Here, first, we must take a moment to discuss how much I appreciated the current lady photographers exhibit at MOMA, which I had the pleasure of attending the opening party for with the ever-lovely Caitlin Mae Burke and other wondrous folks a few weekends ago (what’s with me taking forever to blog?), which despite the somewhat lackluster performance by the Raincoats and some mishaps involving an unfortunately early termination of the free libations, was INDEED still a lovely evening. And thus we must nod our heads solemnly at the ever-excellent canon of Total Fucking Geniuses With Both Ladyparts And Cameras, including but not limited to Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman who I roll my eyes at more than I ought to but like OVERKILL PEOPLE PLEASE, Nan Goldin who I eternalove always and forever (cliche 4 lyfe) and more recently, Rineke Dijkstra and Alex Prager, both of whom you should probs be aware if you are not already.
But after that, on to the rest: I’ll admit it, I get crap for the fact that I adore Helmut Newton like it’s my goddamn job. Meagan at Latterstyle’s posted about this recently too - it’s an easy obsession to feel conflicted about. And so I’ll neurotically and wordily disclaim it first at totally unecessary great length, LIKE I DO FOR EVERYTHING ELSE I LIKE THAT IS POTENTIALLY EVEN THE TINIEST BIT CONTESTABLE. “How can you like his work? He’s a misogynist,” people say, “a pervert. He was like Terry Richardson before Terry was Terry. It’s not as if fetishizing athletically-built overconfident sneering adult women in bondage is any less degrading than fetishizing underfed dead-eyed sixteen year olds with terrified grimaces on their beestung parted lips. For fuck’s sake, Time magazine condemned him as an antifeminist pervert in 19-effing-77. Have you read his biography? He was a self-obsessed prick who looked at women as if they were plants. Also, seriously, what are you, a freshman year photography student?” YES, OKAY. I KNOW. YES. I AGREE. YES. However:
Arguably, Newton’s most obvious photographs are, of course, the two shots of YSL’s 1975 “Le Smoking” suit, which arguably both defined YSL’s look and image, set a hell of a lot of probably debatable (but aesthetically pleasing?) precedents involving menswear-for-women/’androgyny’/holy-shit-lesbos in fashion photography, and spawned countless homage, imitations, and references over the next three decades. Tthe images status as iconic are indisputable (though obviously establishing an image’s artistic value or status as iconic does not, of course, grant it any moral superiority, and, really, I’m the last person to want to get into that argument.) But those YSL ads and his image of a woman contemplating a man in St Tropez (see below, also oft-imitated) are visual “household names,” among the cultural currency we encounter on postcards, textbooks, dorm room walls, and teenager’s livejournals, often unaware of their origins but always remarking that we’ve “seen that before.” This stuff is obvious, and it is obvious for a reason, and I am never tired of it. I’ve been disclaiming it for two paragraphs but, seriously kids. Paper my fucking walls in Helmut Newton. I WILL LOVE IT.
Beyond the iconic, though: Newton’s fashion photographs and portraits always portray the same sort of woman we see in those famous images: languid, haughty, muscled, always with a piercing glare, either expectant, proud of themselves, slyly amused, or bored-to-tears. Their legs are spread or their shirts half-off but they always seem both aware of and pleased with this. They do not drown, waifish, naked, and pale, in ponds as modern day Ophelias, or suffer, fragile and contorted with apparently dislocated shoulderblades, at the boots of soldiers. They do not have spaghetti shoved into their mouths or milk dripping down their chests as some pervert in a plaid shirt and aviators jerks off on them with a point and shoot camera.
Newton’s women unfailingly look back, if not always at the camera, at someone or something in the room. They have attitude aplenty, and even in bondage or depicted as somehow medically maimed or on crutches, they look back. Newton’s women have a gaze, if you will, which, for me at least, has lent his photographs a depth (dare we say “personality?”) absent from so many others. In other words, YES PLEASE. Or in classier terms: if Newton objectified women he did it in a way that I am kind of totally down with.
But back to the second half of what precisely it is which always gets me about Helmut Newton. It’s also probably his journalistic background (or just a voyeuristic eye?) in his fashion photography, coupled with his outspoken disdain for studio portraits, dislike for the limits of the studio, and love for the texture of location and natural light, all of which surface repeatedly in his interviews. I covet studio equipment as much as anyone else, but also I’ve got this terrible problem where unless the white-backdrop-nicely-lit photo involves a sad Marilyn Monroe or a drunk bleary eyed Chan Marshall, un-bikini-waxed and falling out of her clothes and smoking a cigarette that’s mostly ash between the paper roll and the monolight softbox and umbrellas, I kind of tend to forget it. Also all that (if we did not catch it) requires “being Richard Avedon” to accomplish anyhow, so basically, NO DICE, I am down with Helmut and his parlors, alleys, and rooftops.
(Also, please, this all is kind of endearing, as was his undying devotion to his wife June/Alice Springs.)