Helmut Newton pushed back the boundaries of photography and became one of the most recognizable and talked about figures in the fashion world and one of the Gods of the medium. His mystic remains today as strong and alluring as ever. He broke the mold by remaining at the forefront of a visual style for several decades – One that saw many imitators as well as disciples; that in itself is a rarity in the fashion and publishing business. But through it all he never forgot he was a refugee who fled Nazi Germany and he got his first break as a photographer in Australia, the most unpretentious nation on the planet…maybe it was this way of acting and reacting that made his work so genuine and singularly fascinating.
There is in Newton photography a mystery; a contradiction. Newton disliked being described as an artist. Yet his photographs provide some of the most memorable art of the last half century. He said he had no interest in the inner life of his sitters “just their bosoms, bums and legs.” Yet, a Newton photograph captures private moments, private lives, giving us a chilling sense that we are glimpsing into raw, unprotected souls. You could say that the nude in Newton’s work is merely a metaphor for the nakedness of being.
Charlotte Rampling thinks of Newton as a movie director who chose to shoot stills. His photographs tell a story; you want to know what just happened and what’s going to happen next. “Still photography is like being brought to a climax, then you stop and start again,” said Rampling. “The experience is frustrating and creates for me an erotic melancholy.”
My job as a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse and entertain. H.N.
Newton didn’t merely photograph women, it was a collaboration. The sensual, melancholic experience described by Rampling is the petite mort that lingers between lovers and this undeniable familiarity is captured in every sequence of shots as if his life’s work is the documenting a continuous love affair. You cannot imitate a Newton portrait. Given the same light, the same model, the same pose, when Newton was behind the shutter he would conjure up an ambiguity, something unseen or indefinable.
Helmut Newton took every assignment he was offered. He liked the money, enjoying the luxury as well as the freedom that money brought, and while his work was moving from the magazine pages to the gallery walls, he never considered the suggestion then in vogue of creating installations or accepting commission from museums. In his distinctive English, he said once that there are two dirty words in photography: good taste and art. There lied the genius of the artist: that self-contradictoriness and a certain self- deprecating sense of who he really was in the scheme of things…That maybe defined his greatness and his legacy.
Newton’s work has appeared in every major publication from glossy art books to Vogue to Playboy, Hugh Hefner called him a giant. “He was a major talent who pushed the boundaries in terms of photography and influenced many, many other photographers in following generations.’
‘While work by many of Newton’s contemporaries now seems rooted in their own time, trite or quaint; Newton’s photography remains fresh, as poetic and mysterious as when it first appeared. Nude photography has always provoked disapproval. The censors are always there to wrap dark cloaks over what they perceive as sexual voyeurism. They look at the surface of such work without recognizing the enchantment: the artistry. Far from demeaning or humiliating his models, Helmut Newton placed them at the heart of his own desires: in a world where they rule with pride and passion. Something the models understood, even if the critics did not. As digital photography today strips away at the artistic patina of the medium, one that has been so bitterly fought for by photographers of the last century, Newton’s work serves as a reminder that ultimately the artistic merit is the eye that manages to capture a specific moment in time in a way no one else could.
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