Helmut Newton: Death of a Voyeur

Helmut Newton: Autobiography [Nan Talese, N.Y. 2003]
& other work

Lawrence Russell

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deja vu and the chemical history

Art is the sexual perception of an object. Hence the obsession of the artist with the human form, especially that of young beautiful women. Passivity in the rendering is futile -- there must be a flaw. Sometimes this manifests as a perverse form of eroticism, a dangerous mix of taboo and sexual ritual, innocence on the edge of corruption. As any artist knows, there are always two sides to a face... the shadow sphere of flaw and perfection... so the artist seeks to reveal the concealed, secret persona. And who understood and exploited this better than Helmut Newton, the great purveyor of chic porn who was killed recently when his Caddy SUV slammed into a wall as he exited his favorite L.A. hangout, the Chateau Marmont.

The Marmont is the famous replicate hotel of the stars, and Chateau Marmonttherefore notorious for scandal. More often than not today's travel guides draw attention to the fact that John Belushi blew his mind here in 1982 with a speedball... that a drunken Jim Morrison dangled from a balcony, almost fell... that someone from Led Zeppelin rode a Harley through the lobby... and in the old days Jean Harlow, Robert Mitchum, Greta Garbo, Montgomery Clift, Carole Lombard and the likes had occasion to live here... or at least use it for romantic assignations.

A mixture of revivalist French medievalism and California deco, the Marmont sits above Sunset Boulevard like a bordello for the damned. No wonder Newton liked to winter over here, consort with the living famous and the famously dead. He actually used the hotel as a location for his 1992 series "Domestic Nudes" [naked women in various secluded moments by the gas range, the washer/dryer, etc, their sexual beings liberated by paradox]. "My favorite photos are often those which evoke a strong feeling of I have been here before," he says in his autobio, and certainly twenty six years of annual stopovers at the Marmont would enhance the deja vu and the chemical history left by yesterday's stars.

Given his obsession with grand hotels, grand cars and hot women, you have to wonder if his death was staged. Yes, he was 83 years old and had an on-going heart condition... and yes, he said not so long ago that he was tired of photographing nudes... he convulses, hits the gas pedal, plows into the wall, the air-bag deploys and Newton crash Jan 23 '04he's smothered into silence... maybe. There's something sublimely symmetrical about his death that it makes it a pure extension of his work, like the mise en scene he would prepare in his notebook before going on a fashion shoot. The sudden violence of it has the grim comedy of an incident from Ballard's auto/sex fetishist film Crash or the elegant death launch of Elizabeth Taylor in a Sunbeam Alpine at the end of Butterfield 8. The fact that he clips a UPA photographer just before hitting the wall adds symbolism, suggests predestination. Hence he joins the pantheon of auto-crash victims that includes such fashion luminaries as Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield and Princess Di... and James Dean, of course, who also visited the Chateau.

The recent publication of Helmut Newton: Autobiography suggests that the "summing up" has already occurred, his secrets revealed, his notoriety ensured. Certainly there will be more photographs to be seen, and judging by the brief journal clips included to close out his autobiography, the publication of his full working journal is inevitable. Bring it on. The journal will be the real testament of Helmut Newton.

autobio automatic/ autobio autofetish

The autobio appears to have been dictated for a ghost writer. The voice is conversational, anecdotal, often vulgar. You can imagine Helmut lying on his leather couch in his Monaco condo with a black sleep mask over his eyes, a silver Olympus micro recorder in hand. He will start with his childhood in Berlin, his mother and father, his older half-brother... his down-town secular bourgeois family ["more German than Jewish"] and the maid who gave him his first hard-on... or was it his mother... or that woman in the black evening dress in the resort hotel at Heringsdorf. Maybe he mutters "I'm not a fighter, I'm a fucker" thinking this is a good theme for his life, but when the book comes to print, this insight gets pushed back to the Australian years when he's conscripted into the Aussie army straight from the enemy alien detention camp... no fighting, just some rural fruit picking and chauffeur detailing.

