Too visually provocative, too psychosexual and kinky for the American market, Helmut Newton's photographs were a hallmark of the Paris Vogue of the 1970s and early '80s. More daring than its bland American counterpart, the Paris Vogue sometimes seemed open to almost anything so long as it was elegant and well done, and if it helped sell women's fashions, so much the better. Such was the milieu in which fashion photography's bad boy became famous far beyond the city of lights.
This exhibition features some old classics from those days, as well as a number of others that have never been exhibited before and which are unlikely to be seen anywhere in America beyond this show, according to gallery director Joshua Pailet. For those who remember Newton, now 82, mainly for his decadence, this show provides eye-opening insights into the complexity of his vision. But it also helps to know that if Paris was his artistic beacon, it was his home city of Berlin in the '20s and '30s, and his subsequent flight from Nazism, that forged the double-edged ironies that permeate his work. Ironies that include a variety of symbols of power and excess, sometimes personified by statuesque, Aryan-looking amazons strutting their sleekly tanned stuff.
In his classic 1976 Rosalyne series of large prints along the staircase of the gallery, an elegant blond nude in a French chateau views herself in a mirror. The images are almost frontal enough for a skin mag, but instead of generic expressions she bristles with psychic complexities ranging from schoolgirl insouciance to vampy hauteur, moods suggestive of the novels of Arthur Schnitzler, his favorite writer. But Newton is heavier handed. (A former model friend of mine who posed for him at Paris Vogue once called him "a Prussian taskmaster.")
In the upstairs gallery are a series of very large prints of women in various stages of undress, all depicted with the same, almost Hitchockian quality of intrigue and voyeurism. An exception to the coolly elegant tone is the more populist Evi as Cop (from his Dressed and Undressed series), a diptych featuring a sexy-tough lady cop who in the first shot appears on the beat, fully dressed, replete with night stick and shades. The second near-life size photo is almost identical, sans pants and panties (in case you've ever wondered what a lady cop would look like half dressed). But this prankish tone becomes almost Orwellian in another series of smaller prints featuring a security manager eyeballing various monitors, each displaying an image of one of Newton's nudes. All of which culminates in a photograph of four oversized photos of chesty babes arranged on a hill as Newton himself points as if identifying a suspect from a lineup. And in fact this Making of the Big Nudes series is said to have been inspired by the oversized photos used by German police in tracking down the Baader-Meinhoff terror gang of the 1980s. Leave it to Newton to transmute terrorism into a bunch of nudes like a bevy of Valkyries magically transformed into so many hard-bodied 20th century foxes.
Taken as a whole, this Sex and Landscapes show is indeed sexy in Newton's jocularly provocative, if coolly erotic, manner -- he was the bane of humorless feminists who considered him a misogynist if not a misanthrope. But the reality is more double edged. Although he used common psychological quirks as a foil for his lens, their effect was surreal or expressionistic, and his work is ultimately difficult to stereotype in terms of sexual politics, as we see in his recent Bellucci Monte Carlo photo of a woman whose lipstick-blotted tissue adorns her face like a veil, exemplifying the mind-bending surreality of his vision. The show's landscape component is all but nonexistent except for the occasional plant or rock, just another of Helmut's little jokes, and those who dismiss him as a decadent sensationalist may be relieved that he's seemingly as incorrigible as ever. Yet, sad to say, fashion photography without him has become little more than a slickly produced product catalog. Love him or hate him, he was the last of the fashion genre's true originals in the tradition of Steichen and Man Ray, photo auteurs for whom the models were performers and all the world was a stage.
- Helmut Newton's Sex and Landscapes exhibit at A Gallery for Fine Photography shows a fashion photographer whose works such as Bellucci Monte Carlo (pictured) eluded convenient stereotypes of sexual politics.