Masters of photography: Helmut Newton
Helmut Newton was a master of erotically charged fashion photography, featuring often in highly regarded magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Newton was born in 1920 and bought his first camera aged 12, but did not find acclaim until the fifties. Born and raised in Germany, he had to flee the Nazis in 1938 and found himself in Singapore working as a photographer for a short while, before moving to Australia.
In Australia he studied his craft and set up a studio in Melbourne, where he photographed for fashion and the theatre. His first exhibition was shared with a fellow German refugee and brought one of the first glimpses of New Objectivity, or Neue Sachlichkeit, to Australia.
In 1957, after securing a commission for Australian Vogue, Newton moved to London for a 12-month contract with the magazine and eventually found his way to Paris where he settled, after another stint in Melbourne in 1961. It is in Paris, perhaps inspired by the city’s more liberal views on sex and love, that the eroticism of Newton’s work really came through. His photography was full of underlying S&M and fetishism, the scenes highly stylised and the contrast striking. Newton said it was his aim to ‘seduce, amuse and entertain’ and he did exactly that to the fashion world.
Newton suffered a heart attack in 1970 that put the brakes on his output of work but, once recovered, his notoriety continued to rise. The pinnacle of this is quite possibly his series of Big Nudes in 1980. This series showcased Newton’s talent with lighting, casting blurred shadows behind the nude figures on stark white walls, creating a contrast between model and background that stages the great aesthetics black and white photography can achieve. Big Nudes reached the height of Newton’s erotic and urban styles.
Another area of Newton’s notable works is his photography for Playboy. He shot infamous pictorials such as 200 Motels, or How I spent my Summer Vacation. This featured Kristine DeBell straddling a TV set, dress hiked up to her waist, smoking a cigarette and staring with a sultry expression straight at the camera lens, or her leaning on another motel TV set with the light from the window framing her body.
Another of Newton’s iconic images is that of Elsa Peretti in a take on Playboy Bunny attire, dressed for the night and juxtaposed against the dizzy heights of New York architecture. This image evokes a reference to the many Modernist photographs of the New York skyline that Newton would have been familiar with; he plays with and teases this Modernist by turning it into his own erotic and fashionable style.
There is no denying the power of Newton’s ability to erotically charge a photograph; from a subtle glow of white flesh against pitch black fabric, to a stark nude against a white wall. Helmut Newton won the fashion world over and seduced them with his skill and precision, along with his ability to make a photograph outrageously sexual yet artful.