Frank Horvat with Helmut Newton: October 1986
Frank Horvat : I think that if I had to explain Helmut Newton to someone who had never heard of him, the first thing I would say would be : “He is the one who has turned the tables on the whole business”. You said it yourself, something like “making the system work for you.”
Helmut Newton : Beating the system.
Frank Horvat : I don’t know much about your life, but I remember the impression you made on me in the fifties, when we first met. You were a very regular guy, very disciplined. You did the work you were supposed to do, and you did it well. We used to hand jobs to each other, when one of us was too busy to accept them. Then, in the late sixties, you started something that was unmistakably your own, working with phantasies which had been taboo until that time and which were becoming less taboo. This became very successful, because sexual liberation was in, but also because you were treating the subject with a certain chic, that allowed you to get away with it where others wouldn’t. Then you had a heart attack, and this was a turning point. You decided that you didn’t have the time to please “them” any more, that from there on you would only please yourself. That was where you turned the tables : by pleasing only yourself you got more recognition and made more money than any commercial photographer would by trying to please his clients.
Helmut Newton : I am still very disciplined.
Frank Horvat : I know. Sometimes I think : “Here he photographs nude girls, but he could just as well photograph vintage cars or football games, he would do it with the same imagination and the same discipline”.
Helmut Newton : This is why I continue accepting commissions, even though economically I don’t have to. Because making money gives me a kick, but also because 1 think it’s important for me to have the discipline, to work for somebody within a given frame. At least from time to time.
Frank Horvat : But you also apply this discipline to your personal work.
Helmut Newton : You have seen the five books that exist. The next one will be a small paperback, you might call it The best of Helmut Newton, as there are records called The best of Sinatra. I lost interest in coffee-table books, I don’t think there is a big market. My second-next book, as I decided with one of my publishers, should be sold for not more than twenty dollars, in whatever country. Also a paperback, two hundred and fifty pages, black-and-white and colour. It will be very personal, with portraits of people that interested me, but also with some pictures that I rediscovered by chance, of me as a very young man in Berlin, dressed up as what I thought ein rasender Reporter should look like. I hope that a lot of people will see it. The only book that I think could be sold for a lot of money, as a luxury object, would be very interesting pornography. That could go for hundred and fifty dollars. But I am not in the market for pornography, not at the moment, although I am very interested in it.
Frank Horvat : You mentioned it about a year ago.
Helmut Newton : Now I have done it. I have produced a number of photographs. But only three people have seen them, not counting myself. It’s an exercise. Because you know, with my background on Vogue – I started on Australian Vogue in 1952 – I find myself, after all these years, with a built-in safety-brake that stops me from doing certain things. And one of the reasons why I want to try so called hard pornography – I dont even know whether it’s hard enough – is to see whether I will be able to overcome this. Because if there is one thing I hate, it’s good taste, to me it’s a dirty word.
Frank Horvat : Goethe said something about Genie und Geschmack not going together, I don’t remember his exact words.
Helmut Newton : I got to write that down, it’s beautiful. Genius and taste don’t go together.
Frank Horvat : Taste involves limits, which is something you dislike. If I had to define your work with just one word, that word would be “trespassing”.
Helmut Newton : I like the idea of trespassing. I got to write that down too. It’s quite true that what I am aiming at, even when I take portraits, is to get a scandalous picture. I would love to be a paparazzo. I was aware of Weegee in the fifties, I was turned on by Brassai and by Dr. Salomon. He was traspassing, of course. In the most outrageous but in the chiquest possible way. Lartigue was very chic too, but I don’t think he trespassed, he was part of the set.
Frank Horvat : This brings me to what I feel your photographs are about. What I see may be a nude model in the park of Villa d’Este. But what it makes me think of is Helmut Newton, getting this girl to undress in this place, having his fun in trespassing, in catching that one minute where this picture becomes possible, in spite of whatever taboos there may have been.
Helmut Newton : Absolutely, you read the picture correctly.
Frank Horvat : And this urge you have now – because I feel there is an urge – is not for recognition, or for money, you have plenty of both: it’s the urge to tell something about yourself – one may call it narcissism.
Helmut Newton : Very true. It is narcissism. This is why I have started this series which I call autobiographical. Or maybe it’s not narcissism. You know I am not more narcissistic than anyone else. Actually I don’t think it is narcissism, I don’t agree there, Frank. It’s just that now, at my age, the one thing I don’t want to do is repeating myself. I don’t want to work for fashion magazines any more, doing the same shit, even if it was good and fun at the time. It’s not narcissism, it’s – I have just produced a series of autobiographical photographs, as I call them, portraits of four of my doctors, and I put myself into the pictures, I decided they would be more interesting if I was in them. Technically very difficult, as you imagine, I had to check with polaroids, one can never be sure. And two or three months ago I did pictures that had to do with my childhood, around the lakes and woods of Berlin, with girls, and again I put myself into the pictures. It’s lovely, like playing a little part in a play. Many photographers like doing self-portraits. I think it’s even more interesting when one is part of a whole mise-en-scène.
