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Intimacy, Love, and the Body – Rethinking Helmut Newton’s Photography

Helmut Newton/Alice Springs: ‘Sex and Landscapes’ and ‘Us and Them’, Helmut Newton Foundation, Museum of Photography, Berlin, 5th June – 16th November 2014.

Helmut Newton, Monica Belluci, Monte Carlo, 2001, © Helmut Newton Estate
Helmut Newton, Monica Belluci, Monte Carlo, 2001, © Helmut Newton Estate.

Controversy has routinely accompanied Helmut Newton’s photography. When feminists denounced him for reducing female sexuality to silent, naked bodies, Newton retorted that he actually adored women, and hence fashioned them as strong and gracious subjects. As critics accused him of voyeuristically exhibiting women’s intimacy, Newton countered that his photographs portrayed perfect female strength. Today, nudes have mostly lost at least their provocative effect. The internet provides a catalogue of nakedness: black, brown, white, old and young, vintage, bondage, fake and fake-real, enlarged and amateur. So, how does the routine availability of naked bodies change our interpretation of Newton’s nudes? What kind of intimacy, if any, can we rediscover in his photography today?

Shortly before his death, in 2004, Helmut Newton chose two exhibitions – ‘Us and Them’ and ‘Sex and Landscapes’ – to inaugurate the recently established Helmut Newton Foundation. This year, the two exhibitions are on display again, celebrating the Foundation’s 10th anniversary in Berlin.

‘Us and Them’ exhibits photographs Helmut and June Newton took of each other (‘Us’) alongside portraits of the rich and beautiful (‘Them’). Helmut and June Newton collaborated throughout their marriage. June abandoned a promising acting career in her native Australia, where she had met Helmut, when the couple returned to Europe after the Second World War. When Helmut Newton’s career took off, June curated and edited his works, and acted as art director for most of his shoots, a role she continued until his death. In the 1970s, she also began to photograph successfully, under the pseudonym Alice Springs (also to avoid too close an association with her well-known husband). Thus, Helmut and June Newton’s professional careers intimately intersected with their private lives, through manifold layers of support, dependence, and love, until his tragic death in 2004.

Alice Springs, Chateau Marmont, Hollywood, 1991, © Alice Springs
Alice Springs, Chateau Marmont, Hollywood, 1991, © Alice Springs.

In the first part of ‘Us and Them’, double portraits, taken by Helmut Newton and Alice Springs respectively, show glamorous celebrities. The contrasting images reveal how differently Newton and Springs approached photography.

Newton’s black-and-white photograph of the Danish model and film star Brigitte Nielsen shows her standing in an elegant room at the Hotel Hermitage in Monte Carlo. The contrast is low, both model and background are well-lit; an opulent, open double-door enframes Nielsen, giving the photograph a highly-stylised atmosphere. Nielsen, towering from black shoes to her ash-blonde hair, is in the nude, a dressing gown slides off her shoulders. Her body is seen from the side, concealing her crotch, with her left breast exposed as Nielsen turns her head towards the photographer. Heels add to her spectacular height. Nielsen glances nonchalantly at the camera. Flowers and a lavish interior complement her elegance. The power dynamics are intricate: the model seemingly dominates the surroundings; but it is the photographer that manipulates her body into a representation of his desire and fantasy. The camera does not simply capture, it also creates. However, how model and photographer negotiate the particular power dynamics in this act of creation – of arrangement, manipulation, and the display of strength – remains cryptic.

Newton fashions Nielsen into a grandiose woman, an emblem of authority and power, rather than depicting a complex human subject with fears and flaws. Nielsen dominates, conscious of her strength and beauty, at ease with her nudity. This photograph exemplifies Newton’s creation of heroic femmes fatales rather than real-life characters. He flattens and elevates his subjects: instead of portraying character depth, Newton magnifies what he most adores in women, their power. Behind the lens, however, the man who holds the camera effects the fashioning, and exerts the real power over the subject. Newton’s nudes represent his flattering fantasies. Nonetheless, both the photographer and the subject appear complicit in producing the potent imagery, although the particulars of the power play escape precise analysis.

