As a major new retrospective of the work of acclaimed fashion photographer Helmut Newton opens at The Marta Ortega Pérez (MOP) Foundation in A Coruna, Spain, is it time to look at the origins of an aesthetic born in the brutality of the post-war years with a new empathy?
Tucked away in the midst of a giant new exhibition of works spanning most of Newton’s career (excepting his earliest work) are two collage boards filled with magazine clippings, scribbled notes from Newton and the (very sweet) notes of admiration and support from fellow photographers. It’s easy to overlook these collations of artefacts from a triumphant life amidst a collection of startling, quite literally stop-you-in-your-tracks images of naked and nude women in highly sexualised environments, yet miss it and you miss the chance to see Newton in a very different light.
On a page ripped from a longer article in a glossy magazine is an excerpt from Newton’s biography in which he describes what we would now recognise as his sexual exploitation by an older, richer woman whom he encountered when, as a Jewish teenager in 1938 Berlin, he had fled Germany alone for Singapore. Josette, as he identifies her, plucks him from the hostel in which he is staying, grooms him over a period of time, then isolates him in a remote beachfront villa. He is financially controlled and obliged to perform sexually for her ‘more than I would have liked’ before he describes being interned as an enemy alien by the British as rescuing him. This then is the Newton who goes on to create a visual world that encodes sex and sexuality within a framework of power and transaction. The exploited kid turned triumphant survivor who flips his previous constraints of sex, money and material goods on their head to create the building blocks of a long, and by all accounts happy career and life. The startling twist when viewing his work all together is to realise just how influential those building blocks were on the rest of the world.
Newton’s aesthetic privileged sensation over emotion, with his female models variously posed in artfully constructed narratives of erotic transaction as the mistress, the affair, the concubine, the escort. Transgressive in the era of both paper-wrapped pornography and of a more patriarchal conception of marriage and social norms, the stopping power of his imagery made it ideal fodder for the booming advertising world of the success-at-any-cost 1980s.
Newton’s visual language dominated fashion, film and advertising in the 1980s, until the verité aesthetic of the 90s unseated it.
The gritty inclusiveness of the 90s didn’t lessen the impact of Newton’s vision. Against the pure feeling and empathy conjured by paradigm-changing photographers like Nan Goldin, Corinne Day, Elaine Constantine, sharp eyed creatives from Tom Ford at Gucci to Dita Von Teese and Beyoncé leveraged Newton’s most iconic stagings to the same shocking effect.
Today’s radically inclusive gen-z aesthetic has created a space in which a new generation Newton’s imagery is once again deployed to startling effect by canny creatives from John Galliano at Margiela and Olivier Rousteng at Balmain to Kim Kardashian.
The need for a frame in which transactional sexuality can be perceived as strength is a marker of our times and, arguably of our failure to create a world in which it is unnecessary to protect ourselves from the psychological harm of exchanging our bodies for material benefit. Does Newton’s visual legacy have a role to play in our future? The damaged young man created a powerful medicine to help him survive the toughest times and as the 2020s lurch on, we continue to need the salve that Helmut Newton created.
Helmut Newton – Fact & Fiction, 18th November 2023 – 1st May 2024, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, helmutnewton-coruna.com