In focus – rapturous revolution

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Master of the Lens: Helmut Newton In Focus
To utter the name Helmut Newton is to evoke a black and white world of predatory, self-aware women more at home in the cabarets of Weimar Germany than the glossy pages of Vogue. Newton often said that the purpose of the photographer was “to seduce, amuse, and entertain,” and it was his genius to transform the erotic and make it the theatre of the surreal, in which the female is the unequivocal star, often laid bare but never objectified.

Newton positioned his women – Catherine Deneuve, Elsa Peretti, Charlotte Rampling and Paloma Picasso were a few of his favourites – in tableaux of sharp, shiny edges or near shimmering pools, an Amazonian world in which any male that might happen to enter the frame became a voyeur, powerful in masculine bearing but somehow docile and non-threatening. Even if the female happens to be looking his way, her gaze is the only one that matters.

Born Helmut Neustädter in 1920 to a wealthy German-Jewish button-manufacturer and an American mother, Newton, as he would later call himself, remained at heart a Berliner throughout his life. It was from this cosmopolitan city that he fled Nazi persecution in 1938 and in which he was laid to rest next to Marlene Dietrich in the Städtischer Friedhof cemetery over sixty-five years later.

Newton retained an image of the Berlin of his youth in all its elegant grandeur, and cultivated these memories through his photographic work, which has always been deeply steeped in the character and mood of old Europe. “Berlin had fascinated me from the moment I understood what a city meant. I loved it so much as a child … the ambiance, and every little secret corner which I seemed to know,” Newton wrote in his autobiography.

His mother encouraged her son’s early preoccupation with photography and, with her help, Newton gained an apprenticeship with the established photographer Yva, who introduced him to the technical and commercial side of the craft. Throughout his career Newton often paid tribute to his first teacher, stating, “These were the happiest days of my youth in Berlin … In the two years I was under her tutelage I fell madly in love with her. I worshipped the ground she walked on. I adored her photographs.”

By the time Newton met his future wife June Browne in 1946 he had lived and worked in Singapore, been deported to Australia where he later served in the armed forces, and had opened his own photography studio in Melbourne. The two married in 1948 and June would later become a photographer in her own right, using the pseudonym Alice Springs. “I always heard his wife had a big influence on him and that a lot of Helmut’s ideas came from her,” says Etheleen Staley, founder of the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York City, which has sold some of Newton’s most iconic works over the years.

In 1957 Helmut landed a one-year contract with British Vogue, but it was in the less sexually repressed milieu of Paris that Newton truly came into his own, achieving international acclaim while working primarily for French Vogue: “The moment I hit Paris I knew this was it for living and taking photographs. The life was in the streets, in cafes, restaurants. Beautiful women seemed to be everywhere,” Newton commented.

In an interview with American broadcast journalist Charlie Rose, Newton said, “I’m an admirer of women, and I think they are much stronger creatures than men.” By putting women in domineering and powerful scenarios, Newton reversed the traditionally submissive role of the female. In his controversial photograph for the summer 1975 issue of American Vogue, Woman Regarding Man, Newton placed the female model sitting coolly, legs spread, in the position of the male viewer, her eyes intently gazing at the shirtless man in front of her.

By undermining standard societal roles, the woman becomes the one with the power, reducing the man to a mere object of desire. “Helmut had such a great respect for the power of female sexuality,” notes Philippe Garner, the International Head of Photographs at Christies and a long-time friend of the photographer. “He was enthralled to it and his images explore and celebrate the mystery of a woman’s allure.” When asked if Newton had a muse, Staley replies, “He photographed a lot of these anonymous dark haired, big busted, tall, aggressive women. More than a single person it was a body type that he preferred.”

A major heart attack in the early 1970s proved a turning point in Newton’s career, as he decided it was time to heighten the sexual content of his pictures and increase their perversity. Over the years Newton was sometimes referred to as a pornographer, to which he would always reply that pornography is about penetration. “Helmut’s work has such a finish to it, and is done with such elegance and precision, it could never even approach pornography,” says Staley. “I think his pictures became more edgy as the years went by because that’s what sold. When you see his early work it’s pretty straight fashion photographs.