Yes, you've heard it/ seen it before. The spoiled kid who is dressed to look like a girl by his doting mother, is hopeless in school and his only interest is his big brother's girlie magazines. The confessions are funny, tacky, at times almost fantastic... and certainly map out the sociology of the exhibitionism that is to later characterize his art. While Newton is quick to lay claim on many women as lovers or objects of fantasy, this self-admitted apprentice bungler gives his photography mentor "Yva" [Else Simon] the measure of professional respect and affection this tragic figure deserves. Newton is in awe of her, learns the basic studio chops. Yet although he says he made many mistakes in the darkroom, he has the intuition and the backing to escape the Nazi roundup in 1938. Yva refuses to leave Berlin, and consequently dies in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Later Newton will describe how he returns to Berlin in 1958, finds Yva's studio intact, unused and almost empty, save for some of her fashion prints, still on the wall... an inadvertent shrine that becomes symbolism and a marker for the Berlin of his youth.

"Many of my fashion photographs have been taken in places that remind me of my childhood."

Sex at fourteen? Still wearing short pants and sporting a concealed erection behind a copy of The Times, the young Helmut rides the tram to the American School, encounters a 21 year old fashion model, and soon has her coming to the Neustaedter garden for clandestine encounters. Shortly afterwards he joins a club and takes up some serious swimming, falls in love with a champion called Illa, and soon they are having heavy sex in his room with the approval of his mother. The body of the athlete defines one aspect of the future "Helmut Newton woman", as does the faux lesbian motif of the cross-dresser.

"...there was a girl, a printer in the darkroom, who was an ex-Bauhaus student. She used to wear black velvet suits with a white shirt and collar. She also wore a monocle -- that just drove me sexually insane."

Helmut reminisces erotically, geographically... youth and apprenticeship in Berlin, failed photographer and gigolo in Singapore, alien confinement and patriation in Australia, wedding photographer and marriage in Melbourne, breakout and fashion stringer in London, Paris, New York... jet-set famous in Monaco and L.A. ...with sidebars to Berlin, Rome, and places beyond. Politically, strategically, aesthetically Paris is the place that allows him to break the boundaries of conventional fashion illustration. Skillfully using symbolism and anti-fashion accessories such as medical harnesses and equestrian riding gear, he pushes the envelope of erotic style and dramatization. Fashion takes on a dangerous edge as it reconciles objective ugliness with exotic beauty. How does he get away with it? Paris is the right place at the right time, a relaxed cultural oasis in which the new pornographers are already de-constructing the visual and literary arts. Maurice Gerodias of the Olympia Press publishes Pauline Reage'sThe Story of O about a beautiful though masochistic Parisian photographer who becomes the willing sex slave of a group of male libertines at a mysterious chateau... and Helmut, with a large supply of adventuress Vogue models and movie starlets at his disposal, takes his cue.

Newton: Manhattan at Night Newton: Catherine Deneuve

deep shadow fever

His first photo, taken in the Berlin subway [untergrund] with a cheap box camera, fails to turn out. But despite this initial failure, it establishs his predilection for using available or indirect light. He says he was influenced by Brassai and other night photographers, although the obsession is clearly sociological, a condition of his early environment. It should also be noted that the photography of the period is almost exclusively black and white, so that the use of shadow is considered part of the art. This is evident in the nocturnal film noir cinematography of the era, developed from the expressionist lighting of live theatre, and the staged mise en scene.

Yet there is another psychological driver in the registry....

The deep shadow fever of the Berlin homosexual underground provides Newton with the imagery of the impersonator. As a motif, cross-dressing is cyclical within the fashion industry and also within the tradition of the Theatre. As always, this specialty has economic largesse within the confusing culture of power and sexual fantasy. In his autobio, he describes how his brother Hans takes him into the red light district, points out the famous prostitute Red Erna, who wears red boots and carries a whip.

overheard at the Bar Marmont

Behind the bamboo and the mohair walls, etc. Voices of men and women... some husky, like the nico hustlers of the movie industry... late Age Valley Girl... a bit player... screenwriter... a magazine photographer, a dope dealer, who knows. Pineapple vodkas, scotch, Coronas, etc.