Frank Horvat : Maybe because it’s so contrary to the nature of photography, which is, after all, an eye directed outwards. Photographic self-portraiture is almost paradoxical. This may be why one is tempted to try it.
Helmut Newton : I don’t know, I did’nt look at it that way. It’s just that if the theme had something to do with my life, past or present, it seems a nice idea to put myself in it. I would not put myself into an advertising shot. There has been a series for Vogue, in ’79 or ’80, they asked me to wear fashion, and then I got this idea. I did it in the Paris Vogue studio, because it was a place I knew well and around which much of my life had evolved. It’s a very personal picture, that’s why it’s one of my favorites. There is first of all me, with my camera, but there is also June, who has got a wonderfully funny expression while she looks at my naked model, there is the Vogue Studio, with the clothrack, the door to the street is open, you see the cars parked on Place du Palais Bourbon, a place that I have known for twentytwo years, where I had taken thousands of pictures, especially during Haute Couture Collections. The photograph has all the little signals of my life : my models, my camera, my wife, the studio, the Place du Palais Bourbon. That’s what I call an autobiographical picture. It’s a very good exercise, to me all these are exercises.
Frank Horvat : But isn’t there a point where you have to stop ? aren’t there things that should be left out of photography, that should remain your own ?
Helmut Newton : Like photograph yourself fucking ? Wel – there is a friend of mine, a very good photographer, who presented me with a very erotic picture – should one say pornographic ? – one of the most erotic I’ve ever seen. And there is nothing much in it, it’s autobiographical, but not recognizable. I think if you do it for yourself it’s all right, I’m not so sure that I would publish it. I am not an exhibitionist.
Frank Horvat : I guess not…
Helmut Newton : I might photograph myself fucking, but I wouldn’t exhibit it. A picture that I find most amusing is one that June took of me pissing, en contrejour, I’m looking around at the camera, it’s taken in the backyard in Ramatuelle, it’s evening, very romantic, and you see this stream of piss and the sun shining through. That of course was perfectly all right.
Frank Horvat : Some day I would like to go through your files to look again at your older fashion photographs.
Helmut Newton : Most of them were not very good. I still have some prints from Australia, they are really bad, aped after American and English fashion pictures.
Frank Horvat : I am thinking about the work you did for Jardin des Modes or Stern, in the early sixties, there were no sexual phantasies in those. But I remember something which I still find in your present work : this feeling that things may happen. You said that a fashion photograph is a moment without a past or a future – probably meaning that it shouldn’t imply any definite past or future, that any extension into a past or a future should be left to the imagination of the viewer.
Helmut Newton : This also applies to my non-fashion pictures.
Frank Horvat : And it is what I like about them, this awareness of what might be. I guess this is also how you look at life.
Helmut Newton : I am like a lot of people. One sits on the beach, or on a café terrace, and one looks around, mostly at women. And if I have really nothing to do, I start spinning a tale for myself, which is one of the most pleasant ways of spending a half hour. This time of year is the best, there are very few people left on the beach. Somehow it happens that every season there is a woman that — last year there was one, she was German, I spun a tale around her, it was interesting. I never saw her face until the last day, but she had the most extraordinarily beautiful body. I knew she was German because she was reading a book, something like Learning French, her body was just unbelievable, but then I saw her face – Some guy picked her up, the last day, which amused me too, and only then I saw her, she had the most uninteresting, the most boring face, with a fleeing chin, she wasn’t even ugly, had she been ugly it would have been more interesting, if you wanted to make love to her you would really have to put a bag over her head. To me this is all very European, I don’t spin this kind of tale in America.
Frank Horvat : What happens in America ?
Helmut Newton : It inspires me in a different way, I find myself like in the middle of a movie.
Frank Horvat : Which is what one feels looking at your photographs : being in the middle of a movie, and wondering what will happen next.
Helmut Newton : I am delighted to hear it, coming from somebody who knows about photography. I suppose that this is not the moment to make an interview of Frank Horvat.
Frank Horvat : Why not ?