It was only when people started picking up on these aggressive types of women with the heels and the nails and began receiving them with enthusiasm that Helmut got more into it.” As Garner remarks, “Helmut loved to work on the edge and push boundaries. His photographs are disconcerting; they can make the viewer feel uncomfortable.” Models depicted as members of a certain elevated social sphere were often pictured in less than glamorous environments and disquieting scenarios exploring fetishistic fantasies sometimes with prostitutes and cross-dressers.

Newton’s first book, White Women, was published in 1976 and captures the most controversial photographs from this period, including works such as Eiffel Tower from 1974. Here a nude woman (with an Eiffel Tower motif on her underwear) lies in the back seat of a black DS Citroën beside a copy of Le Monde, the hands of a middle-class businessman slowly removing her shoes. “The people in my pictures are ‘arranged’ in a kind of mise-en-scène,” Newton once said, “but my pictures aren’t false; they’re based on what I see in life with my own eyes.”

Photographs such as “Hotel Room” from 1976, in which a nude woman kneels in front of a chair, with a rope tied around her neck, led many critics to label Newton a misogynist. Staley however believes it was more about a fantasy: “I think he had a fertile imagination and I wonder if a lot of his images were inspired by literature, the Marquis de Sade, The Story of O, etc. I don’t think he was a misogynist. He was very gentlemanly and his pictures have nothing to do with the reality of his life. He loved controversy, and he created photographs such as ‘Hotel Room’ to get a rise out of people.”

Newton brought fashion photography out of the studio and into the street (or in cleverly crafted interiors). He wanted to show women in natural settings, as they actually lived, not in contrived environments, and for Newton the studio was nothing more than a neutral, sterile box. He planned his photographs, but loved the element of chance that might occur outside where anything might happen. Photographing at night was one of his favourite activities, a time when “everything becomes more mysterious, and all the ugliness is hidden,” said Newton.

The photographs of Brassai – “master of the night light, the streets of Paris, the night cityscapes, the interiors of brothels” – and Erich Salomon were a great influence to Newton, who was known to say that all he needed was a 500 watt spotlight or a few torches. On January 23, 2004, an 83-year old Newton died at the wheel of his car in the driveway of the Chateau Marmont where he had been living for the past few years. His reputation as the master of the lens is unsurpassed and he is cited as one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, and all this from a man who humbly remarked, “I’m not an intellectual, I just take pictures”.

Rediscovering Yva
The name Elsa Neuländer-Simon (1900–1942), or Yva, her photographic pseudonym, is more often than not a footnote in the career of her famed apprentice, Helmut Newton. With little information and archival material to fall back on regarding Yva’s life and career, the majority of her work has sadly remained unavailable for public viewing. Despite this, it is evident from the photographs that survive from her oeuvre that Yva possessed an inimitable style and fresh artistic vision which clearly earned her respect and acclaim in an industry mostly dominated by men. At a time when the image of women being perpetuated in the media was one of subservience and sexual objectification, Yva positioned her females as strong and independent, and above all, modern. The neue Frau, or New Woman, was a subject of heated public debate in Weimar Germany and throughout Europe, and a concept which Yva helped shape through her sensual and decadent photographs.

Images such as “Ramona in the littlest flying machine” (1929–1930) featuring a well dressed lady in the pilot’s seat of a jet plane capture the zeitgeist of the era, and the essence of female rebellion and autonomy.
Raised by middle class German Jewish parents, Yva enjoyed the privileges of a liberal education and the freedom to choose her own career. In 1925 she opened a studio in Berlin with ten employees and was soon producing experimental, nude and fashion photographs for mainstream magazines and periodicals, such as Gebrauchsgraphik (a German advertising design journal established in 1923), Die Dame, Elegante Welt, and the Ullstein publication, Der Uhu.

Her photo-stories, or fotoserien, which she began contributing to Der Uhu in 1930, were directed towards the young female reader and focused on popular themes of the time such as the exploits, trials, and tribulations of young women leaving behind their lives in the provinces for the cosmopolitan excitement of Berlin. With these photo-stories Yva exhibited a technical sophistication that placed her work in a genre somewhere between photography and film. Landmark exhibitions, such as the 1929 Film and Foto in Stuttgart and the 1930 Das Lichtbild in Munich, were soon featuring her work.