Critiques of Newton’s ostensible fetish remain relevant. Newton creates through manipulation. His women certainly are unreal, but they are also crucially dissimilar from alternative images of unreal female bodies. There is pervasive presence of differently-sexualised women in internet pornography, begging to please faceless, male bodies, or of amateurs seeking anonymous ‘likes’ for their simplistically-stylised, mirror-selfies on Reddit’s ‘Gonewild’, in which their cleanly shaven vulvas expose an alternative male sexual fantasy: the eternally childlike, docile teenage-woman. If only by contrast, we can now revaluate Newton’s worshipping of an enhancing, perhaps more admiring, paradigm of the mature and powerful female, despite its barely-hidden fetish for strength and domination.

By contrast, Alice Springs’s portrait of a fully dressed Nielsen is a close-up, from waist to head, taken at the actress’s Beverly Hills home. The background is almost indistinguishable from her elegant black dress; the contrast is high. The focus rests on Nielsen’s face and her baby son, whom she holds near her face. He is, asleep, wearing a striking, white baby gown. Springs does not reduce the actress to homely motherhood, however: Nielsen’s vigorous facial expression, glaring at the camera, and athletic arms captivate the viewer, vividly juxtaposing the dormant baby’s innocence. The Danish woman is not simply maternal, nor merely powerful.

In Newton’s photographs, nudity and intimacy cannot be equated. Brigitte Nielsen is fully naked, but her portrait does not portray the person behind the body. Newton’s Nielsen is a perfected woman, but the symbolism of her body as an aesthetic ideal forecloses a more realistic representation of a complex emotional interior. Newton’s nudes do not engage with intimate life worlds; they enhance women by disguising blemishes and doubts. Newton’s women assert confidence through nakedness. Alice Springs, by contrast, pursues more realistic portrayals. Her Nielsen is both majestic and maternal: an independent woman, yet nurturing another life. Newton excludes much from his nudes; he creates and fashions women into a particular idea of female perfection, while Springs’s images are more refined.

Nonetheless, most importantly, Newton and Springs complete each other, professionally as well as in their private lives before his sudden death. Her real-life depictions, mysterious through a complexity that escapes categories, complement his candid penchant for vigorous women. In Nielsen, Springs convincingly illustrates that the opposite of female strength is not simply maternity, but rather strength-cum-maternity. Thus, rather than approaching Newton’s or Springs’s portraits on their own, they must be seen as complementary parts of a larger project, an intimate, lifelong commitment to photography, permitting precisely the joining of his aesthetic perfection with her more nuanced rendering, beautifully illustrating the couple’s joint talent.

In the second part of the Berlin exhibition, ‘US’, hung in an adjacent room, Newton and Springs show their genius for capturing the intimate. A central photograph shows Helmut Newton lying in a hospital bed. His neck in a cast following his car accident, we know that he died shortly after the image was taken. Alice Springs’s black-and-white photographs of her dying husband hang with portraits he took during previous hospitalisations, with plasters and heart-rate counters attached to his torso. These intimate confessions of Newton’s physical vulnerability dramatically contrast with his photographs of strong female bodies, testifying to his fascination with power, and perhaps even exposing a profound longing for a vitality he experienced humans, including himself, as lacking.

Illness photography can easily become clichéd, but Springs and Newton do not permit emotionality to substitute truth here. Their images are full of irony and an almost childlike amazement at the human body: his mirror self-portrait at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City shows Newton nude, from the knees up, with large white plasters and tubes on his torso; throwing his right arm over his head, he attempts a sexual pose, which is rendered comical by the medical equipment swaying around his body.

