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A retrospective of the ‘King of Kink’: Helmut Newton

By Vivian Hendriksz

Jun 17, 2016


“Helmut Newton did something extraordinary for the brand,” said Ashish Sensarma, CEO of lingerie brand Wolford at during the press preview of the upcoming exhibition ‘Helmut Newton - A Retrospective’ at photography museum Foam in Amsterdam. “He captured the brand DNA, our true DNA, through photography.” A sponsor for the exhibition, it is clear that Sensarma is greatly moved by Newton’s work. “I had a tear in my eye when I saw the exhibition, it really is outstanding,” he added. And he is not alone in being so touched by the work of the German-Australian photographer.

“Helmut Newton did something extraordinary for the brand. He captured the brand DNA, our true DNA, through photography”

Ashish Sensarma, Chief Executive Officer at Wolford.

Helmut Newton (1920 - 2004) is known best for his fashion, portrait and nude photography. A self-proclaimed voyeur, his work often revolved around sensual, mysterious yet powerful women and his vision/perception of them. Voyeurism, fetishism, eroticism, exhibitonism humour and death are all recurring themes in his work, which some may think of as slightly dated in 2016. However Newton was a true pioneer of his time, pushing the boundaries of fashion photography in the 1960s, which was when he began his rise to fame and started shooting for the likes of French and British Vogue, as well as Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of US Vogue has praised his work for being “unbelievably influential” and he is said to have been close friends with designer Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, shooting both campaign and products shots for YSL and Chanel.

“I don’t know if they were close friends or not. I would say they were more companions as I don’t think friendship is a big word in the fashion industry” joked Matthias Harder, Curator at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, Germany which helped curate the exhibition at Foam. The retrospective features 200 pieces of Newton’s work over the years, beginning from his early years shooting for French Vogue and on to his later years, when he began focusing more on portraits and nudes. The exhibition also features a short film shot by his life partner and wife June Newton aka Alice Springs, entitled ‘Helmut by June’ as well as the work of three young and upcoming photographers, who were inspired by Helmut Newton and an installment by Wolford. Newton knew from a young age that he wanted to be a photographer, and after fleeing his hometown of Berlin 1938 and briefly living in Singapore, he ended up in Melbourne, Australia. However, it was not until he moved to Paris in 1961 that he began attracting attention from the fashion industry with his stylized, erotic shoots, which portrayed women as dominant and sexually powerful creatures.

“There was a certain collaboration between Newton and Lagerfeld, and Newton took his portrait several times,” said Harder. In the early 1970s Newton created a series for French Vogue which showed the models together with the designers, a very unusual decision seen in fashion photography at the time. Although Newton was commissioned by magazines to shoot editorials, he always worked with his own ideas and themes, toying with them as he saw fit. Newton often referred to himself as “a gun for hire” but never shied away from using a photoshoot as a means to tell his own story. The photographer is said to have altered the course of fashion photography as he created a mood and a story to showcase the clothing, rather than letting the clothing sell itself in the photograph. “The gaze, I think, is very important in Helmut Newton’s work,” said Marcel Feil, adjunct Artistic Director at Foam. “And the type of storytelling he does in his work. There is always a sort of game going on, of someone looking at somebody else - someone revealing something to someone else. And one would say that fashion is all about hiding and covering, dressing up. But it is also about revealing things. It is that complex game of revelation and disguise, of fact versus fiction.”

“Newton makes us observers of his voyeur”

Matthias Harder, Curator at the Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin.

In the many of his photographs, especially those taken after Newton suffered a near fatal heart attack in 1971, are said to have become more explicit, “more Newton.” In these photographs, the artist almost forces the viewer to look at women and their bodies under a new light, not necessarily as a sexual object of desire but rather as the stronger, more powerful gender of the two. “Newton makes us observers of his voyeur,” noted Harder and the photographer was often referred as the ‘King of Kink’. “He forced us to really look at things and women and their bodies. He gives us a new approach to viewing a person, even in their naked form.” Newton was hailed as a groundbreaking glamour fashion photographer back in the 1970s and 1980s, although some argue that his vulgar and voyeuristic view of his subjects defines their sexuality as he saw fit. Some of his most famous photographs include one of a woman in stockings and a garter belt and a saddle on a bed, and a shoot for Yves Saint Laurent, in which one androgynous model wears a suit and is accompanied by another model in nothing but a pair of high heel and a pillarbox hat. However at the same time it is clear that Newton also holds a certain sense of awe and respect of the power his models have. “It’s a physiological effect his photos have on people, they can bring out a side of the viewers they did not even know they had.”

This effect is perhaps the strongest in one of Newton’s most well known photographs ‘Sie Kommen!’ (Here They Come!). A two part series, the photographs were originally shot as part of French Vogue special haute couture edition. In the first image, four models stand in defiant poses, proudly showing their ensembles. But it is the second image, in which the models pose in exactly the same way, only nude, which is the better known half. The nudity of the second photo is not erotic or sexuality, due to the stance taken by the models and the confidence they exude - rather their nakedness has become their shield, their clothing. “Of course the women in the photo look great in the haute couture, with their high heels on” said Sylvia Gobbel, a former model of Helmut and one of the four in ‘Sie Kommen’ during the preview. “But if a woman is truly strong, she is as powerful naked as dressed. She does not really need haute couture, she could come into a bedroom just in high heels and she would not be ashamed. Because this is not about creating an erotic picture. It is not about seducing the man - not one of us looks into the camera. All these women are their own chief.”

“We are not here to seduce men, we are here to show that women are actually the stronger gender,” stressed Gobbel. “And that’s actually what Helmut thought as well. He was a feminist.” In this sense, the viewer can also see Newton’s “rather nasty Berlin sense of humour,” as he both mocks the fashion industry and its artificial power of seduction whilst strengthening it and underlining it at the same time in his work - a fine line for any artist to master.

‘Helmut Newton - A Retrospective’ is set to run from June 17 to September 4, 2016 in Foam Museum, Amsterdam the Netherlands.

Interested in reading more on Helmut Newton, or seeing more if his work? Then click here to see FashionUnited's virtual tour of the exhibition,

Photo credits: Homepage photo - Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Rue Aubriot, Paris 1975 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography

Photo 1, 2 and 3: Foam, press preview - Simon Trel

Photo 4: Catherine Deneuve, Esquire, Paris 1976 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography

alice springs
Helmut Newton
june brundell
Yves Saint Laurent