Helmut Newton : What I don’t understand is the change in your photography. I admired your work of the fifties and early sixties, when you came straight from reportage, and brought all that feeling into fashion photography. What fascinated me was the reality, like that extraordinary picture of all those women on Place de la Concorde, remember ? But then, in the seventies, you changed completely, you came down to the bare bones, to an extent that I thought was boring. All the excitement of your earlier work was discarded in order to get to a simplicity – I am for simplicity, but then it was so simple that there wasn’t anything any more for me to grab on to and to get excited. I didn’t understand your thought process.
Frank Horvat : One of the reasons may be that I am so afraid of missing what happens in front of my camera, that I try to concentrate on one thing at a time and shoot fifteen rolls on it, just to make sure I don’t miss it.
Helmut Newton : But what can you miss with fifteen rolls, in such a confined frame ?
Frank Horvat : Possibly a certain form of perfection, which I tend to push so far that it may seem uninteresting…
Helmut Newton : What a strange obsession ! Aren’t you afraid of loosing the spontaneity ?
Frank Horvat : I try to preserve it. Just as in my portraits, the ones you hate, my main point is to preserve a fraction of a second of spontaneity…
Helmut Newton : Oh those. Yes, I really hate those. But at least I am honest enough to tell you.
Frank Horvat : I would like to get the spontaneity and the perfection at the same time, but I am so afraid of missing the one or the other that I keep shooting. What I admire about some photographers, like you, is that you can stop after just one roll, or even half a roll, even in a complicated situation, with dozens of people. Don’t you worry : “did I miss it, shouldn’t I also try this or that ?”
Helmut Newton : I worry myself sick, I swear to you, I think every photographer must. When I go off a job, when I drive home or take a plane, I go through it all and keep saying to myself : “I should have done it this way and not that way”.
Frank Horvat : But you wouldn’t keep the girl there for ten rolls and tell her : “Turn the other way, move your hands differently” and so on and on ?
Helmut Newton : I would first do what I set out to do, and then walk around and say to myself : “let’s try it another way”. But then all of a sudden I get bored and it seems to me that the first way was the right one anyhow, so I just decide “forget it !”. I have a very short attention span. That’s why I could never make a movie. For me any job that lasts more than two days is no good. It was the same when I was a champion swimmer, a hundred meters was the maximum, fifty was much better.
Frank Horvat : It happens to me as well : that I look at my contacts and find that the best picture is shot number one on roll one. But more often it’s closer to shot thirtysix of roll ten.
Helmut Newton : But is there a big evolution in the rolls ? And in what sense ? Is the background different, do you go back and forward ?
Frank Horvat : Sometimes. And the model gets tired and loosens up. And I get tired myself. You know, my problem is that I’m too clever, and that my own cleverness gets in my way. Just as you said about in-built brakes. Maybe when I get tired I forget some of the cleverness, and go back to face things more directly.
Helmut Newton : I need every bit of my cleverness. When I’m tired I can’t take pictures, I want to go to sleep.
Frank Horvat : Talking about your cleverness, Helmut, there is something I would like to bring up : many people try to imitate you, they may have some imagination and some obsessions – who doesn’t ? – but what they lack is your sense of graphics. I believe that when your photographs really work, it’s the graphics that make the difference.
Helmut Newton : I am not aware of that. On the contrary, what I try to do is a good bad picture. I work it out very carefully, and then I do something that looks as if it went wrong. This is also why I abandoned Kodachrome, it looks too professional, too fine grain, too perfect, I’d rather get what I call funky colour, I don’t mind if it’s all wrong – as long as it’s not too horrible. For the same reasons I like it when the camera is not quite straight, when something happens that’s not perfect. But of course I start off with the professionalism.
Frank Horvat : Still, I believe that your best photographs wouldn’t work without that graphic impact.
Helmut Newton : Give me an example.
Frank Horvat : Take the nudes with the saddles. The erotic idea is in all of them, of course, one wonders what she was up to and what Helmut was up to. But the picture that works best is the one with the shadow on the wall, where the composition grabs the eye and puts everything into place.
Helmut Newton : I don’t agree. The picture that has been reproduced all the time, by Life as one of the pictures of the Seventies, by Time in an essay on decadence, etc., is the one where the girl is on a bed with the saddle on her back. That’s the picture that has marked a whole era. You see, I am not aware of graphics, I would rather avoid having them. I like things growing out of peoples heads, like lamp-posts or something. That’s funny, I like doing all the things I was told not to do.
Frank Horvat : I would now like to retrace what happens when you work, step by step. You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth, you go for a walk, you sit on the beach, and all the time you think of visual ideas, of possible situations.