Helmut Newton, In our kitchen, Rue Aubriot, Paris, 1972, © Helmut Newton Estate
Helmut Newton, In our kitchen, Rue Aubriot, Paris, 1972, © Helmut Newton Estate.

Portraits of physical frailty are complemented by images Newton and Springs took of each other in everyday situations: Helmut on a sun terrace, wearing his wife’s hat and heels, or in a bathtub; June at the kitchen table, her breasts exposed as she lights a cigarette. The images, black-and-white and certainly highly constructed, are arranged to appear as genuine, spontaneous, and tongue-in-cheek: Newton the cross-dresser, with his white shirt forcing a high contrast that leaves half of his face invisible under a large hat; Springs in the kitchen, after a meal, with a crumbled serviette next to her plate, the background sparsely lit. The impression of improvisation and authenticity turns the viewer into a close witness to the couple’s relationship. It is a potent illustration of the persuasive purity of their photography that seeing Newton’s deathbed feels like an intrusion into what ought to remain hidden, intimate: her final shared moments with him.

‘Sex and Landscapes’ has a very different temperament. The exhibition was first shown in Zürich, in 2001, after Newton had complained to his agents that no one wanted to see his less provocative, mundane pieces. Newton’s landscapes are beautiful and melancholic: large-scale, black-and-white photographs of Mediterranean bays, Nebraska wilderness, Italian villages. They are dramatic, enticing depictions of everyday urban and countryside scenery, a wide range of places seen and travelled by Newton. Photographs of (semi-) nude women – including celebrities such as Charlotte Rampling – hang among town- and landscapes. Whilst the mixture of these elements and imageries certainly feels arbitrary, this is also precisely what creates interesting breaks and juxtapositions, rendering this exhibition so compelling. The portraits vary greatly. Rampling, for example, is fashioned as an autonomous, elegant woman. She perches on a leather divan, clad in an enormous fur coat, exposing her long legs. Her wild curls neatly continue where the fur leaves off. But other nameless models are reduced to close-up shots of genitalia or bondage.

The dramatic skies – achieved through high contrast in black-and-white, wide-angle shots – and barren landscapes exude a certain melancholy, a longing for eternity, calm, or peace. An Italian village procession constitutes the real-life opposite to the mobile, postmodern, international celebrity jet-set, with its non-committal fleeting residence in Monaco, Paris, and Los Angeles. In this sense, the photographs of fields, trains, and town squares reveal a different, personal yearning of Newton’s. They appear honest: real-life immersion, wide lands, and intimate small-town existence; impressions from the photographer’s encounter with the world, which contrast with the homogeneous, elegant hotel rooms – the non-places, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere – in which Newton enhances his nudes. The arrangement could tempt to conclude that Newton, or his gallery owners, feared that landscapes would not draw crowds unless spiced up with nudes, when close-up shots of anonymous vulvas are hung adjacent to panoramic views from Newton’s Paris apartment, overseeing a large park. But it is precisely through the aforementioned contrast of real-life, truth-induced melancholy with enhanced or reduced, and thus always partial and unreal, bodies that ‘Sex and Landscapes’ fascinates.

The two exhibitions thus engage a number of exciting contrasts: between Newton and Springs, ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, bodily frailty and physical strength, death and power, the melancholic beauty of real life and artificial perfection. Newton and Springs approach their subjects differently, but instead of merely contrasting, they complement each other. Through this layering and juxtaposing of contrasts, the exhibition invites us to rethink taken-for-granted oppositions, including the distinction between real and fake bodies. As depictions of cosmetically-disfigured, constantly available, infantile, and voiceless female playthings abound, Newton’s nudes can be approached differently. Of course, they remain unreal. But Newton’s fantastic and confident femmes fatales also contrast with alternative unreal imageries of women, sparking important debates about how (female) sexuality and intimacy are represented in the societies we live in.

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With many thanks to the Helmut Newton Foundation.

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Jan-Jonathan Bock has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. He is a Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, working on a comparative project on the production of trust in heterogeneous communities.