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The Divine Decadence of Helmut Newton

The life and work of the taboo-busting photographer continue to enthral and scandalise in equal measure, writes Tim Blanks.
Helmut Newton, Big Nude III, Henrietta, Paris, 1981.
Helmut Newton, Big Nude III, Paris, 1980. (© Helmut Newton Foundation)

“My mother always said, ‘If you have any problems, Helmut, don’t tell us, tell the doctor.’ And my father, screwing in his monocle, used to say, ‘My boy, you’ll end up in the gutter.’”

What would Helmut Newton’s parents make of the fact that their only child, for whom they clearly cherished no grand ambitions, is the subject 20 years after his death of not one, but two major exhibitions in Europe this winter? Helmut Newton: Legacy, which just opened at the Museo dell’Ara Pacis in Rome, takes a chronological approach to his career. Helmut Newton - Fact & Fiction — which opens on November 18 under the auspices of the Marta Ortega Pérez (MOP) Foundation in A Coruna, Spain and is curated by Philippe Garner, Matthias Harder and Tim Jefferies — takes a thematic route, focusing on fashion, nudes, portraits and landscapes, alongside videos, memorabilia, cameras, props, all the ephemera of a career that made Newton as celebrated as the icons he photographed.

Newton was born Helmut Neustädter in 1920, into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin. He got his first camera at 12, and was assisting photographer Yva (Else Neuländer) by the age of 16. Yva was famous for her fashion work, her nudes and her portraits, a clear precursor to Newton’s own work. With the rise of the Nazis, Berlin became increasingly threatening for the Neustädters. In 1938, mother and father left for Argentina. Helmut headed in the other direction, boarding a train to Trieste, thence by ship to Singapore, eventually ending up in Australia, where he met and married his wife June. They lived in Melbourne for the next 20 years, before moving to Paris in 1959, where Newton began to work for French Vogue (Yva was murdered by the Nazis in 1942, in the Majdanek death camp.)

Helmut Newton, Self-Portrait, Monte Carlo, 1993.

Philippe Garner, vice president of the Helmut Newton Foundation, met the Newtons in April 1975 in Paris, at the photographer’s first-ever show of his pictures. They remained close friends until a heart attack killed Newton in January 2004 in Los Angeles. “I knew him as well as anybody as far as he wished you to know him, but there was always a layer of mystery that you couldn’t quite get through.” Was Newton essentially unknowable? I wonder. “It’s a very good question which gets to the heart of the character somehow. An agent of his many years ago said something that shook me. ‘The day that Helmut got on board that train in Berlin in 1938, his heart died.’ I can’t help but ask myself about the trauma of an 18 year old in Nazi Germany persecuted as a Jew, having to leave everything behind, stepping into the unknown. Helmut never dramatised that. He barely referenced it. Because it was too painful, too deep, too dark.”

Helmut Newton, Winnie Off the Coast of Cannes, France, 1975.

But those early years in Berlin surely shadowed Newton throughout his life. He was, for example, a champion swimmer when he was a child. Swimming pools became a regular motif in his adult photographs. As for the lost world of pre-war privilege — the grand hotels, the cars, the spas — he lived in with his parents, Garner believes, “So much of his work is soaked in revisiting those atmospherics of place.” Newton always described himself as a voyeur. Looking at his photos now, it’s easy to imagine him as a precocious child prying and peeping round doors and curtains at distinctly adult goings-on in hotel suites. “It was part of a framing moment of his adolescence, which never ended,” Garner agrees.

Newton’s childhood coincided with the Weimar Republic, which sparked a radical cultural renaissance in Germany. Berlin, in particular, became a global byword for excess. Sexual licence, drugs, outrage, summed up by the catchphrase of Sally Bowles as played by Liza Minnelli in the Weimar-set musical Cabaret: “Divine decadence, darling.” An impressionable Helmut would have seen the paintings of revolutionary artists like Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on museum walls, peopled with libertines, night crawlers, exhibitionists, hookers. Then he would have seen those same people out on the street. Once again, you imagine such early encounters sharpening Newton’s adult appreciation of transgressive behaviour, expressed in the studied erotic indolence, the sexual fetishism, the casual nudity of his images.

Helmut Newton, Charlotte Rampling as Venus in Furs, Paris, 1977.

The young Newton was equally exposed to the violence and repression of the burgeoning Nazi threat. The book burnings of May 1933 left him with a lifelong commitment to freedom of expression. “He threw down the gauntlet to those who may consider challenging his freedom of speech or freedom of expression, and he’s always flying the flag for those freedoms,” says Garner. “Through his work at the heart of Western society, he reclaimed for himself the freedom that was wrenched dramatically and traumatically from him. And he also, in a bizarre and very disconcerting way, took certain elements of the iconography of fascist Germany and subverted and reconfigured them for his own ends. He took ownership of them.”

There is indeed an authoritarian strand in Newton’s pictures, a subtext of dominance and submission which has been as enduringly controversial as the sexual element, especially as it relates to some of the most memorable of Newton’s provocative scenarios. His statuesque women are powerful, but they are also playthings. One of his most famous images is Halston muse Elsa Peretti posed as a Playboy bunny on the balcony of her New York apartment. Subject and object, in other words. It is why Newton worked with equal facility for Vogue and Playboy throughout his career, and why he was equally applauded and damned.

Helmut Newton, Elsa Peretti as a Bunny, Halston, New York, 1975.

When I asked director and curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation Matthias Harder if he thought it would be possible to produce work like Newton’s in the present cultural climate, he said, “No, I don’t think so. One has to be careful. We have this thing called cancel culture. For me, it destroys something if you’re too careful to think about what others might think.” Harder believes Newton offers a unique opportunity for reflection. “If you compare German magazines like Stern or Quick in the 60s, the role of the woman was in the kitchen doing the food for the kids or whatever. Helmut was such a free spirit, he was helping to free women. ‘C’mon, dare!’ he was shouting out to women.”

