King of Kink: a fresh look at Helmut Newton

‘Some people’s photography is art, mine is not’ said the Berliner, whose genius is the glossy celebration of the superficial

Thu, Nov 28, 2013, 01:00

A decade after his death, the photographer Helmut Newton lives on through his immortal images of Amazonian models wearing little but high heels and impassive glares.

But there is a lot more to Newton than his imperious nudes, as is clear from a retrospective in his home city of Berlin. It’s a shame, then, to see as few smiles among the audience as on the walls. Visitors mill around, high-brows furrowed, scouring the stark images for hidden depth that, in their minds, would qualify them as art. And all the while, high on a wall, Newton explains why his low-brow charm goes right over their heads.

“Some people’s photography is art, mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that’s fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire.” Newton’s words, to Newsweek shortly before his sudden death in 2004, are his epitaph. A contract snapper and multimedia mercenary, he went where the work was. The retrospective Paris-Berlin, a nod to the two cities he called home, gives visitors a chance to enjoy a six-decade catalogue that impresses through breadth rather than depth.

Most impressive is his commission work for everything from Vogue to the ceramics company Villeroy & Boch. A highlight of the show is his 1960s work for Queen magazine, a riot of scurrilous, playful and hilarious images with a heavy ironic twist.

How else to describe the set-piece homage to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where a shocked model – in hat, coat and pristine white boots – is pursued by an aircraft across a deserted field?

Or the jewellery shot where a woman, in a diamond bracelet and opal ring, does suggestive things to a greasy, spread-eagled roast chicken as she carves?

Public enemy
Seeing this other side of Newton casts a richer light on his more familiar work – the nudes – which made him public enemy number one among feminist groups.

They saw his female portraits as exploitative and demeaning, a reaction that is understandable. But things look different in this exhibition. Perhaps it is critical distance, maybe it’s seeing these images in the context of his entire body of work, but Newton’s nudes take on another air in Berlin: exuding strength, not weakness.

If anything, it is the men who should be complaining: objectified in successive images as anonymous, oiled muscle men in swimming trunks, always in packs and vying for the attention of the inevitably immaculate, aloof, couture-clad goddess.

Newton was born Helmut Neustädter in Berlin in 1920, the son of a wealthy Jewish button manufacturer. The family was well-off and secular. As a teenager he learned his trade under the city’s premier female photographer, Yva. She was also Jewish, and she died in the Holocaust, but he escaped on a train to Trieste in 1938 and moved on to Singapore.

After a brief spell as a photographer and a longer engagement as a gigolo, he moved to Australia. There he unpacked his camera again and, in 1947, met the actor June Browne. She became his wife a year later and, in the 1970s, a photographer in her own right under the name Alice Springs.

Before they married, the man now known as Helmut Newton made clear to her the pecking order in his life.

“My first love is the work, then you,” recalled June Newton, now a youthful 90, at the opening of the retrospective in Berlin.

She was perfectly happy with the arrangement – “we were buddies” – and a life-long collaboration began. June, as much a constant presence in his work as in his life, can be seen throughout the show: blouse open over dinner or watching her husband photographing nudes.

Ah yes, the nudes. Newton earned the name “King of Kink” for his fascination with the strong, silent type: lounging naked but for high heels on a fur blanket, or dangerous dominas packed in latex and leather corsets. His embrace of fetish shocked postwar fashion audiences while opening a door to Madonna and other pop-culture homogenisers of fringe tastes. Newton never tried to find hidden depth in his work. His genius was the glossy celebration of the superficial, perfectly calibrated for the 1970s and 1980s.

At the time of his sudden death in 2004, Newton was putting the finishing touches to a new foundation for his work. The foundation, housed in a former Prussian soldier’s club at Berlin’s Zoo Station, opened its doors after his death and has become a part of west Berlin’s cultural landscape.

As well as the retrospective, visitors can visit an exhibition about Newton himself, peruse his bookshelves and delight over his collection of kitsch.

Like that other German fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, Newton said he loathed looking back. He dismissed nostalgia as “useless and unproductive”, yet, surveying this retrospective, a red line runs through his work, from the nudes through the fetish images and even the portraits.

It’s as if Newton spent his life producing external images of his internalised idiom of Berlin, the city that ceased to exist after he fled aged 18. Berlin’s interwar years – where 19th-century Prussian haughtiness collided with 20th-century sleaze – informed all his work. With the forgiving and selective eye of the exile, he ignored Berlin’s subsequent ruptures to spin on further his home town’s lost aesthetic as the “Cabaret” court photographer.

Helmut Newton: Paris-Berlin is at Museum für Fotografie, Berlin, until May 2014

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