By Michael Kaplan, Graphis, Sep/Oct 2002
It is a weekday morning in the staid lobby of midtown Manhattan’s Regency Hotel. Comfy chairs and sofas are occupied by men and women in business attire, reading the Times and Journal, synching– up for impending meetings. Photographer Helmut Newton is older than everyone within eyeshot. However, as he exits the elevator, dressed in a black sweater, baggy but beaten up dress slacks, pink socks and white sneakers, 81-year-old Newton looks far cooler than anyone in the room-and he exudes a sense of thrown-together style that puts the rest of us to shame.
While Newton’s images maintain a strong sense of aesthetic consistency, his own life is a study in contrasts. He’s been married to the same woman for 40 years even though the photos he shoots are as perverse as any. He effortlessly slaloms between high and low society; takes the kinds of shots that routinely surf from editorial to advertising to art-preferably managing to achieve this hat trick with a single image. What the pictures tend to share is a sense of European decadence, but that is not especially surprising when you consider that Newton’s earliest visions are of Berlin at its most rambunctious. He was born in Germany in 1920, to a wealthy American mother and a father who owned a button factory. By age 16 Newton was apprenticing with a famous Berlin photographer named Yva. Early on, he developed a love for photographing the city at night. Brassai, whom Newton knew personally, certainly remains to this day an important influence on his work. Newton then seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of Erich Salomon, an influential Berlin-based documentary photographer, who was known for shooting darkly lit images. But by 1938 anti-Semitism raged in Germany and Newton, who is Jewish, fled the Fatherland for Singapore. Salomon was less lucky: he died in Auschwitz.
Newton briefly worked for a Singapore newspaper and opened his own photo studio before relocating to Australia where he met his wife June and began shooting fashion photos. Through the ’60s and ’70s Newton’s style evolved into a documentation of the outrageous: X-rays of women, women with braces on their feet and legs, women in the nude, women in wet t-shirts, women wrestling, women looking strong and dominant, women fetishizing everything from raw chicken to spiky high-heels. Primarily a fashion photographer– though Newton has shot everything from travel to portraiture-he has strongly influenced today’s generation of image-makers who employ the kind of unbridled sexuality that Newton has been exploiting for years. While they’re doing that, Newton has recently turned to displaying his landscapes-albeit, alongside the provocative images that are his trademarks.
Graphis: You started taking pictures when you were 12 years old, shooting with a Brownie box camera. What did you photograph?
Newton: My first picture was of a radio tower in Berlin, which is a kind of mini-version of the Eiffel Tower. It looks like a toothpick and I thought it was great. After that I photographed myself, my mother, my dog, my girlfriends. I photographed my girlfriends regularly. Later on, when I was 15 or 16, I got myself a 200 watt flood light, just a single round globe. Now whenever I use artificial light, which I hardly ever do, I still use that same kind of flood.
Graphic: Who were your early influences?
Newton: Back then, in the ’30s in Europe, everything was about Alexander Rodchenko. Everything was diagonal, and I loved it. I still do.
Graphic: Tell us how you evolved from those early days.
Newton: Technically, I have not changed very much. Ask my assistants. They’ll tell you, I am the easiest photographer to work with. I don’t have heavy equipment. I work out of one bag.
Graphic: Does that mean that you spend a lot of time talking to your models rather than resorting to technical trickery?
Newton: No, no, no. I spend a lot of time preparing. I think a lot about what I want to do. I have prep books, little notebooks in which I write everything down before a sitting. Otherwise I would forget my ideas.
Graphic: A shot of yours that really stands out for me is the one that shows a woman on a hotel bed with a saddle on her back, like she’s a horse. How had that come about?
Newton: I was very interested in sadomasochism. It’s perfectly legitimate. This was shot in a beautiful Paris hotel for a men’s magazine called Adam that Vogue published at the time. Well, I’ve always considered Hermes to be the world’s greatest sex shop-with its whips, saddles, spurs. We spent an afternoon there, selecting all kinds of things from the cases, went back to the hotel room, and I had one girl ride the other. In a particular photo one girl has a whip clenched between her teeth. She looked great. But I think Mr. Hermes had a fit when he saw the photos. Actually a lot of advertisers have fits when they see what I do with their products. A favorite shot of mine is one of a woman wearing Bulgari jewels and stuffing a chicken. Needless to say, Bulgari thought it was a terrible thing for me to do with their jewels.
Graphis: The Hermes project sounds pretty hardcore for a publication. Have magazines ever given you flack for your edgier concepts?
