|Newton, Riviera Gallimard/NMNM 2022|
What the pundits sayNewton's work has been labelled kinky, perverted, and misogynist, but a better description may be ambivalent. A large part of his output is not at all provocative, and pretty much everyone agrees that he's had a major influence on fashion photography.
What Helmut saidIf you know nothing about the man, go straight to the end of the exhibition and start with the film Helmut by June (1995) (3). Shot by his wife, aka Alice Springs, it runs on a loop and captures Newton at home and at work. Be aware it's 53 minutes but well worth it.
The footage reveals his meticulous direction. Newton explains his use of the 'gunfighter stance' which stems from seeing "Gary Cooper as a gunfighter in High Noon. The outline of [the] body... the little waist, the big shoulders". Whatever the pose, it looks like hard work for his models, whether clothed or not, and it must have been an advantage to be strong, the type of Amazonian woman Newton says he admires.
In addition to the movie several of his famous quotes are printed on the walls of the exhibition. They reflect his opinions as well as his sense of humour:
Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that's fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire. (he's very keen to deny his work is art)
I also like to take landscape pictures but I don't get any commissions.
I love the sunshine. We don’t see it in Paris any more. (allegedly what he told the Monegasque official in charge of processing his residency paperwork)
What I thinkAt a superficial level I enjoy spotting Monaco landmarks in the photos, but what strikes me most is the sense of humour and playfulness. Just look at his portrait at the exhibition entrance in which he wears a pair of high-heeled, sling-backed sandals (Helmut in Pumps, Monaco, 1987).
Irony features in the images too. Woman Examining Man, Calvin Klein, American Vogue, Saint-Tropez, 1975 shows a woman manspreading while ogling a man. French Vogue, Plage du Carlton Cannes, 1981 portrays a female flasher in a bathing costume, her victim staring unmoved into the distance.
A more startling image is Mummy in the Garage, Monte-Carlo, 2000, a woman totally covered with bandages apart from her breasts and her feet shod with six-inch stilettos. It's somewhat unnerving. If Newton had not been so vocal in rejecting his work as art I'd view it more dispassionately, with an eye for the detail, the care with which it's constructed. I wonder if it's really any different from something like Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863 (2), or those pretty paintings of girls freeing birds from cages, which contemporary viewers considered erotic.
Two photos, Cigar Industry I and II, 1997, owned by a private collector, show women smoking cigars. I'm tempted to roll my eyes at the crude phallic imagery and resist the urge to snigger. Another voyeur might be turned on by it. What, then, if the model were a man relishing a big fat Toro?
By comparison Newton's portraits of the rich and famous look rather staid, like postcards a fan might purchase. Jude Law, Monaco, 2001 and Anthony Burgess, Monte-Carlo, 1985 are smoking. Bernardo Bertolucci, Cannes, 1996 clutches a curtain. Sylvester Stallone, Cap d'Antibes, Antibes, 1990 bizarrely wears a formal black dinner suit in the blazing sun.
|Chris Roelandt et Gaetan Morlotti|
I don't agree with American writer Susan Sontag who told Newton in 1979, "Je ressens que vos photographies sont très misogynes et pour moi ça c'est des traits déplaisant" (1). Neither do I agree with Newton himself when he says his work is not art. Some images do provoke unease, but they invariably portray a sense of strength rather than submission. It may be a cliche, but in the case of Helmut Newton's work it's also a truism that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. Go see the exhibition and decide for yourself.
- YouTube - Apostrophes: Helmut Newton à propos de son travail, French discussion, 8 Jun 1979, incl. Susan Sonntag
- English translation of Sonntag's quote: "I feel that your photographs are very misogynist and for me these are unpleasant features"
- Wikipedia - Déjeuner sur l'Herbe
- YouTube - Helmut by June, in 5 parts:
- Helmut Newton Foundation
- Nouveau Musée National de Monaco