Helmut Newton’s fashion photography is the aesthetic equivalent of a metallic taste in one’s mouth. Luxurious, cold, glamorous and cruel, the late Berliner’s noirish images are superlative displays of female beauty, tapped into the dark, cartoonish recesses of male fantasy. Women appear almost unreal – statuesque and superhuman – dressed up as vixens of various ilks: dominatrixes, cops, athletes, assassins, sexbots.
The models were almost always the same: skinny, white, imposingly tall and blonde. Until his death in 2004, he was one of the most in-demand photographers, whose work frequently slipped masochism into the glossy pages of mainstream fashion magazines. Appreciations and criticisms of his large body of work have led to the same asinine question – feminist or pervert? – that exaggerates his transgressiveness and confuses depictions of domination with progressiveness.
But before Newton’s riding-crop-wielding woman caused contention, the photographer had paid his dues in Australia, as the latest survey of his work HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus, currently on at the Jewish Museum of Australia, aims to assert.
In 1938, Newton fled the Nazis in Berlin, first landing in Singapore where he enjoyed a brief stint as a gigolo, before settling in Melbourne for more than two decades. Here, he met his wife and confidante, June Newton or, as she was known under her ironic photographer alias, Alice Springs. He set up a photography studio in Flinders Lane, where he shot most of his earliest works, largely fashion catalogues, magazine spreads and theatre portraits. These mostly tame, forgettable works – alongside miscellanea from Newton’s time in Australia – make up the bulk of what is on display at the museum.
Even so, there are plenty of Newton’s greatest hits: a woman being ravished on an office desk; a model on all fours, riding saddle strapped on her back; a female torso tied up in rope; a spindly nude model in a leg cast and neck brace. But these images – striking, however you see them – are often wedged between these earlier unremarkable images that do little to illuminate his legacy.
Their proximity in the space to early run-of-the-mill assignments – department store catalogues, ballet production pictures, even photographs of an oil refinery – dilute their elegance and shock, even disguising them completely. Hung on a pillar that also included a yellowed magazine, newspaper clippings and a brochure photograph, I nearly missed Sie kommen, an image of four nude Amazonian-looking women waltzing towards the camera, and maybe his most famous photograph.
There is a smattering of his great celebrity portraits. A young Charlotte Rampling giving a slight glower. Andy Warhol reclining in an armchair, swaddled in a giant coat and scarf that make his head almost look disembodied. David Hockney sitting on the deck of a Parisian public pool, as a couple sunbakes in the background.
While it’s not included in this retrospective, his portraiture was more than star shots. Newton was drawn towards power, no matter how morally reprehensible. His photographs of far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl – whose eroticised, sculpted bodies Newton claimed as an influence – are among his most fascinating works, in the way that they expose the sitter’s delusions of grandeur. In one portrait of Riefenstahl, she is captured powdering her sagging skin and looks like a barely alive ghoul – a far cry from the youthful, trim bodies of Olympia. Le Pen, meanwhile, is shot clutching two dopey-looking Dobermans, looking equally as daft.
Not that Newton would have ever explained his intentions this way – he relished his title of the “naughty boy” of fashion and the accusations of vulgarity and poor taste.
There is some interesting work among the earlier fluff that hints at the perverse glamour to come. A model in a Balenciaga-inspired dress, holding a sword in front of her face. An advertising poster of a woman in various extravagant coats flanked by two gun-toting guards. The article “Beautiful Beast Looks”, where models pose behind metal cages for an early edition of Vogue Australia.
In Focus’s main problem is excess. There is too much in a tiny space: small-scale framed photos are snaked around columns that have been installed to look like ruins, crumbling at the top. The floor is laden with hunks of rock. Squiggly, colourful neon tubes adorn the walls and reflect back onto the frames, sometimes obscuring the photographs.
Newton’s images are often branded with catch-all terms such as “racy”, “provocative” or, as this exhibition material says, “outrageous”, but he was foremost a fetishist. The exhibition works best when the dull Australian archive material is grouped with his more interesting work to highlight his proclivities. Take a column of three photographs focusing on feet – curled up, squished into shoes, donning hosiery. This triptych is positioned next to his image Shoe, a close-up, low angle of a woman’s foot in high heels, where the ankle protrudes and skin is scrunched up under stockings. “Bodies acquire what charge they have only from becoming elegantly contorted into the most excruciating postures,” Mark Fisher wrote on his k-punk blog back in 2004, after the photographer’s death. “Newton takes an almost medical interest in the savage twisting of bone.”
Walking through the exhibition, I thought a lot about how his work ripped from the aesthetics of pornography in a period before the two freely fed off each other. So many of Newton’s images are reminiscent of fetish photography of the ’30s: their stark, inky tableaux, their masochism, their sapphic overtones. One can draw a jagged line between Newton and American Apparel’s overtly sexual ads in the early ’00s, where fresh-faced young models were shot in angles and poses that evoked low-budget digital porn. These images were not made for a male audience but for their teen shoppers, who wanted to obtain a “natural” unmaintained sex appeal.
But for all Newton’s objectification, at least he never disguised the artificial mechanisms of seduction and beauty. To display the dehumanising intensity of sexual desire was the point. In the later works included at In Focus, this comes into clear view. In stately dining rooms, penthouses, high-rise office buildings and grandiose gardens, the wealthy indulge in unseemly luxury and play. But even those flushed with privilege cannot make beauty or sex look easy. Every image has the shellacked sheen of eroticism that is laboured, hard-earned, forced and extremely controlled.
In Diving Tower, Old Beach Hotel, for instance, a nude model looking like a pin-up seems to be venturing for a midnight dip at a hotel in Monte Carlo. Arms glued to her sides, she’s upright, positioned precariously on a diving board. Like so many of Newton’s photographs, harsh light falls on her body with precision, accentuating her tautness and muscle. There isn’t even a whiff of spontaneity – it’s all static, devoid of any motion. She may be standing right at the edge but you know there is no way she’s jumping off.
HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus is at the Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, until January 29, 2023.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Cruel beauty".
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