Helmut Newton. I’m a pornographer Fotografiska, Stockholm May 31 - September 29, 2013
There is an air of fetishistic desire in Helmut Newton’s work that creates a limbo between almost detached fashion photography and an aggressive sexuality. With the ongoing exhibition Helmut Newton at Fotografiska in Stockholm, it becomes interesting to look closer at this photographer, artist and, in his own words, pornographer, even though the museum would only like to see the word as a mere provocation.
Helmut Newton, Tied-Up, Ramatuelle, 1980
Helmut Newton was born in Berlin in 1920. He started photographing at 12, when he got his first camera while working for a photographer.Newton’s family left Germany before the outbreak of World War II and fled to South America in 1938. In 1945 he got a British passport and changed his last name the following year to Newton, from Neustädter. In 1948 he married the Australian actress June Browne. She first performed under the stage name of June Brunell. She later took on the name Alice Springs in 1970, which derived from the Australian town with the same name. Springs became a successful photographer in her own right, but she was also Newton’s editor, curator and confidante.
When working with different fashion and lifestyle magazines like Vogue, Elle, Queen, Stern, and Nova,among others, Newton always held on to his own perspective. During the 60’s he would use provocative ingredients and create layered narratives to play on the conventions of fashion photography. During this time, most fashion photography used the model as an almost faceless mannequin in the confinement of a studio, while Newton created characters that told stories to evoke the imagination of a certain type of life or lifestyle in authentic settings, and with whatever light was available. But he always plays with the concept of the faceless model or mannequin, and the concept of plasticity.
When entering the exhibition at Fotografiska, the visitor is greeted by a large room holding many of his fashion photos from the 60’s and up until the 90’s. His work from the 60’s seems to be more colorful and more youthful, and then moves into a darker and more contradictory world. Fotografiska tries to present Newton to “the people”, that’s forcertain. You see people walking through the exhibition that kind of ignore the nudity, Nazi-memorabilia and sadomasochism. The show continues in a smaller room. The documentary Helmut by June (2007) runs in a smaller room, where you are invited to see an intimate portrait directed by his widow June Newton/Alice Springs. The rest of the exhibition contains large black and white prints of naked women staring directly at the viewer. In the same room there is also Sie Kommen (Naked and Dressed) (1981), four women in two pictures, one naked and one dressed in the same poses.
My relationship to Helmut Newton is very limited. I've seen his work, but I can't say that he has in any way had an impact on either my sense of aesthetics or my life. I'm the ideal visitor for this show. The goal for the curator is to create a relationship to, and an understanding towards, an artist. Everything is set up in such a pedagogical way that it becomes almost clinical. You get to see the artistic development: who he knew, who he worked with, his relationship to his wife and his relationship to the body. But, you’re always kept at a distance. This is mostly created through the nature of his style. Even though many of the pictures show people when they’re undressed, or vulnerable in other ways (like the portrait of an aging Salvador Dalí) there is always an awkward undertone, either in the pose or the eyes. This becomes a part of the distance between what is depicted and the viewer. Some of the pictures are quite sexually explicit, but they are never sexy due to this awkwardness. Arguably, this is probably the reason why so many people can walk through the exhibition without having a fit of moral righteousness. Sexiness and desire is transmitted into the objects present in the picture; whether it be shoes, or a mirror, a chair, a necklace and so forth. Which actually is the point of many of the editorial works: to make people want to buy what they see.
Also in the exhibition there are some more “private” pictures, for example In our kitchen (1972), in which June Newton is sitting across from a table and lighting a cigarette while wearing a suit without a front. I put “private” within quotation marks because I’m not really sure that there is something like that in his oeuvre. That is probably the most off-putting with him as an artist: the exhibitionism. In this case, he most certainly is a pornographer. He is always present, his wife is always present; dressed, undressed and privately. The distance is always there, but in these cases, it is created by Newton through his position as the photographer.
When I was asked to write something about Helmut Newton I felt lost, to be honest. I went to the show to see if I could find something to relate to, to let Fotografiska teach me why he is an important figure for us now. The pedagogical style of the museum notwithstanding, they seem to miss the mark of putting Newton into a larger context. Who did he influence? Why is he important for us now?
They want to elevate him from being “a pornographer”, but maybe they don’t have to do that.