Newton: Not French Vogue. That magazine was delicious, divine. My happiest time as a fashion photographer was during the years I spent at French Vogue. I started in 1961 and finished in ’85. And there was no money. At lunch we were allowed to have a beer and a sandwich. The magazines never paid for sets or apartments. People gave us everything for free. We were allowed only so much film per picture, but there was no limit to the creativity. I like to say that they let us loose like wild dogs in the streets of Paris.
Graphis: And your photos from that period-say, the ’60s through the mid-’80s-remain timeless. I remember a recent Versace campaign with images that resembled vintage Newton.
Newton: That’s from last year and it looked like a photocopy of my 1975 photographs. I have mixed feelings about those sorts of things. When I see it done by interesting young people, I think it’s very valid. But when established photographers, people in their forties, copy me and get a lot of money, well, I find that to be very stupid.
Graphis: During your years at Conde Nast you worked closely with Alexander Liberman. What was he like?
Newton: He was a fascinating, scary personality. He was the nearest thing to God at Conde Nast. When he looked at you and said, “dear friend,” you knew you were in trouble. I was in Maui once, doing a bathing suit shoot for him, and it was raining the whole time. I rang Alex and told him that the weather was terrible. He said, “Helmut, I’m not interested in the weather. All I’m interested in are the pictures you will be bringing back to New York.” He threw it back at me. But he was right. I came home with photos that weren’t bad. It’s a lesson I never forgot. I can’t remember what they looked like. But I remember that they ran.
Graphic: What do you think of the new graphic magazines like Purple and Tank. They are serving the same function as French Vogue once did, at least in terms of cutting-edge fashion photography.
Newton: I think they’re good for young photographers. They often ask me to shoot for them. But I say no. I think an old guy like me ought not take pages away from young photographers who need the exposure. I work for American Vogue, The New Yorker Vanity Fair. Those are the publications for me.
Graphic: Beyond your editorial and advertising work, you do a lot of private commissions. What does it take for somebody to hire Helmut Newton to photograph them?
Newton: Well, it takes a certain amount of money. And I’ve got to see pictures of the person ahead of time. If I don’t like the way the person looks I won’t do it. Same thing with the editorial work. I used to photograph a lot of young actresses in Hollywood, where I spend all my winters. But I’ve refused to do that kind of work for years. I will not have a PR woman looking over my shoulder. That’s out of the question. What I photograph mostly in Hollywood are men or actresses I know. Pretty, young actresses are boring-unless they’re brilliant. But I love Sigourney Weaver. I’ve photographed her many times. I’ve photographed Karl Lagerfeld enough to do a book on him. I’ve photographed Paloma Picasso for years. I like photographing the people I love, the people I admire, the famous, and especially the infamous. My last infamous subject was the extreme right wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. Even when I am not in sympathy with the person, I have to be in love with him or her while I’m doing their portrait. Le Pen adored me (at least until his photo ran alongside Hitler’s in Le Monde), and we got on extremely well.
Graphis: What about when you’re shooting fashion? Is there a particular type of model you seek out?
Newton: I like girls who are just starting. They have not been formed, they have no routine, they have not been in front of the camera.
Graphic: While you are best known for your black-and-white photography, you also shoot in color. Tell me how that evolved.
Newton: I used to hate doing color. I hated transparency film. The way I did color was by not wanting to know what kind of film was in my camera. What the hell’s the difference? Then I started using negative film and came to like color a lot. Sometimes I shoot the same image in black-and-white and color. Sometimes I exhibit them side by side. It can be interesting.
Graphis: How do you ultimately decide which is more appropriate?
Newton: For instance, I did a series called Domestic Nudes. They were shot in Hollywood a few years ago, all in backyards, houses and hotels. The whole series is black-and-white, so when I went to shoot one of the women I only had black-and-white film with me. She had reddish hair and was a very pretty girl, a nice girl. Then she took her clothes off and I saw the flaming red hair on her head and the flaming red hair on her sex-you know, her pubic hair. I said, “Jesus, how stupid of me! I only have black-and-white film.” So I asked the girl if she happened to have any color film. She sad, “Oh, I’ve got some old stuff laying around.” It was in the kitchen, out of date, cooked by the sun, if not by the soup! But she gave me 2 or 3 rolls. In the end, the color was a little bit off. That made it even better.
Graphis: What are you trying to convey with the women you shoot?
Newton: I’m not trying to convey anything, but they’re good subjects. I am very influenced by actresses in movies, and literature is another influence. In the beginning, though, people would call my pictures sexist symbols, and all that crap. Of course I love women. Or else I wouldn’t have spent so much time photographing them and I would be homosexual.
