Helmut Newton was a German-Australian fashion/portrait photographer who took the world by storm with his erotically charged, ‘edgy’ style of work. Born in Berlin in 1920, Newton, having discovered his interest in photography from a young age (he bought his first camera at the age of 12), enrolled onto an apprenticeship scheme in 1936 (aged 16) under the guidance of the renowned portrait, nude and fashion photographer- ‘Yva.’
In 1938, upon completion of the apprenticeship scheme, Newton left Berlin where he found work in Singapore working at the Singapore Straits Times, a famous Broadsheet Newspaper. Two years after his arrival in Singapore, Newton travelled to Australia in search of a new challenge. And, a challenge he certainly found, as he would go on to serve in the Australian army for five years, during which time he became an official Citizen of Australia.
In 1947, whilst still living in Australia, Newton would meet his future wife, Actress June Brunell, during a photography stint whereby she modelled for him in his Melbourne Studio. June would go on to become a portrait photographer in her own right, going by the pseudonym of ‘Alice Springs.’
Now, back to Helmut: Newton’s signature black and white photographs of, often naked women, were regularly featured in ‘high-end’/luxury fashion magazines such as Vogue. It was here (Vogue) where, in 1956, he got his ‘big break’, first acquiring a contract with British Vogue, and then with Australian Vogue and, in 1961, with French Vogue, as their new editor in chief.
Described as ‘closing the gap’ between art and commerce, Newton was full of unusual visual ideas, ideas which served to push the boundaries of the fashion industry. Such ideas were mainly shot on a Nikon 35mm camera, which he would take out of his beautiful Louis Vuitton suitcase. For film, he would usually shoot on a Tri-X 400 Black & White film, or a Kodak Ektachrome color transparency film.
Some people loved Newton’s work, describing it as ’empowering’, whereas others were not quite so keen, describing it as ‘misogynistic.’ To me though, his work was inspiring, showing the freedom that the arts allow, both for the artist themselves and the audience.
Through his constant endeavor to push the limits, be courageous, and not be afraid to break away from political correctness occasionally, Newton opened my eyes a lot. His photographic combination of power and sexuality makes me proud to be a woman, and proud of my sexuality, of my strength. The only criticism I do have, is that Newton only showed a very narrow view of sexuality and beauty- that being the presentation of white, thin heterosexual, cisgender women. I would’ve liked to have seen greater diversity– different ethnicities, different body types, and different sexual orientations/gender identities being reflected in his work, something which, if he was still around today, I’m sure we would’ve, undoubtedly, been witness to.
Whatever your view of his work though, whether good or bad, one thing is for sure, each and every piece, each and every photograph, it created a story. Presented to the audience was a single image, yes, but Newton encouraged the audience to look deeper into these images- to formulate their own opinion as to what happened before, and after, the photo was captured. Encouraging the audience to use their imagination was, one could say, Newton’s ‘forte.’
Having built up a following of loyal fans, in 1976 (aged 56), Newton published his first volume of photographs- ‘White Women’/ ‘Femmes Secrètes.’ Newton was awarded several awards from then on, including multiple prestigious awards issued by the French Ministry of Culture.
In 2003, the ‘Helmut Newton Foundation’ was formally established. It was in 2004, Newton’s year of death, that the Foundation was officially opened, its overarching purpose being to preserve and present Newton’s photographic work, as well as the work of his wife- June Newton.
Although Newton died in 2004, his iconic work is still just as endearing and influential as it was when he first appeared on the scene all those years ago. Below are some of my favourite examples of his work. Its up to you to formulate an opinion of them. Me though? I think they’re amazing.
Image 1: ‘Le Smoking’, Yves Saint Laurent for Vogue, 1975 (Showing an androgynous woman exuding confidence in a Paris street after dusk). Newton redefines gender identity here as, at the time it was largely unheard of for a woman to wear a suit, let alone be deemed “feminine” or “sexual” for wearing one.
Image 2: ‘Woman examining man’, 1978 (Showing a powerful, overtly confident, strong presenting woman).
Image 3: ‘Suzy at home’, Paris, 1974 (Showing a woman, at home, just existing in her own skin, nonchalantly watching the world go by, without a care in the world).
Image 4: ‘Young Woman and Bismarck Monument’, Berlin, 1979 (Showing a seemingly dominant woman in control of her surroundings). Newton highlighted how expressing sexuality doesn’t have to mean photographing only nude women, seduction can be seen in the faces of subjects, in their eyes.