·The perspectives that he could achieve with a Rolli 80 mm lens and a 6x6 cm piece of film were simply amazing.
·A Rolliflex? He never used a Rolliflex... he used a 35 mm Canon EOS.
·The early stuff, my man. Twin reflex.
·He's like Shakespeare... his work is so imitated now that he gets credit fer photos he never took.
·If someone told me he was a Nazi, I'd believe it.
·He's Jewish.
·Stuff looks Nazi to me... same dark theatrical stuff. Nazis were into dress-up sex... Christ, Goebbels was banging everything he could get his hands on.
·It always seemed to me that WWII took place in some mythological realm... Kennedy is like that too.
·Reifenstahl -- you can see that influence in Newton's work... well maybe not hers exactly but they both draw from the same uberfraulein image.
·Berlin bondage, man. Ever see Marlene Dietrich? Blue Angel?
·Is it on DVD?
·I recommend you watch Mephisto... Klaus Maria Bander... if you wanna see that scene.
·What scene?
·Berlin in the 30s... Nazis, art, kink.
·You guys are talkin bullshit... Newton is a great photographer. Edgy, he's edgy.
·His photos were for men and made to express his concept of eroticism -- not true portraits of the women he photographed.
·Yeah? All the women I know like them.
·Hookers and art sluts... right?
·"Not true portraits..." Jeeze. So your idea of a true portrait is one that suits the vanity of the subject?
·Hey, you're on it, man... Margaret Thatcher hated the photo he took of her.
·He did Margaret Thatcher? This I gotta see --
·Relax... it's a portrait.
·You mean like Karsh?
·Now there's a guy who played to vanity.
·Was Newton homosexual? They always take the best photos of women.
·Bet he was.
·His wife is a photographer... got a show biz name.
·We know -- "Koala Springs".

[laughter, hoots, expletives]

·It's Alice Springs, you ass. Better than Helmut by a mile.
·Listen to to yerself, would ya... better than the maestro.
·I happen to know that Newton considered his work fake compared to hers.
·Was she in the Cadillac when it crashed?
(heavy whisper) Look... there's Britney.
(low) Is that her? Is she in town?
·That's not Britney.
·Who's the old guy with her? Helmut Newton, isn't it?
·No way... supposed to be dead, right?

the making of the voyeur

"I would stand on the balcony looking up at the sky to watch the zeppelin come in from America, and I would look down the street and watch the pitched battles between the cops and communists and Nazis."

Imagine this scene as a large photo mural. While it has the surreal logic of a dream, in fact it is a German reality, and neatly encapsulates the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Even though Newton was later forced into hiding and wandering the streets after his old man is taken away by the Nazis, there's never any sense of fear or bitterness. In fact, it was an opportunity for adventure, and he slid easily into the fantasy of romantic intrigue on the Italian ocean liner that took him to safety and exile in Singapore.

While he didn't have to be a Berliner to conceive of his burlesque dressup photo featuring his wife June as Adolph Hitler and the Texan model Jerry Hall as Eva Braun, the native view gives this work a certain insider cachet. The theatrical aspect of Nazism is part of the totalitarian desire for spectacle, like the large cast location theatre of Eisenstein or the unrealized fantasies of Antonin Artaud. Newton admired the work of Leni Reifenstahl, regardless of whether or not she was a Nazi whore. Sado-masochism demands a wide cast and a big shadow.

the ideal model

"Men were completely capitvated by her, followed her immediately, sensed her sexuality. There seems no rhyme or reason to all this. I have no explanation why one girl seduces the camera and another one doesn't."

While Newton said that he liked all shapes and sizes of women -- and indeed he used a wide physiological cast, as the perverse demands it -- without question he liked the "Big Nude" best of all.

art pimp: scene from a journal

"...the interest that the writer has in my model seems to increase. His wife seems not to mind, and they manage to stay near us whenever possible. As the (shoot) rather bores me, I decide to enter into the game with them. Every night, before dinner, I dress the model myself. I choose her clothes carefully, making her look more daring and risque as the week goes on; what I don't find among the clothes we have with us to photograph, I borrow from a nearby boutique. Her skirts are getting shorter, her necklines more revealing. The writer's excitement mounts, and I become more and more interested in my experiment in fashion; the model's attitude does not change, she stays cool but not uninterested."

As you can see, this incident during a shoot on the Atlantic island of Lanzorote [Canaries] in 1970 contains all the rationale of a classic Newton pictorial tease. Recorded in his journal, it sounds like something from Jerzy Kosinski's novel Steps. Game protocol and infantilism are sequential for both the exhibitionist and the voyeur. Consider these images: chick kneels on the bed, a riding saddle on her back, a dadaist metaphor that begs the question: victim or perpetrator? A shapely woman in a business suit reclines against a balcony [and the city skyline], skirt raised just enough to expose her thighs and the lower harness of her garter belt... or woman in red lies on a black leather couch bound by a rope to a naked dummy wearing red pumps... who is her double. Etc.

