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.
Helmut Newton is responsible for a rich, authentic and complex oeuvre that can be considered one of the most iconic of the last quarter of the 20th century. This summer, Foam will present a major exhibition of his work, featuring in excess of 200 photographs. The majority of the works featured in the exhibition are vintage prints from the collection of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, ranging from rarely displayed early prints to monumental photos.
For many, the name “Helmut Newton” immediately conjures up specific images: namely long-legged, high-heeled (and often scantily clad) women who radiate an unbridled sense of eroticism.
While it’s certainly true that women play a central, erotic role in Newton’s work, this exhibition endeavors to free Newton from this pigeon-hole and explore the greater complexity and multi-faceted (overlooked) aspects of his oeuvre.
In particular, the show shines an illuminating light on the context during which Newton rose to prominence. Although he first took up his camera in the 1950s, his breakthrough didn’t come until the 1970s through the striking photographs he produced on commission for French Vogue. It’s worth remembering that the late 70s and 80s were characterized by dramatic social change: traditional power relations shifted and amidst an atmosphere of fervent female emancipation and looser sexual morality.
While not explicitly stated, these surroundings deeply informed Newton’s photography. Thanks to his close relationship with designers Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, Newton played heavily with male-female representations while striving to construct a new, contemporary female image. His work, especially at that time, empowered women—whether naked or dressed in a dinner jacket, his subjects were shown as powerful, seductive, dominant, striking and sometimes nothing less than intimidating.
A tremendously gifted photographer, Newton used his impressive technical abilities to recreate that which his imagination called forth. He was all too aware that eroticism and seduction are a game of perception and of creating an unattainable reality. He fully utilized this for his commercial work which, at the same time, worked as a visualization of his own, personal obsessions. Underlying his depictions of women are themes of power, violence, eroticism and desire, linking his work to surrealism—one of the dominant artistic movements during the interbellum period in which he grew up in free-thinking Berlin.
Despite (or perhaps because) fashion photography’s fundamentally commercial role, many lovers of the medium do not take the genre seriously. But spend some time with Newton’s photographs and discover how a master of imagery managed to both please his clients and produce truly extraordinary work in the process.
Editors’ Note: Organized in close collaboration with the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, “Helmut Newton: A Retrospective” will run at Foam in Amsterdam from June 17 to September 4, 2016.