Helmut Newton’s fashion photography is the aesthetic equivalent of a metallic taste in your mouth. Luxurious, cold, glamorous and cruel, the darkish images of the late Berliner are superlative displays of feminine beauty, drawn from the dark and cartoonish recesses of male fantasy. The women appear almost unreal – statuesque and superhuman – disguised as vixens of various ilk: dominatrixes, cops, athletes, assassins, sexbots.
The models were almost always the same: lean, white, imposing and blond. Until his death in 2004, he was one of the most sought-after photographers, whose work frequently slipped masochism into the glossy pages of mainstream fashion magazines. Appreciations and reviews of her vast body of work have led to the same silly question – feminist or perverse? – which exaggerates its transgression and confuses representations of domination with progressiveness.
But before Newton’s riding crop-wielding woman caused a discord, the photographer had paid his dues in Australia, as the latest investigation into his work HELMUT NEWTON: in briefcurrently on view at the Jewish Museum of Australia, aims to affirm.
In 1938 Newton fled the Nazis in Berlin, landing first in Singapore where he had a brief stint as a gigolo, before settling in Melbourne for over two decades. Here he met his wife and confidante, June Newton or, as she was known by her tongue-in-cheek pseudonym as a photographer, Alice Springs. He established a photography studio in Flinders Lane, where he photographed most of his early work, mainly fashion catalogues, magazines and theatrical portraits. These mostly tame and forgettable works – alongside a mix of Newton’s time in Australia – make up the bulk of what’s on display at the museum.
Even so, there are many of Newton’s greatest hits: a raped woman on a desk; a four-legged model, riding saddle strapped to the back; a female torso tied with a rope; a slender nude model in a leg cast and neck brace. But these images – striking, however you see them – are often wedged between those mundane prior images that do little to illuminate his legacy.
Their proximity in space to the first mundane missions – department store catalogs, ballet production images, even photographs of an oil refinery – dilutes their elegance and shock, if not disguises them altogether. Clinging to a pillar that also included a yellowed magazine, newspaper clippings and a brochure photograph, I almost missed Sie kommenan image of four naked Amazonian-looking women waltzing towards the camera, and perhaps his most famous photograph.
There are a handful of his great celebrity portraits. A young Charlotte Rampling giving a slight dark look. Andy Warhol reclining in an armchair, swaddled in a giant coat and scarf that almost makes his head appear disembodied. David Hockney sitting on the terrace of a Parisian public swimming pool, while a couple sunbathe in the background.
Although not included in this retrospective, his portraits were more than star shots. Newton was drawn to power, no matter how morally reprehensible. His photographs of far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl – whose eroticized, sculpted bodies Newton claimed as an influence – are among his most fascinating works, in the way they expose the illusions of size of the model. In a portrait by Riefenstahl, she is captured powdering her sagging skin and looks like a barely alive ghoul – a far cry from the young, neat bodies of Olympia. Le Pen, meanwhile, is shot holding two stupid-looking, equally stupid Dobermans.
Not that Newton would ever have explained his intentions that way – he relished his title as fashion’s “bad boy” and the accusations of vulgarity and bad taste.
There’s some interesting work among the previous plushies that hints at the evil glamor to come. A model in a Balenciaga-inspired dress, holding a sword in front of her face. An advertising poster of a woman wearing various extravagant coats flanked by two armed guards. The “Beautiful Beast Looks” article, where models pose behind metal cages for a first edition of vogue australia.
On pointThe main problem is excess. There’s too much in a tiny space: small-scale framed photos wind around columns that have been set up to look like ruins, crumbling at the top. The ground is loaded with boulders. Colorful, wavy neon tubes adorn the walls and reflect off the frames, sometimes obscuring the photographs.
Newton’s images are often branded with catch-all terms such as ‘racy’, ‘provocative’ or, as this exhibit material puts it, ‘scandalous’, but he was first and foremost a fetishist. The exhibition works best when boring Australian archival material is grouped together with his more interesting work to highlight his inclinations. Take a column of three foot-focused photographs – curled up, squashed in shoes, donning stockings. This triptych is positioned next to his image Shoe, a close up and low angle of a woman’s foot in high heels, where the ankle is sticking out and the skin is wrinkled under the stockings. “Bodies acquire their charge only by contorting themselves elegantly in the most excruciating postures,” Mark Fisher wrote on his k-punk blog in 2004, after the photographer’s death. “Newton is almost medically interested in the wild twisting of bones.”
As I walked through the exhibition, I thought a lot about how his work broke away from the aesthetics of pornography at a time when the two freely fed on each other. So many of Newton’s images recall the fetish photography of the 1930s: their austere, inky paintings, their masochism, their Sapphic overtones. A fine line can be drawn between the overtly sexual advertisements of Newton and American Apparel in the early 2000s, where fresh-faced young models were photographed in angles and poses reminiscent of low-budget digital pornography. These images weren’t made for a male audience but for their teenage buyers, who wanted to achieve an unmaintained “natural” sex appeal.
But for all Newton’s objectification, at least he never disguised the artificial mechanisms of seduction and beauty. It was about displaying the dehumanizing intensity of sexual desire. In later works included at On point, it becomes clear. In stately dining rooms, penthouses, high-rise office buildings and grand gardens, the wealthy indulge in unseemly luxury and gambling. But even those with privilege can’t make beauty or sex easy. Each image has the seashell sheen of painstaking, hard-earned, forced, and tightly controlled eroticism.
In Diving Tower, Old Beach Hotel, for example, a nude pin-up model appears to be venturing out for a midnight swim at a hotel in Monte Carlo. Arms glued to the sides, she is standing, precariously positioned on a diving board. Like so many of Newton’s photographs, harsh light falls on his body with precision, accentuating his tension and muscularity. There is not even a whiff of spontaneity – everything is static, devoid of any movement. She might just be standing on the edge, but you know there’s no way she’ll jump.
HELMUT NEWTON: in brief is at the Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, until 29 January 2023.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 under the headline “Cruel beauty”.
A free press is a paid press. In the short term, the economic fallout from the coronavirus has taken about a third of our income. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.