“I still believe that the perfect fashion photograph is a photograph that does not look like a fashion photograph. It’s a photograph that looks like something out of a movie, like a portrait, maybe a souvenir shot, maybe a paparazzi shot, anything but a fashion photograph”: Helmut Newton
It’s hard to think about the 1980s without conjuring up Helmut Newton’s powerful and aspirational images. Along with black leather, chrome and extreme luxury, his strong black and white photographs of the ‘überwoman’ -dressed in heels, stockings and tailored clothes or entirely nude – changed photography forever. Subjects were fetishized with PVC, saddles, crutches, monocles, and cigarettes on phallically-enhancing holders.
As curator of the new Newton exhibition, which inaugurates the Musée de la Photographie Charles Nègre in Nice and is open to the public until 28th May 2017, Marie-France Bouhours explains to me that an early experience at the age of 17 with an immaculately dressed women changed the artist’s life for ever.
There is nothing submissive about the new breed of superwomen that grace Newton’s work. They confront the spectator with their perfect form and it is unsurprising to discover that Newton worked for Playboy throughout his career. The association began in the age of the pin-up during the 1950s and the images of Elsa Peretti as a bunny girl are legendary, but it is a testament to Newton's skill as a photographer and his innate respect and adoration of women that he chose to transform the essentially passive format into something much more active and powerful. Curator Marie-France Bouhours assures me that the work is just as popular with women as it is with men.
The influence of the circumstances of Newton's birth is hard to underestimate. born in berlin in 1920 to a Jewish father and American mother, he left for Australia in 1938. Sharp-eyed visitors will notice his portrait of an aged Leni Riefenstahl applying Guerlain face powder as a carefully chosen significator. His early years were saturated with Nazi imagery and this permeates his oeuvre.
As much in demand as a fashion photographer as a portraitist, famous subjects include his muse Charlotte rampling who he shot in magnificence on a dining table at the Nord Pinus Hotel in Arles in 1973; Karl Lagerfeld; David Hockney; Andy Warhol; and a young Ralph Fiennes who burns out of a large silver print tirage.
Catherine Deneuve is portrayed provocatively smoking a cigarette with the strap of her slip falling from her shoulder. A classic example of Newton’s use of narrative, it is impossible not to engage with the work. Is she dressing or undressing? is this before or after…? Most remarkably of all, he also photographed Margaret Thatcher. Of course, the prime minister was fully dressed, but the association is intriguing and shows a great sense of humour on both sides.
Icônes is the first exhibition to be held at the Musée de la Photographie Charles Nègre, just off the famous Cours Saleya in old town Nice. This new museum is a great addition to our cultural landscape in the south of France.
Gorgeously situated right by the flower market, the space has come under the expert guidance of Marie-france bouhours, a curator who has already staged many impressive photography exhibitions in Nice, including the memorable Jean Paul Goude exhibition in 2014.
An afternoon spent getting lost in the glamourous world of Newton will not be time wasted. His imagination inhabits an exclusive ‘other world’ and the spectator, who shares the point of view of the photographer, is invited to join in the narrative. ‘Newtonland’ appears to have existed in-between meals times, but outside of morality. While the influence of Brassaï’s light and shadow is clear; this world is made up of languorous afternoons, moments in cafés, late nights in hotels and afternoons by the pool – always when everyone else had left. Newton's contribution to the understanding of luxury is giant. What makes this exhibition particularly rewarding is that so much of it was shot locally in Monaco, where Newton himself lived for over two decades.
While the locations of the images are available and are often easily identified - from the Principality of Monaco to the Lutetia in Paris, the Nord Pinus in Arles and an elegant apartment in the Quays - it is Newton’s work which invigorates them. When visiting, make a point of looking out for his specific motifs: the sofa, the mirror, heels, nails, stockings, jewels and open and closed doors. “I spend a lot of time preparing,” Newton once commented. “I think a lot about what I want to do. I have prep books, little notebooks in which I write everything down before a sitting. Otherwise I would forget my ideas.”
The inclusion of his Polaroids is thoughtful. At the time, these pieces would have been given away as souvenirs or put in the bin; now they are considered to be individual art works in their own right. Newton was an old school photographer, using three or four Polaroids to get an idea of his shot before taking it.
There was none of the modern security of digital photography. He shot with a Hasselblad camera and, until the film was developed, only finely-honed instinct gave him an idea of what he had and whether the visual magic had happened.