A classic Newton is his 1987 Vanity Fair photo of Brigitte Nielsen at the Old Beach Hotel in Monte Carlo. Photographed from behind, the tall shapely Nielsen dominates the foreground like a giant robot chick from the Planet Bondo. Her swim suit is merely a harness, more like a holster belt for a ray gun than a piece of clothing. The earthlings sit in the pool, smiling like condemned idiots.

Newton: Brigitte Nielson Newton: model with dummy

While Newton was never interested in making movies, he did create compressed scenarios. Like a young girl who grows tired of simple domestic games, then rearranges her dolls in pornographic positions, Newton's psychology seems completely female. He prefers dummies and cross-dressing women over male models. His double-figures are narcissist, women posing before mirrors or with other women or dummies. Even if the camera is masculine as it approaches a hooker on an ancient shadowy street at night, the agenda is always the same: masturbation.

photography & witchcraft

There's nothing spiritual about Newton's art, although it does display a sense of the occult. Night photography and ritual sexuality often sets a Newton scene, so that many commentators have described him as a corrupt marquis like de Sade playing warlock in his chateau.

Red eye flash, usually the dreaded mistake of the amateur, is exploited by HN in a 1971 "accident" in Rome when experimenting with a new shadow-guard called a Coffin Ring. "Devil eyes" or "zombie eyes" were a cliche in the movies even then, although, when applied to fashion, they were absolutely avant-garde.

A woman in an ethereal evening gown emerging from the shadowless darkness assumes a supernatural aura as her eyes gleam dangerously. Once again the maestro finds a way to draw attention to the subject, shake up the fashion status quo. Red Eye makes the non-figurative subject a figurative description which includes not only the physical but also the metaphysical.

Strangely, Newton is drawing from a tradition within photography that has sought to use the process as a means of extra-sensory perception. In 1891 the notorious Swedish playwright August Stringberg attempted a series of "psychological" portraits while living in -- of all places -- Berlin. These were done using a lensless camera [Strindberg believed the lens distorted reality] and long exposures.

terrain vague

Just what is a Helmut Newton worth? The sold-out edition of prints Sie Kommen 1 & II are reputedly worth more than $55,000. One panel features 4 naked models approaching the camera, the other the same models in the same stride but dressed in fashion couture. Curiously, this "image within an image" is neither erotic nor revelatory, as the women remain civilized and unreal in both photos. The idea is an inversion of the fashion dummy before and after clothing.

According to an article in American Photo [Feb 2000] the record price for a Newton was set in 1993 when his 45 print portfolio Private Property sold for $24,150. This consists of 75 numbered prints and 10 lettered artist's proofs. Apparently some of these images are now circulating at large prices, culled from broken collections.

Currently a few used lst edition copies of his historic first US collection White Women [Stonehill 1976] are available from booksellers on the Internet for anything between $25 and $200... which seems like a bargain considering that dealers who specialize in Helmut Newton are selling single prints from $3,500 to $11,000. His last book -- a giant 66 lb retrospective called Sumo that requires its own stand -- was sold for $1500 when it was first published in 2000 by Taschen of Cologne... but is now worth $3000... if you can find a copy.

According to some dealers, more of Helmut Newton's work is sold to women than men.

white women

Helmut Newton says this 1976 coffee table book was his wife's idea, so that his stuff would be taken seriously. And yes, its influence was phenomenal, as women in the art scene began to affect the Helmut Newton "look", a risque combo of punk deco and trash designer. For a while not only the Club scene but also Halloween was redefined by Helmut Newton.

The provocative title befits the provocative imagery. The transformation of high fashion tableauxs into pure voyeurism where elegant women are suspended in erotic moments within exotic settings that leave their target lovers off-camera. These shots are always a prelude for other shots that remain unpublished except in our imaginations. Sometimes the women are waiting, clearly positioned for sex, anonymous exhibitionists in a private dreamscape... the baroque decadence of a European luxury hotel, a walled garden, the swimming pool of a private villa, a yacht in the Mediterranean, etc... sometimes the women are in transit, as if fleeing some debacle or rushing to join an orgy.

