As a girl and young woman in the 1980s, Helmut Newton was the one photographer I remember from the glossy magazines. I was not a child of fashion, not interested in the whirlwind scene of seasons of clothes, not a buyer of bags or wearer of high-heeled shoes. I belonged to the anti-fashion culture. The gold chains and snakeskin finishes actually scared me somewhat. I don’t like belts or buckles, although as I’ve gotten older, I’ve warmed to their metallic, shiny charms. But I knew Helmut Newton. And even stroked those pages, trying not to get oily thumbprints on the black areas; magazines were exciting. Vogue was exciting. Older copies were thrilling; if anyone had a pile of back issues, I would head straight for it, avoiding the critical glances of my would-be anarchic circles. And they were thrilling because of Helmut Newton’s photographs.
“Helmut Newton is a magician, a miracle worker, and a creative director whose actors are models.”
When I arrive at this minimalist, brutalist gallery set up by Marta Ortega, the chair of Inditex and daughter of Amancio Ortega, I know that I will learn so much about fashion photography. I will deep dive into a world in which I have previously only paddled around the edge. This is a gallery built, planned, and organised to experience single artists, transmit the works of these creatives into the spotlight, provide retrospective content and present significant pieces in the dramatic stillness, which allows me to dream myself into the world of the photographs.
In the quiet of a press trip, you can do uncanny things. There is one room in which video is projected on all the walls. Video of conversations with the artist and significant people, selected photographs are shown and all around in Spanish, English and other languages, I became immersed in the story of Helmut Newton. I learned about the importance of his wife in his life, June Browne, who was a mainstay of his entire career as well as his domestic life. Initially an actor when they met in Berlin in the 1930s, she became a photographer herself during their time in Australia, taking the name Alice Springs. Her photographs here include her own tender pictures of her husband, and I love the photo of Helmut in a classic pose in a leather chair, casually stretching his leg in front, straight arms relating to the arms of the seat, his physicality breathing the attitude of a person who swims and who is relaxed in his body. The design of his room, the pose, and the surfaces all reveal something of his inner world.
It is not necessary to listen to historical context, fascinating though it is, to realise how much his aesthetic is forged in the post-WW1 silent film era of German filmmaking. The angles, the use of the figures within the dramatic backgrounds, women with elbows, knees, and long legs, yes, these feel like impossibly tall models, creatures from another world than myself, and it’s not just because they are wearing expensive garments. I look at the triangular shapes, the oppositions of black and white, the sharp focus, the bright light, the wide depth of field, the drama that steps uncannily out of a world that was established in Berlin in the UFA film studios, a doppelganger of the cinema screen. Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and the actor Marlene Dietrich (who incidentally is a superb player of the musical saw). If you don’t know these films, I recommend starting with two by Fritz Lang, ‘M’ (1931), about a child murderer and Metropolis (1927). Helmut Newton carries this aesthetic of expressionist celluloid from Germany to Australia, and it works; it really works hard in this new location, in this new environment of fashion, of stylish women, of wealth and designer culture.
Helmut Newton references Hitchcock quite deliberately and obviously in one well-known shoot that plays with danger and the position of the body angled and flying through the air. Hitchcock’s cinema classic ‘North by Northwest’ (1959) positions Cary Grant running for his life from a cropduster plane. Newton plays with this image, making the models the stars, giving an agency to women who love bags and clothes and want to spend their money on them. They are not merely dolls to be dressed up, or if they are, at least they get to play other parts now, exciting, epic and active. Hitchcock’s own cinematic style was born in the era of the silents, and he spent time in FA working on The Blackguard (1925).
A substantial number of photos relate to Newton’s interest in swimming. He grew up in a city of lakes and moved to a continent where beach life is central to the culture. I wonder how much the precarious angles of his models, dangled from high buildings, leaning and challenging gravity, come from this interest in the weightlessness of water. His shoots choose terrestrial rather than aquatic laws, eschewing the softness of watery balance for the terror and exhilaration of flight and fall.
Helmut Newton is a magician, a miracle worker, and a creative director whose actors are models. In this era where we are taking on the challenge of re-appraising the past with a critical eye for gender roles that I would find his work disturbing and offensive. But rather I enjoyed it. As a director, he came across as a kind, rather charmingly louche and gentle individual, and not the person I had initially imagined him to be from his shoots that reference bondage, S & M and the kind of accoutrements I have my own personal issues with such as belts, studded bags and also high-heels.
I would encourage anyone to re-acquaint themselves with his work or to get to know it for the first time, if only for the technical genius at work. And there is nowhere better to do this than the Marta Ortega Pérez Foundation (MOP) because she cares about his legacy more than anyone else; she treasures it and presents it to the world. With her position in fashion, she has chosen to promote the art of fashion photography and keep it alive in a new era when we hopefully may see more creative geniuses going forward in developing technology of materials.
Of course, Helmut Newton’s alternative universe was and is powered by star power of the stage, music and art worlds. The opening event on 15 November was attended by Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran) and Charlotte Rampling, among others. Charlotte Rampling takes a central position in the show, staring from out of her fur coat, her body tilted at such an odd, jerky angle, her spine twisting like a cat, putting the animal nature back into the fur coat. As an anti-fashionista, I would have been hostile to this picture when I first saw it, but with the years, I can now view it for its expertise in presenting character and brilliant expression. Naomi Campbell, Daryl Hannah, David Bowie and Andy Warhol are present, glaring or staring from a previous glamorous age. There are also some fascinating images of cities such as Paris and Los Angeles, sliding out from behind their usual role as backdrops for impossible scenes.
Helmut Newton is one of those photographers who changed the way that fashion photography was carried out. Ortega Pérez puts it like this: ‘Newton’s own great revolutionary act was to utterly change the ways in which women were portrayed in the pages of glossy magazines. Here were women who enjoyed style and fashion, who enjoyed style and fashion, who enjoyed the power and splendour of their bodies, women who were elegantly seductive and untouchable. His photographs were not only of his time but far ahead of his time – he spectacularly set the scene for those photographers who followed him.’
Helmut Newton – Fact & Fiction, 18 November 2023 – 1 May 2024, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain
Photographs by Susana Sanroman ©Artlyst 2023