Helmut Newton : Yes, except that now my pictures are less anecdotical than they used to be. Looking back at my old fashion photographs I wonder : “How the hell did I have the courage to go through all these complications ?” Of course I enjoyed doing them, otherwise I wouldn’t have done them. But I couldn’t for the world do them again, I wouldn’t even know how to, sheer physically. Some photographers, like Avedon or Penn, do practically all their fashion work in the studio, against a white background, they are so brilliant that they don’t need any gimmicks. But if I were to give a picture against a white wall, my clients would say : “Helmut, you didn’t try very hard, that’s not what we come to you for”. And this pressure for Helmut to think up new ideas was getting on my balls. I don’t want to do that any more, I’ve done it.
Frank Horvat : But what about this picture where you only see a shoe, and the foot in the shoe, and the creases of the skin that say more than a whole crowd ?
Helmut Newton : That was perfect, that’s a good picture. But this does not happen very often. It was done after I had finished with the big mise-en-scènes. This was also when I started doing portraits. When I do a portrait, I don’t think of an idea, I feel a great relaxation, though it may be difficult psychologically. Starting to work this way has been like a weight falling off my mind, all of a sudden I felt free. I decided that never again would I walk into a fashion room and see twenty-five dresses hanging on a rack, and have some dumb fashion editor say to me – not : “Helmut, choose here” – but : “Helmut, we are going to do these twenty-five”. Never again.
Frank Horvat : But even now you spend a lot of time thinking of what could be in a picture.
Helmut Newton : Most of the time.
Frank Horvat : And setting it up.
Helmut Newton : There is not much to set up, it’s very easy to work here in Montecarlo, much easier than in Paris or New York. They give me a permit for working in the streets, because they know me, it’s like living in a village and asking the mayor. I go to what’s called Le Ministère de l’Intérieur, they tell me : “We shall be very happy, Mr. Newton, to give you permission to photograph in the streets of Montecarlo, from the third to the fifth.” If I decide I need a dog, there is a lady in the building, who has a beautiful dog. If I need a baby, I get a baby. You see, it’s easy. It’s for Paris-Match, not for a fashion magazine. Fashion magazines have no more credibility, as far as I am concerned. I would rather work for a news magazine, that shows murder and political happenings. There I can still see some credibility.
Frank Horvat : Now it’s all set up, the model, the streets, the dog and the baby. There you are, with your camera.
Helmut Newton : There I am with my camera. Frank, you see, if I don’t set it up, what am I going to do ? What do you do ? Do you go out with a girl and God sends you an inspiration ?
Frank Horvat : But when it’s all there, girl, streets, dog and baby, do you shoot it the way you had in mind, or do you wait for something else, that is godgiven ?
Helmut Newton : Sometimes it happens, not very often, that God chooses to give me that ray of sunshine or that cloud, at the right moment. That’s why I work outside, because I know that in the studio God can’t do anything for me, all he could do would be send a thunderstorm that cuts off the electricity. Outside he can help me, he could also fuck me up by sending a lot of rain, that would make it difficult, but he very rarely sends me light that’s no good to me. Practically any light, somehow or other, I can deal with.
Frank Horvat : Because you are very clever.
Helmut Newton : No, because any light that God sends me is different. This keeps me interested : “quick, quick, quick, something is happening !”
Frank Horvat : So all has to be set up for what you really expect : the unexpected.
Helmut Newton : Well, it’s not always unexpected. Unfortunately the divine mistake is very rare. Of course it’s more exciting when something happens that I didn’t think was going to.
Frank Horvat : Are these the good moments of your life ?
Helmut Newton : Sometimes. A other times I hate it. When I think :”I shouldn’t have gone into this, it was a wrong decision, I am too old to waste my time on that shit.” When I did that sitting with Ava Gardner, that one photograph with the cigarette, I hated her so much, and she hated me so much, while it lasted, the sitting was dreadful. At one point I thought : “I’ll walk out of here, I’ll take the plane back.” Eventually I went on, I did seven rolls, I knew I had to get it, it was for the Egoïste, the editor did not have much money, she had spent on the hotel, the flight and everything. Had it been for Vogue, I would not even have bothered.
Frank Horvat : So that was number thirtysix of roll seven ?
Helmut Newton : It certainly did not happen in the first rolls. Maybe in the last but one.
Frank Horvat : Do you know when you get it ?
Helmut Newton : Sometimes I think : “I’ve got it”, but sometimes I just brake up because I can’t go on any more, even if I haven’t got it, because I don’t know how to do any better. I just say : “It’s no good flogging a dead horse.” The case of that picture was exceptional, I think it happened very late in the sitting. And it was the only one.
