy of photography,” Newton waged war against the wallflower. When he began working for French Vogue, he rebelled against the docile, subservient women he found in the staid fashion magazines of the time. Newton flipped the gender switch. Women were now strong, dangerous, dominate and in charge of their sexuality. Men were servile and subservient to Newton’s imperious goddesses, if they appeared at all. While his shocking images were far from celebratory posters for the Women’s Movement and gender equality of the late 60s, he teased and toyed with notions of power and control during the battle of the sexes. Despite his feeble protestations that he was not a misogynist, all the same, “The King of Kink” was labeled an exploiter of women – only better to enhance the outlaw reputation. In the documentary film at the exhibition, “Provocateur,” Newton’s models leap to his defense as a man who loved women. While that hardly gets him off the hook, Newton’s “porno-chic” is hardly pornographic; at best, it’s erotic titillation and masturbatory aids for intellectual perverts.

Women were at the heart of Newton’s work, but his spreads were anything but touchy-feely, politically correct, sentimental affairs. Wallis Annenberg, CEO of the Annenberg Foundation said of Newton: “[he] deepened our understanding of changing gender roles, of the ways in which beauty creates its own kind of power and corruption.” Newton presents us with tawdry, private moments in the lives of the wealthy and luxurious in dark shadow and glossy vulgarity. The psychosexual mind games that appear in his work push him beyond the easy accusation of misogyny. While Newton appears to be in charge of the photographs, it is the women who feel in control. Coldly detached, they are certainly not the readily available objects of male desire found in the ascendant porno culture that now permeates our visual culture. These femme fatales lurk in anonymous hotel rooms, by the pool, or next to the washing machine. With expressions of impenetrable psychology, at most, the Newton woman says, “Go ahead, try it, but it’s going to cost you more than you think.”

The Newton photo used in press for the exhibition is the one everyone knows, “Saddle, I.” A perfectly made up, expressionless woman, breasts in danger of spilling out from her bra, provocatively kneels on a bed with a riding saddle on her back. Witty, kinky, and absurd, this is quintessential Newton, subverting the context (a Vogue fashion shoot) and product (an Hermés saddle) – a farcical comment on the nature of commercial images. In his fashion shoots, he doesn’t present us with a sleek, carefree world of romance, wealth, and beauty, but rather a private, forbidden world of power games, sexual perversions, and psychological corruption. Newton’s work was a taxonomy of naughty sleaze – saddles, garters, stilettos, orthopaedic braces; yet ironically, his photographs break free from the dull restraints of traditional fashion work.

At his best, Newton was a prophet of our contemporary moment with his nihilistic wit – our society’s prevailing obsession with extraordinary wealth and its blood-boiling entitlement, our fascination and disgust with the excess of the rich and famous. He knew what grand fun it was to at once mock and revel in the bad behaviour and sexual quirks of the powerful without venturing into the thorny territory of political critique. Today, we see signs of his work everywhere, in tabloids, film (David Lynch carries the mantle), fashion (American Apparel’s sleazy amateur porno campaigns), and culture (Vice Magazine’s bad taste series of female literary heroine’s suicides), just to name-check a few.

The Annenberg exhibition is an ongoing attempt to rebrand Newton as not just a fashion photographer, but a seminal and major artist of the 20th century. While his photographs remain arresting and funny, like a dirty joke you only tell among good friends, they may also freeze you for a moment in the company of your significant other. They don’t however hold you or stick with you long after you head back into that Los Angeles night he loved so much. Newton probably wouldn’t care, anyway. He hated that term “art” and “good taste.” He famously said, “Good taste is anti-fashion, anti-photo, anti-girl, anti-eroticism! Vulgarity is life, amusement, desire, extreme reactions!”


(Daniel Cantagallo is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer. He is currently working on his first crime novel)

Photography courtesy of the Estate of HELMUT NEWTON