Photographs copyright of the Helmut Newton Estate courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel
Schirmer/Mosel, the late Helmut Newton’s long term publishing partner has just re-issued a softback version their Best of Helmut Newton, edited by Zdenek Felix with the art direction by June Newton, Helmut’s wife. The first edition hardbound book was initially published by Schirmer/Mosel in 1991.
This book provides a broad sampling of Newton’s body of work, including both his fashion work, portraits, assignments as well as his personal nude projects, such as Big Nudes. The black and white photographs have a wonderful tonality and contrast. The color photographs in this book appear over saturated, perhaps many were made using Kodachrome, a rather notorious high contrast color positive film.
Newton’s long term theme was sexuality, ranging from subtle sensuality to overt eroticism, usually utilizing one of his many fetishs that he had became famous for. Most of the European publications did not have the same editorial limitations for the use of nudity and Newton used the nude models extensively. What is interesting to me is that many of his famous nudes were created in collaboration with his wife, June Newton (who’s photographic pseudonym was Alice Springs, a name taken from her native Australia).
A rather interesting photograph on the book’s back cover is a dual-self portrait of the couple with one of their athletic nude models photographed in Europe. Helmut is taking the photograph while wearing a trenchcoat, hunched over his twin lens reflex camera, not unlike the cartoon charter of the “dirty old man” who opens his trench coat on the occasion to fully reveal himself. Meanwhile June sits to the side intently watching the two, but who really has her rapt gaze, her husband or the nude model? This juxtaposition creates a sexual tension beyond photographing a nude woman, a hint at a three way relationship? Alternatively, is June there to protect her husband from the temptations of the flesh, or is she there to protect the model from her “dirty old man”?
The model being photographed appears strong and very comfortable with her nudity. She has an air of nobility about her posture and appears very confident about her lean and young body. The standing model is also looking in the direction of the sitting June, for her approval or is it a mutual interest? But in so looking at the model, you become aware of another pair of nude legs just beyond. Who is she and why is this other person there?
The setting is also interesting as we have been provided a larger view of not only of the photographer himself, the model and his wife, but also beyond. Behind June is the exit (sortie) to the studio, with the door open and we can see cars either parked or driving by. It is very possible that those outside the studio can see in and view the posing nude model. We can make out a silhouette of someone in a car which has paused at the entrance of the open studio door, introducing another element, that of voyeurism, creating additional sexual tension.
Newton imbues this sexual tension in his fashion photographs, with one of my favoite photographs included below, of the woman seated on the couch intently observing the shirtless man. As needed for a fashion photograph, her details of the dress are evident. There is the overtly suggestive sexual element of how that this same dress can be effectively used to communicate her interest in a relationship, such as the untied and open neck line. Like wise the models pose is very suggestive, with her legs spread wide apart, playing with a strand of her hair. She is wearing slippers, not high heels and since the man is shirtless, is this moment a flirtation or post-glory?
Not every photograph by Newton is so layered with meaning, but many are, and his photographs warrant a revisit.
The 8 5/8″ x 10 5/8″ softcover book has 156 pages, with 105 color and duotone plates, and nicely printed in Verona Italy. The two insightful essays, translated from German in the English version, are by Noemi Smolik and Urs Stahel.
By Douglas Stockdale