Helmut Newton was born on 31st October 1920, a hundred years ago. He always wanted to be seen as a photographer, not an artist, but his work has left its mark on the history of fashion photography, thanks to its unmistakeable imagery. In 2020, despite the difficulties created by the pandemic, his work has been celebrated with exhibitions like Works
at the GAM in Turin and America 1970s/80s
at the Helmut Foundation in Berlin (we would like to thank both institutions for the images that accompany this article), as well as at the cinema, with the documentary The Bad and the Beautiful
by Gero von Boehm.
Helmut Newton; Rushmore, Italian Vogue 1982, © Helmut Newton Estate
Simultaneously neoclassical and punk, Newton portrayed statuesque bodies, sculpted by the interplay of light and shade, naked or clothed, in a range of contexts from desolate landscapes to Hollywood villas. He shot in colour, too, but his best-known images are those in black and white. A constant element in Newton’s work is intense, natural or artificial light: “I do a lot of my work at midday, even in the desert, because I adore hard light, whether I’m working on fashion, portraits, or nudes. With the nude, hard light brings out those muscles”, he said in an interview printed in the book Nude: Theory
by Jain Kelly.
Helmut Newton; Thierry Mugler (Monaco 1998) © Helmut Newton Estate
Simultaneously neoclassical and punk, Newton portrayed statuesque bodies, sculpted by the interplay of light and shade, naked or clothed, in a range of contexts from desolate landscapes to Hollywood villas.
“As a rule, I use an orange filter the moment I get sunshine,” continued Newton, explaining how he obtained the vivid tones of his photographs. “In the old days, I used a lot of red filters. My filters are not very dark, about one stop. The orange filter helps the skin. It makes the skin look smoother and suppresses minor blemishes. I just have to be careful that the lips don’t go too pale. You can compensate with lipstick, but with a red filter, the lips go completely white.” To further increase the contrast, he also had his negatives developed for slightly longer than required.
Helmut Newton; Stern (Los Angeles 1980) © Helmut Newton Estate
The directors Leni Riefenstahl
and Erich von Stroheim
, and the photographers Brassaï
and Erich Salomon
had a strong (and openly admitted) influence on Newton’s work. With Riefenstahl, in particular, he had a love-hate relationship. Newton was a German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany in 1938 where he had grown up and he could not help but feel resentment for a woman who was known as “Hitler’s director”. Nevertheless, a simple glance at some of the scenes in Olympia
, Riefenstahl’s documentary on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, is enough to see the same tendency to frame bodies from the bottom upwards, an effect that makes them look more powerful. They also share the same vivid contrast of light and shade on the muscles of the people filmed.
Helmut Newton; Claudia Schiffer, Vanity Fair (Menton 1992) © Helmut Newton Estate
He inherited his habit of shooting subjects in narrow, foggy streets, on the other hand, from Brassaï. “Brassaï inspired me with his pictures of Paris by night,” said Newton. “I thought those pictures were incredibly beautiful. I started doing a lot of fashion pictures at night in Paris, and since I’ve been in Monte Carlo [from 1981 onwards, ed.] I’ve been doing the same here. Night gives a very mysterious quality to a woman in the street. I love that.”
Helmut Newton; Elizabeth Taylor (Los Angeles 1985) © Helmut Newton Estate
Newton did not need picturesque locations as he was the one who made a location picturesque. Matthias Harder, the director and curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation explains this with a striking example. “One of his favourite photographic sets was the garage of his condominium in Munich, with models and cars arranged in a pattern of visual interaction. Newton was able to transform everyday locations into theatrical stages with powerful or strikingly minimalist contrasts for his thoroughly unconventional scenarios. The exclusive and eccentric life of jet sets and high society, full of erotic and gastronomic debauchery, is a recurrent theme in his photography.”