Graphic: You shoot a lot in hotels. What is it about a hotel room that appeals to you?
Newton: It’s that I don’t like white paper backgrounds. A woman does not live in front of white paper. She lives on the street, in a motor car, in a hotel room. I also like the light that tends to exist in hotel rooms. I do not like strobes. Plus there’s room service. But anything is better than a studio. And I like to have certain objects in my photos: electric plugs, wires, telephones, TV sets.
Graphic: That’s become part of your aesthetic.
Newton: I have no aesthetic.
Graphis: Come on, your photographs look very designed.
Newton: I point my camera and don’t think much about design. And I live in Monte Carlo. That’s not an aesthetic place although I am very happy there. The light is gorgeous, there is a lot of sun and no taxes. I do love Paris, though. I lived there for 27 years, paid an awful lot of taxes, then I got to a certain age and I didn’t want to hack away at advertising and end up giving 70 percent to the government. So I changed. Now we live by the sea. I love the sea.
Graphic: You have a show opening this weekend at Mary Boone Gallery (Dec. 2001). It’s called Sex and Landscapes. I take it that the landscapes must have been inspired by Monte Carlo where you reside and its shoreline.
Newton: They happened over the years. There are a lot of seascapes, but also focuses from airplanes, landing, take-off and shadows. I wanted to show this work before, but my previous art dealer said that nobody would want to buy this kind of stuff. I thought his vision was much too narrow so I decided to go with a long-time friend, Simon de Bury, an important figure of contemporary art, who believed in them. I wanted the landscapes to be shown. I think they are quite interesting.
Graphis: I guess dealers must come and go, but one constant has been your wife June. You have been together for 53 years, and she’s the subject of a classic Newton photo. You know the one, where she’s sitting at the table, blithely holding her shirt open to expose her chest. How did that shot come about?
Newton: We were sitting at our kitchen table and she had just finished cooking dinner. June leaned forward and she has these great boobs. So I reached for my 35-millimeter camera and said, “Open your shirt.” It’s a snapshot that I took during dinner.
Graphis: Your most notorious project of late is Sumo, the enormous book of your photos, which is so big that it comes with its own table designed by Philippe Starck. Was that your idea?
Newton: It was the idea of Benedict Taschen (renegade publisher of Taschen Books). We met in Hollywood and he asked June and me to come to his hotel, he said he wanted to show me something. He’s a very theatrical person and in the room was a big package wrapped in brown paper. He tore it open, and there it was: a mock-up of Sumo on the Philippe Starck table. There were eight completed pages, and Benedict was very smart about the pages he chose to show. He said, “I’d like you to do this kind of book,” and one of the photos was the one of June sitting at the table with her shirt open. Initially I was not at all convinced. It’s such an undertaking, and if it goes wrong you look so pretentious. It was very scary, but I thought about it, and decided to spend a year doing the book with June putting together the team and working on it as art director.
Graphis: On the cover of Sumo is one of your Big Nudes pictures, one of the few you’ve shot against seamless white. You mentioned earlier that you don’t like the sterility of studios and seamlessness. What about those shots?
Newton: They were inspired by photos of the Bader Meinhoff Gang in Germany. The police had life-size photos of the gang members-dressed, of course. I saw those in the newspaper and cut the pictures out and got the idea to do the series. While taking pictures in different cities I was shooting against a continuous white background. In order to have unity to the series, I decided to use one strobe light, either lit from the right or from the left, and kept the lighting as simple as possible. They had to look like passport photos.
Graphis: Are there contemporary fashion photographers who you like?
Newton: Yes, there are some. David LaChapelle has a great sense of humor and uses the computer very intelligently. He makes me laugh. Unlike him, I never use a computer; even when I do collages it’s with scissors and paste. And once a negative of mine is exposed it gets printed, usually full frame. Otherwise, whoever did the Diesel campaign was brilliant. As for Terry Richardson, he has an interesting “hand-writing,” he’s the son of Bob Richardson who did wonderful work at French Vogue in the ’60s.
Graphis: Your fashion photos are sexually charged, but the clothing gets played up anyway. In a lot of the current fashion photos, clothing seems incidental. What’s your take on that?
Newton: I think it’s dishonest. When you do fashion photos you have to show something. I think a lot of the stuff today fails to do so. You want the photos to be compelling, but you have to show the designs. I like the challenge of doing both. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned guy.
ASX CHANNEL: HELMUT NEWTON
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