Nude but not vulnerable: the women of Helmut Newton

ASP Newton - Self-Portrait.jpg

The women in Helmut Newton's photos are often nude, but rarely vulnerable. Rather, they are powerful and strong, proud and unabashedly naked. Not to mention drop dead gorgeous. Perhaps it's because of Newton's obvious love for women and utter lack of pretense, but the models, actresses and heiresses who shed their outer garments seem quite comfortable with the photographer and his requests, which often pushed the boundaries of taste, decorum and expectation. Given the fact that many of these images appeared in the early 1960's in the pages of French and British Vogue, they were certainly shocking for their time. Now, many imitators later, we are not as shocked. In fact, the floodgates have been opened. In ads from Calvin Klein to Prada to Abercrombie, there are beautiful young people in provocative poses, in and out of expensive garments, making you feel like a voyeur for leafing through a magazine. Good taste be damned, anything goes. Whether you thank Newton, or curse him, he is probably responsible.

With its current Helmut Newton show, the Annenberg Space for Photography finally manages to solve one of the problems I have had with their photography exhibits: too many images. With big nudes and big women come big prints, and finally, here is a show you can absorb easily, without straining your neck to see the images high up on the walls near the ceiling, or leaving exhausted with the feeling that you have not seen everything because there was just too much to take in. Absorbing it is, mainly because the images are striking, beautifully composed and speak of another era and another world--one of wealth, privilege, and secrets. When Newton first made these images in the 60's and 70's, no one was doing this kind of work.

ASP Newton - Villa dEste.jpg

He made no apologies for exploring the dark and provocatively erotic side of glamour, sado-masochism, domination and dalliance, images that were inside his head, but, he insists, came straight from reality. In a fascinating and revealing film made by his wife June, playing on a continuous loop in the back auditorium, he says "Every picture is based on reality. It's all real, and happens every day...amongst the rich." He loved visiting Los Angeles and took up residence part of the year at the tony Chateau Marmont. He loved our sunny afternoons, and sought out rich and often famous women to be his subjects, willing partners in telling naughty stories with his camera.

According to one of his assistants, Mark Arbeit, one of three young Art Center photography students who accosted Newton during a trip he made to LA in the late 70's, and eventually began working with the master photographer, the usual rules of photography — avoid high noon, wait for early morning or late afternoon light — did not apply. Newton loved shooting in all kinds of light and when he did it wasn't with an entourage. No Annie Leibovitz army of assistants for him — it was just him and one assistant, one camera and very simple lighting. Locations were critical in his shoots, and could have been in a mansion, or a construction site. While he made his living as a photographer (and quite a good one, getting $10,000 for his commercial photo shoots), Newton was a storyteller, bon vivant, lover of women and life. He was high fashion's favorite bad boy but never lost sight of his mission: sell the clothes.

ASP Newton - Saddle I.jpg

One of his models, whom he first approached on the street, was asked to work with him and told she would most likely end up nude. Partly due to the period, when women's lib was beginning, he found models who totally bought into his visual fantasies. His photography was a true collaboration between model, photographer and often, the photographer's wife June, whom he married in 1948. A self-portrait, with Newton amongst some nudes as his wife looks on (top), is one of my favorite photos, showing him shooting in what could be mistaken for a dirty old man's raincoat. In this exhibit, we all get to be willing partners in the not-so-secret and scandalous life of Helmut Newton and friends.

Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City until Sept. 8.

Photographs © Estate of Helmut Newton

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