Helmut Newton


Helmut Newton’s spectacular and often outrageous images have made him synonymous with the world of glamour photography. Sakshi Parikh delves into his extraordinary life.

Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Rue Aubriot, Paris 1975. The architecture and receding street, along with the sexual ambiguity and classic appeal, adds to the timelessness of the image. This look has been attempted by many photographers since. (facing & alongside):© Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography

The 1970’s were very exciting times, especially for the young and restless in Europe. It was an era of liberalisation and the breaking of conventions. Pornography had gone mainstream. Fashion had begun to move in bold, new directions. In the midst of it all, Helmut Newton was already making waves with his pioneering, provocative fashion imagery and for pushing the boundaries of the art form by making erotic scenarios look chic. His images, which bordered on the voyeuristic, frequently stunned both the fashion and publishing industries with its overtly raw sexual appeal. Far from shying away, and despite losing subscribers, the leading fashion magazines all wanted him.

Accepting the Unacceptable
The women he photographed were bold, strong and aggressive, and he was not afraid to show that. They projected a mixture of distance and availability, displaying neither weakness nor doubt. Influenced by Brassai and Erich Salomon, Helmut was the one of initial photographers to show the beauty of uninhibited behavior.

With a career spanning nearly six decades, he photographed for several notable fashion journals, but largely for French Vogue. Earlier, fashion was mainly about the clothes and how beautiful a woman can look in them. It was more about wearing what was on the runway, and striving for a perfect body to carry that. Through his audacious images, Helmut managed to alter the mindsets of people by showing them a rebellious and a powerful side of that era.

X-Ray, Van Cleef & Arpels, French Vogue, 1994. Helmut wanted to see what was going on ‘under the flesh’. So he took some of his jewellery clad models to a radiologist. The jewels disappeared, leaving only the bone structure and the metal settings.

Unlike his contemporaries, he broke the rules of photography by moving away from the four walls of a studio and shooting in varied locations, using minimal gear. “I find that the places that I know, that are very familiar to me become very mysterious and very interesting as I shoot around them.” He derived his ideas from real life experiences. “Every scene I make here, is all plucked from the reality and the harshness of everyday life”, he had said.

Making Scandalous Photographs
Helmut believed in creating pictures that not only depicted the whims and fancies of the social elite, but also displayed a stark change in gender roles, identities and power structures. “When you looked at his nudes, the woman is not an object, she is a woman of power,” says Just Loomis, a friend and assistant of Helmut’s.

It was ironical that he always liked women who were strong and triumphant, with broad shoulders, and at the same time he photographed them nude, exposing not just their body, but their soul. “I think I reminded him of the girls he met in his youth in Berlin-strong both physically and mentally. He projected his women as fearless and larger than life, just like him”, says Sylvia Gobbel, who was shot by Helmut for the cover of his book, Big Nudes.

Seduce, Amuse and Entertain
Through his sadomasochistic images, he also shaped and crystalised the erotic fantasies of that time. There were women in handcuffs, ropes and chains including one also with a saddle on her back. He brought a certain level of ‘acceptable’ kinkiness in fashion photography. Addressed as the ‘King of Kink’ by TIME magazine, Helmut was a channel for different tendencies of eroticism including fetishes like bondage and dominance.

Even as he often pushed the envelope, art directors and magazine publishers still wanted him. Today, his work receives more appreciation than it did in his lifetime. More than challenging the rules and stereotypes of fashion, Helmut Newton challenged the stereotypes of photography and society, and continues to do so.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Better Photography.

Helmut Newton was notorious for stirring up the fashion industry with his provocative images. To showcase his work, The Helmut Newton Foundation is organising two exhibitions—Alice Springs: The MEP Show, Berlin (on till November 20, 2016) and Helmut Newton: A Retrospective in Amsterdam (till September 4, 2016).