Harder, who is also director and curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation, says of the newly opened show in Rome that, “People stay longer in front of his pictures than any other photographers. It’s fantastic to see how they react. Maybe some are laughing a little bit because of the pubic hair, especially the younger women, but it’s starting a discussion. It was Helmut’s aim to be controversial and he fulfilled it perfectly, because all the discussions are still there.”

“Undermining people’s expectations was his raison d’être,” Garner agrees. “We have created a show with plenty of images that will disconcert. There’s always the double thing, the twist of seducing you while destabilising you. I came up with the title “Fact & Fiction” because I wanted something that reflected the tension of opposites, which was at the heart of Helmut’s creativity. And I think, more specifically, it’s those two words that remind you of his practical modus operandi, by which I mean Helmut was a great observer of people, places, social protocols. He had an eagle eye for the telling detail, the scenario, the gesture.”

Helmut Newton, Ballet de Monte Carlo, Bernice Coppieters, 1992.

In his introduction to Newton’s first book, “White Women,” which was published in 1976, Garner noted that the photographer’s eagle eye was also cold and unsparing. That Peretti photo, for instance. Or the fashion photo that may actually be his best-known, of model Vibeke Knudsen in a Saint Laurent tuxedo, standing at night on Rue Aubriot, the street where Newton lived in Paris. One hand is in her pocket, the other holds a cigarette, and, when the image appeared in French Vogue in 1975, its chilly ambiguous insouciance read as a perfect distillation of the mood of that era: Bowie’s Weimar phase (aka the Return of the Thin White Duke); the cult of directors such as Luchino Visconti and Liliana Cavani; and fashion’s fascination with the Thirties and Forties, kicked off by Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring 1971 couture show which caused a scandal with its kitsch retro references.

“Rue Aubriot, 1975″ can also be seen through the lens of what it anticipated: the sexual fluidity, the self-absorption, the saturated glamour, the Studio54-ness of the late Seventies. Newton always wanted to be a photo-journalist like his early heroes Henri Cartier Bresson and Erich Salomon but he gradually realised that his skill lay not in photographing reality in real time but in reconstructing his own ironic, metaphorical version of reality. “Helmut’s own pictorial world,” Garner calls it, “but absolutely rooted in things observed and things remembered.” A grit of truth, in other words.

Before his fatal heart attack in 2004, Newton suffered another major coronary incident in 1971. It was a watershed for him, a reminder of his own mortality, but also a wake-up call that he wasn’t pushing himself enough to dig deeper, to push the boundaries of his work beyond fashion. Having barely escaped Thanatos, Newton pursued Eros. When he had a fashion shoot, he’d make his erotic pictures on the side (though apparently he preferred calling his nudes “sex pictures” rather than “erotic pictures”). After he’d finished whatever editorial commission he was working on, he’d cannily roll over all the services at his disposal — the models, the makeup artists, the hairdressers, the stylists — to shoot pictures for his private portfolio.

Helmut Newton, Karl Lagerfeld, Paris, 1973.

But it wasn’t long before Newton was getting commissions for that private stuff too. He also began to introduce portraiture to his repertoire. “What he did very swiftly was blur the three so that the fashion pictures had an erotic element,” Garner explains. “They became a portrait of a certain imagined figure. And his portraits became eroticised, and highly styled. It all fused into a way of looking at the world that became the Newton thing.” It’s intriguing to see this alchemy at work in his portraits of contemporary icons, especially people he photographed often, like Karl Lagerfeld and the actress Charlotte Rampling. One particularly memorable photo taken in St Tropez in 1973 depicts a hirsute Lagerfeld sprawled on a bed in a black maillot while directing a suggestive come-hither look at Newton’s camera.

It’s almost as though Newton gave his subjects — and his audience — a licence to indulge, even to misbehave. Garner isn’t so sure about that. “I think it’s more a reminder to be honest with yourself about the complexities of your own character and instincts.” He believes that’s one reason why Newton’s work will always be difficult for some. “They tend to bring their personal baggage to the work, which means they’re unable to get to its core. Though maybe that core is unfathomable. It’s the darkness in each of us, the tensions between our animal desires and instincts and the way we have to conduct ourselves in society.”

Helmut Newton, Still life in My Hotel Room, New York, 2001.

The curation of Helmut Newton - Fact & Fiction helps to illuminate how Newton himself dealt with that tension. He would have moments where he felt he had exhausted everything he had to say, where he couldn’t face another fashion assignment, another nude sitting. “He didn’t want to find himself copying himself,” Garner notes. His later work arcs more towards portraiture, still lifes, landscapes.

Helmut Newton, Leaving Las Vegas, 1998.

There is a valedictory quality in these photographs. A bouquet of roses dies on a table in a New York hotel room. A dark highway straight-arrows its way of Las Vegas under ominous, lowering clouds. Newton is leaving earthly pleasures behind and heading into the unknown, just as he had done in 1938, only now his life is drawing to its end. Compared to the fleshly provocations and profligacy that have preceded it, this particular image is stunning in its melancholic starkness. And maybe there is even another echo of his early trauma. Helmut Newton once again finds himself bidding goodbye to a cruel world.

Helmut Newton - Fact & Fiction opens on November 18th at the Marta Ortega Pérez (MOP) Foundation‘s Muelle de la Batería space in A Coruña, Spain.

Further Reading

About the author
Tim Blanks
Tim Blanks

Tim Blanks is Editor-at-Large at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers designers, fashion weeks and fashion’s creative class.

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