Frank Horvat : It’s one of my favourites.
Helmut Newton : It’s a good picture of a woman that – you know, she is no chicken, and it’s unretouched. We certainly disliked each other during the sitting, but I just went on and on and on, until the light went and I had to pack up. There is a difference between models and real people. It’s very different working with somebody you pay, or doing a portrait of a personality, like an actress. Actresses are fragile in front of the camera, all women are, but actresses more so. I understand them perfectly well, they have so much to protect, so they are insecure. When you like somebody and you want to get a good picture of her you’ve got to thread very carefully. That’s why I wouldn’t let anybody, not even June, photograph me during such a sitting. June has done the best pictures of me. I don’t know whether she talked to you about that autobiographical work : sometimes, when I can’t do it myself, I ask her, I tell her I want to get this or that, and from there on she directs me. It started five years ago, whith this girl Sylvia, nude, in Ramatuelle. At one point I said to June : “Why don’t you do pictures while I photograph Sylvia ?” and she did a whole series, some of the funniest photographs that I have seen of a photographer with a naked model. Some day I will put myself with the model, with my long cord, and I will play a part.
Frank Horvat : Like the one through the mirror, with the girl lying on you.
Helmut Newton : But more so. Maybe I would like to dress up as a dirty old man, or as a costumer. I’ve been thinking about that for more than ten years, but have never done it. It may be amusing – or maybe it will be terrible. That’s the great thing about photography, unless you try it you will never know.
Frank Horvat : Now let’s go back to the step by step. You have finished your sitting, and you look at the contacts.
Helmut Newton : Well first of all I say : “God was I stupid, I should have done it that other way”. That happens all the time. Probably to every photographer.
Frank Horvat : But there is also, sometimes, the divine surprise.
Helmut Newton : Yes, when I feel : “That’s really it”. And there is another thing, you know, it’s still a miracle, to me, that there is something at all on that bloody film. Don’t you find that ?
Frank Horvat : And also something else, which for me is the decisive test. Sometimes, when I see a contact or a transparency, I have the urge to call someone, my assistant, my wife, anyone who happens to be around, and shout : “Come and look at this !”. When I feel like that, I know I have a good photograph.
Helmut Newton : I always show my photographs to June. I make a choice and she makes one, sometimes we agree, more often we are totally opposed. But she is an excellent editor, while I really hate editing, I think it’s boring. What I find very interesting is that when I get my contact sheets back from the lab I would choose one shot, but when I look at it a year later something else will interest me. That’s why one must never throw anything away. Everything changes, your whole idea about things changes, at least mine does. I do have certain taboos. But these also change, they get less and less as I get older. I used to hate girls that stood like this, the hands like a fish. And then, all of a sudden, when I did the Big Nude book, I thought : “Oh, I like that”, and I made the girl stand that way. All of a sudden I started liking it. Everything changes, Frank. I look at things in an entirely different way today than I did five years ago.
Frank Horvat : What you say worries me. I wonder how many things I threw away that I should have kept.
Helmut Newton : You should be worried. Especially about fashion photographs. I think that the older a fashion photograph is, the more interesting it gets. And there is another thing that I think is important. You tend to go in close. Well I pull back. Back, back, back. Because I found that what worried me when I took the picture, some car going by, some persons, something in the background that shouldn’t be there, has become fascinating years later, because it’s part of the time captured. So I started going back. I say to myself : “I can always cut it out, if I want”. That’s what I like about the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4. The person is in the middle, I leave it in the middle, I can cut the sides off later, it doesn’t matter. The 35 mm format drives me crazy, I miss so much on the sides.
Frank Horvat : But if it’s not you to decide, at a given moment, what you want in your picture, how can you feel that it’s your picture ?
Helmut Newton : I accept anything. I am not that much of an author, that I say this is me because I pressed the trigger. What is more interesting than photographs of a bank robbery, by those automatic things they have in banks, with a wideangle lens ? That’s true life. I am not too proud to reject that dog pissing an the leg of my model. I don’t say : “Come little dog, piss against the leg of this girl”, but if he does it and I click the button, it’s my picture. The dog didn’t take it ! If I set up a picture and I put myself in it, and I frame it, and I say to my assistant : “Take it”, he may have clicked the button, but I took the picture. Of course what I do is very carefully controlled, I do polaroids, I know exactly what I’m doing. But if a stone drops from heaven and hits me on the head and I fall down dead while my assistant clicks, that would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it ? Godgiven ! And even more so if I could get up again and see the picture. That would be perfection. I wouldn’t reject that picture because it was God who sent that stone down !
Monte Carlo, October 1986