This post reflects on a visit to a retrospective exhibition on the work of Helmut Newton (1920-2004), at the Foam Museum, Amsterdam on 14.7.16. I was lucky to have visited retrospective of Stephen Shore’s work on the previous day (see here), so I could not but help be impressed by the difference in work within the same media.
The exhibition contains over 200 photographs,covering Newton’s life work. Newton was primarily a commercial photographer, working extensively for Vogue magazine, whose website provides a timeline of his work with the magazine. He also shot photos for Playboy Magazine. He later received the critical acclaim of the art-world, being awarded the prestigious grand prix national de la photographie by the French Ministry of Culture in 1990.
Newton never defined his own work as art, saying ‘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.” (Dazed Digital). The documentary Helmut by June, which is available on YouTube, provides a fascinating insight into Newton’s approach to working, based on home video footage taken by his wife, June. From this, it is clear that the models are used as part of his tableaux; he is not interested in photographing them as individuals but how he can use them as an element in the scene he envisages. By definition he is objectifying them. However, Newton is insistent that he is presenting them as strong or powerful in his images. So, objects of power rather than weakness and submission. But nonetheless often in fantasy, erotic scenes that appeal to the male gaze.
The exhibition does include some traditional portraiture that is concerned with showing the individual, including a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, the first British female Prime Minister. In this work, there was often a lack of contextual information (Sanderesque), which is very different to his fashion tableaux. What was evident in this work was the depth of tone and the creation of the three-dimensional illusion. His approach to equipment and lighting is simple, Newton explains ‘it is all in his head’. (Helmut by June). It was surprising and inspirational to see that in a shoot featuring Claudia Fischer that a simple domestic battery-powered torch was being used as a light-source.
Newton’s work divides opinion, ‘Dramatic and beautiful, maybe, but are his photographs also misogynist, cruel and pornographic?’, asks Linsey Barker in the Guardian. Barker doesn’t answer the question directly in the article. There is however an extract that expresses her view and that of Newton:
Certainly, his photography is a matter of taste, and some of his more extreme, fetishistic images are, to many of us, just plain nasty. In fact, he’s happy not to be liked by everyone, though flamboyantly exasperated by those who believe that his work is demeaning to women. To me, the woman-in-saddle shot is funny in its absurdity but, equally, I can see why it might be regarded as offensive. He gets rather cross when I say so. “It’s bullshit!” he says. “As far as I can tell, and women friends have told me, the feminist movement has evolved into something more serious.”
Therein, lies the answer, for the viewer of the photography; it is a matter of personal taste, shaped by culture and experience. Whatever that view, it is not appropriate to deny the intention of Newton himself, “Triumphant,” is the word he uses to describe his work to Barker, also telling her that he disagrees that he often makes women look absurd or objectified.
Finally, an observation on the format of the exhibition itself. Some of the prints were what can only be described as ‘monumental’, filling whole walls. This can either be viewed as reminiscent of fashion billboards, but the print quality is something very different, or as that of old paintings hung in the city’s nearby Rijks Museum (the art that Newton says his work is not).
Barker L. The Guardian [online] (2001). Helmut Newton: a perverse romantic. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2001/may/05/weekend.lindsaybaker [accessed 16.7.16]
Dazed Digital [website]. Your ultimate guide to Helmut Newton. Available from: http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/31247/1/your-ultimate-guide-to-helmut-newton [accessed 16.7.16]
Foam [website]. Helmut Newton / A Retrospective. Available from: http://www.foam.org/museum/programme/helmut-newton [accessed 16.7.16]
Helmut Newton Foundation [website]. Biography. Available from: http://www.helmut-newton.com/helmut_newton/biography/ [accessed 16.7.16]
Vogue [online]. Helmut Newton Timeline. Available from: http://www.vogue.co.uk/person/helmut-newton [accessed 16.7.16]
YouTube [website]. Helmut by June (1995). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52hxDJweTCs [accessed 16.7.16]