Parallels have often been drawn between Yva’s experimental craft and that of contemporaneous male photographers, namely Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, both of whom worked with the photogram (a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a photo-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light) or “rayogram” as Man Ray dubbed them. Yva’s photograms were featured in magazine articles on modern photography, and have been described as an “attempt to transcend the temporal and spatial limitations of traditional photography and to characterise a personality or phenomenon from a variety of vantage points and in different moments of time”.

During the peak of her career, from 1926 to 1933, Yva worked on numerous projects for product advertising, expressing a clear preference for women’s beauty and fashion items such as cosmetics, shoes, jewellery and accessories. Despite the commercialisation of her work, Yva never compromised her unique experimental vision and distinct concept of female modernity. In her fashion work Yva rarely photographed her models looking directly at the camera. Whether her face is covered with a black lace veil or her glance is directed away from the lens, the female’s gaze almost never meets the viewer’s. The effect of this detachment and alienation enabled Yva to endow her images of women with a cool artifice or invisible mask that lent them a sense of control over the gaze of the male spectator.

Around 1936 Yva received an offer from Life magazine to go to New York, but her husband Alfred, who wasn’t prepared to leave Berlin, dissuaded his wife. “When a photographer has a unique view of the world and its people,” Newton wrote in his autobiography, “his or her work is highly paid and much sought after all over the world. Yva had that unique view, and that’s why the offer came from America.” In a tragic irony Yva’s husband’s reluctance to leave Berlin had sealed her fate. When Newton’s apprenticeship was abruptly terminated in 1938 as a result of Yva being forced by the Nazis to close her studio, she was forbidden to continue work as a photographer. By the end of the 1930s Yva was earning her living as an X-ray technician in the Jewish hospital in Berlin.

While Helmut Newton and his parents fled the country, Yva chose to remain, later perishing in the Auschwitz concentration camp. “I have always done my utmost to keep her memory alive,” Newton said. “She was a great photographer and an exciting woman.” Thirty-four boxes of photographs, equipment and personal items stored in a warehouse at Hamburg harbour indicate that Yva had plans to emigrate, plans never realised due to her eventual deportation. Confiscated by the Nazis, the majority of these boxes containing her entire photographic archive of negatives never resurfaced, having been destroyed by a bombing raid in 1943. Although seven boxes survived, it wasn’t until the mid 1990s, when the material came up for auction, that the legacy of Yva was revealed. Today Yva’s surviving vintage photographs can be found scattered throughout various personal and museum collections in Germany and America.

When Helmut Newton and his wife returned to Berlin in 1958, Yva’s studio still stood, her fashion prints hanging from the walls, their lifeless images bearing silent witness to the Weimar Germany of his youth. In 1967 the building in which Yva’s studio was housed became the Hotel Bogota. A collection of Yva’s fashion photographs can be seen displayed throughout the fourth floor where she and Helmut once worked.

Wunderkind: Chris von Wangenheim
Ironically, the year of Yva’s death coincided with the birth of another highly talented German photographer who would complete this holy trinity of fashion photography. Chris von Wangenheim would become one of the most sought after men working in his field in the 1970s, before his untimely death and before he had the chance to fully come into his own. Helmut Newton, who was well acquainted with the younger photographer, once commented that, “I met [Chris] in the bar of the Hotel Inghilterra [in Rome], and from then on we became very close friends. He recognised what other people see as a very Germanic, very Berlin, influence in my pictures. He also saw the success this had brought to me. He tried to emulate my style and was very influenced by my work, especially the sado-masochistic side.” Helmut also pointed out,

“My wife and I were very fond of him. He used to hang around with us a lot when he was in Europe. He was something of a German wunderkind and I was proud to have a small influence on his work. We spent a lot of time laughing together.” The Breslau native (now Wroclaw), whose father was a German officer captured on the Russian front and who never returned home, “became as much a victim of the Nazi regime as had Helmut,” according to Philippe Garner. The two photographers had a sense of commonality and of shared experience.