The few men that are seen remain passive and anonymous, like crash-test dummies dressed for the occasion. For example, the rectilinear view of a woman lying with her lover beside a black Citroen. The man is concealed by the woman, whose back is to the camera. As usual, the woman is naked except for her red elevator shoes which gleam like lipstick. The ground is covered with dead leaves, an ursatz which heightens the romanticism of the image. The passive man, still wearing his suit, becomes a bi-gender surrogate for the photographer... who, by declension, becomes you, the viewer.

While Newton says his work is all documentary and never fantasy, always based on experience, this can be discounted as political modesty.

It must be noted that not all these photos are successful: some are merely weird, succumb to the infantilism of perverse sexual decorum. The documentary gestalt overrides the surrealism, challenges the notion of art. Hints of bi-sexual adventurism adds to the general vibe of old Euro decadence in a contemporary ethos.

Two years later [1978] he follows with Sleepless Nights which clearly shows his debt to the culture of bondage. Various models pose wearing various medical support gear... Paloma Picasso, Suzy Dyson, Jane Kirby, breasts exposed, wearing neck braces... or the famous "Saddle I" photo of the crouching model wearing a horse saddle. Like all fashion illustrations, the poses are stagey, like window dressings with dummy models. The satire over-powers the sexual possibilities and draws into question the whole notion of high fashion. The imagery is caricature yet delivered in a documentary manner. Women as animals, prisoners within a culture, like the decorative public statuettes in any major European city... or women serenely indifferent to the world and their roles as totemic sex icons.

Fashion advertising is always symbolism, as the target viewer must be able to interact and idealize the self.

The provocation in this collection is established immediately with the dust jacket, which is of a man in drag, an impersonator in full burlesque. The blackened eyes and red lipstick mouth are ambiguous enough... but not the heavy masculine shoulders. Surprise and revulsion give way to humour, although outrage will always be an option. A risky way to make a first impression, and perhaps the reason Sleepless Nights is considered less successful than the ultra chic White Women.

Throughout this period, Newton is publishing in Vogue (international), Elle, Queen, Nova, Constanze, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and others.

waiting for Helmut

A famous Hollywood actress is waiting in her hilltop house for a famous European photographer. He was supposed to have been here an hour ago and she's still waiting, wondering if she really wants to go through with this anyway. Guy doesn't like makeup, thinks movie stars have no patience... and, well, he's notorious. What would he want her to do? Will he bring one of those plastic dummies, make her pose in a compromising position? No. It's a portrait shoot. He might make her look ugly, but he won't make her look dirty.

She knows he photographed Jody... not so bad. Jody didn't like them at first although now she thinks they're o.k., cool even. He photographed old Liz too, sitting in her pool. Well, she would have to sit in it at her age. Angelica... looks like a man... well, a nice man. Catherine Deneuve... god she's so beautiful, how could she not photograph well... that one he took of her in Paris, 1976... cigarette in her mouth, bra slightly dipped... so sexy, so cool, so nice. Could she pull something like that off? Available... but unavailable. Sure.

Charlotte Rampling... how the camera loved her... bet she wouldn't pose like that now.

TV is running, sound off. Breaking news, another smashup, somebody in a silver SUV. It barely registers... just more media noise. She gets up, looks at the clock, avoids the mirror. Where is this guy? She must have it wrong. Maybe the tranks are messin with her head... maybe her press agent screwed up. She picks up her cell, wanders to the sliding glass door, looks down the canyon at the city, already masked in a faint lead haze. Up here, though, the sunlight falls clear and clean on the turquoise pool. Pluto, her faithful German shepard, is sprawled beside the recliner, so still he could be dead.

The young gardener is working as usual in her neighbour's yard, just below the terrace. Blond hardbody. Another wannabe... uh, maybe not. Maybe he likes being a gardener.

She goes into the bedroom, tosses the cell on the gold thread duvet, goes into the walk-in closet... shoes, she must have a hundred pair of shoes... sandals, walkers, pumps, stilettos, elevators... yes, the elevators.

When she walks out to the pool, she's naked except for her gold high heels with the 5 inch risers... and her sunglasses, the Alfred Sungs she bought the other day in Century City. She steps carefully over the dog, starts a slow walk of the pool perimeter. The hell with Vanity Fair and that photographer... Helmut-wherever-you-are. This is the last time she'll walk naked, confident someone somewhere is watching.

©LR 2/04


Culture Court | ©2004 | Lawrence Russell