“Helmut saw in [Chris] the seeds of a genuine talent, a talent born of trauma,” says Garner. Like Newton, Von Wangenheim’s work carries traces of old Europe, but the younger artist’s photographs are rawer, more debauched. By employing low lighting and a cool, cruel and often sadistic edge to his scenarios, allusions to German Expressionist cinema are perceived. A photograph taken by an eleven year-old von Wangenheim of his mother in a leopard skin coat set against the mountains and their house – a picture he was set on getting despite his mother’s protestations – was a precursor to his later work: “From that time on I realised that getting my picture was more important to me than the discomfort of someone not understanding, or someone’s opposition to my goals.”

Through his juxtaposition of a dark world of sexuality, violence, and voyeurism with that of overly glamorised beauty, von Wangenheim skilfully combined seduction and terror in a single photographic frame. “I admired American fashion photography and identified with it more than what I saw in Germany,” von Wangenheim once said. In a 1977 article in Time magazine entitled “The Sexes: Really Socking it to Women,” the photographer, who always had an affinity for scars and tattoos – as exemplified by Gia Carangi in “Tattooed Girl” or his controversial photo for Rizzoli of a nude woman standing on her head, scar above pubic hair – commented on the ubiquity of sex and violence in fashion photography, stating that “the violence is in our culture, so why shouldn’t it be in our pictures?”

While the 1960s had been a time of portraying a certain youthfulness and freedom in fashion photography, it “wasn’t until the 70s that a strong sexual element entered this aspect of the visual culture,” says Garner. “Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Chris von Wangenheim led this progression, incorporating a powerful sexual dimension in their editorial images.” A friend of photographer Diane Arbus, von Wangenheim remarked that “photographers like Avedon, like Diane, were being lionised, romanticised. It was weird because photographers were getting into images of cruelty and the forbidden. Fashion photography would soon turn pornographic.”

In 1965 von Wangenheim emigrated to New York to hone his craft and within a few years had set up his own studio and had begun working for Harper’s Bazaar. An eight-page spread featured in the magazine in the summer of 1968 helped garner the photographer recognition within the industry: “I pulled it off but it was very nerve-racking because Bazaar was a big affair for me at the time.” By 1971 he was photographing for Italian Vogue and French Vogue, and in 1972 became Contributing Editor at American Vogue. Von Wangenheim worked on numerous advertising campaigns for top brands such as Revlon, Christian Dior and Helena Rubinstein, and contributed to magazines like Esquire, Oui, Playboy, and Interview. His ad for Dior sunglasses featuring a gun-toting fur-clad vixen stands out as one of his favourites: “Capable, authoritative women are erotic and a turn on; goddesses I definitely hate.”

One of von Wangenheim’s most iconic fashion spreads features model Gia in the February 1979 issue of Vogue. Shot in the California desert, the images capture the shadow of a helicopter that appears as a cross. “Fashion pictures are ephemeral. Some pictures have a great timelessness and draw the reader in but do not hold up as photographs. When you look at them ten years later, you’ve forgotten the fashion, and you see them more objectively.” A turning point in his career occurred with the birth of his daughter Christine: “I found that to have babies and a stable family life doesn’t exclude bonheur and eroticism. As it turned out, it deepened certain experiences…To me, the baby is perfect and pure. The older one gets, the more imprisoned one becomes.” Von Wangenheim, however, would never have to cope with the confines of age: at the peak of his success von Wangenheim’s career was cut short by a fatal automobile accident in 1981.

After his death, much of von Wangenheim’s work was lost to posterity: “Magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar, put no value in his work and discarded it,” explains Etheleen Staley of the Staley-Wise Gallery. “Photography wasn’t collected at this time. It was seen as transient and there was no such thing as hanging a picture on the wall.” When asked about his legacy, Staley – whose gallery mounted an exhibition of von Wangenheim’s work in 1994 – says, “There’s a genre of fashion photographers who were drawn to the dark side and I think Guy Bourdin was the first one. Then there was Helmut and then Chris. Today we see the legacy of these individuals in the work of Ellen von Unwerth, Terry Richardson, and Steven Klein to an extent.” Von Wangenheim’s gift to those who came after was his willingness to shatter expectations and question boundaries, setting the stage for a new kind of fashion photography embodying a shared taste for controversy and stylisation.

by Lauren Weinberg

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