Scholars' Association News
Issue 25
February 2013


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HELMUT NEWTON: The exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Centre
by Io Paschou

Helmut Neustädter (Newton), the child of an urban family from the Schöneberg area, was born in Berlin on 31 October 1920. At the age of twelve he used his pocket-money to buy his first camera, a Box Tengor Agfa. He immediately used his first film on the subway (eight stops, 6x9 cm.). Just one negative was ultimately worth printing and it showed the Berlin Radio tower, the Funkturm. It was in one sense his first photograph, "influenced by the painter Moholy Nagy" as he was later to say.

Thanks to acquaintances of his mother’s, he trained alongside the famous photographer Yva (the artistic pseudonym of Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon), who in Newton’s words, "mainly did fashion shoots and portraits of dancers and actors". During his training, he was initiated into the portrait, the nude and fashion photography. He had at his disposal the studio when it was closed, so he could practise freely: "I took photos of my friends wearing clothes and hats belonging to my mother, who kept up to date with all the fashion magazines. Already quite proficient with the camera, I tried to imitate the style of the photographs I found, and my ambition was to work as a photographer for Vogue".

In November 1938, when the pogroms of "Kristallnacht" began, Helmut fled from the family apartment and went into hiding for two weeks. Wandering alone through the streets, he tried to escape the raids against the Jews. When things calmed down, his mother with the help of secret contacts, managed to find him a passport. Helmut left Germany on 5 December by train for Trieste. He was never to see his father again. "I took with me whatever I could. I had a few cameras, most importantly a Rolleicord and a Kodak, and I hoped they would help me make my living".

Helmut was soon hired as a photographer for the society column in the Singapore Straits Times. In Singapore, the brothels were as blatant as they were in Berlin. "Prostitution was big business that took place outdoors. From the day my brother showed me Erna La Rouge, the idea that we could buy love fascinated me. I adored bordellos".

However, due to a problem with his residence permit, Helmut left Singapore in 1940, looking forward to a new beginning in Australia. At the end of the war, Helmut Neustädter was granted Australian citizenship. He took this opportunity to change his surname to Newton, as he believed it was the best rendering of his name. He opened a small photo studio, taking portraits and wedding pictures. It was there in 1947 that he met the actress June Brunell who posed for him. They were married on 13 May 1948 and were never separated until Newton’s death.

Ten years later, he and his wife moved to the Boissy d’Anglas hotel. Helmut tried to find work at one of the famous French magazines. After several failed attempts, mainly with Elle, he finally managed to find work with the magazine Jardin des modes. Helmut believed that the French taught him fashion - "with the way they dress and the way they live".

During the 1960s, Helmut was hired full-time by the French Vogue. Occasionally his photographs were published in the English edition of the magazine too. "That’s how it all started for me. I found myself working for the French Vogue and my career took off. For twenty-three years I gave the magazine my very best. [...] From then on no-one could sidetrack me, I knew exactly the style of the photographs I wanted to take. [...] One had to envisage something quite sexy."

The now-famous Newton sailed for New York in 1971 to take a series of photos for the American Vogue, continuing what he had already been doing in France for nine years. "My photos for the French edition were taboo in America." Exhausted by the gruelling pace of life in New York, he got little sleep and smoked too much; so much that he had a heart attack during a photo shoot in Central Park.

In 1976, Helmut Newton’s first book, White Woman, was released, causing a scandal. This provoked the first use of the phrase "porno chic". In 1981, the Newtons left Paris for Monte Carlo, "there where the sun shines and we are protected from taxes". They spent every winter until Newton’s death in Los Angeles. During the same period the photographer exhibited the "Grands Nus" series in the Templon Art Gallery in Paris. This collection began in 1980, inspired by identification card photos.

One year before the photographer’s eightieth birthday, the huge album Sumo was released by Taschen publications. This unique project was hailed by the Press as "the largest, heaviest and most expensive book of photography". It weighed thirty kilos, measured 50x70cm and had four hundred and eighty pages. The album was placed on a bookstand specially designed by Philippe Starck. The idea was thought up exclusively by June, who played an important part in selecting the four hundred photographs. Each copy is signed by Newton himself.

On 23 January 2004, victim of a heart attack, Newton lost control of the Cadillac he was driving at the exit of the hotel Chateau Marmont in Hollywood: he died at the age of eighty-three. The Newton Foundation was officially opened in Berlin in June of the same year. His tomb is located in Schöneberg, Berlin, the neighbourhood where he spent his childhood, very close to the grave of Marlene Dietrich.

A few words about the exhibition…
On 12 November 2012 the retrospective exhibition by Helmut Newton (1920-2004) was launched at the Onassis Cultural Centre. The exhibition presents the major themes in his work, fashion, advertising photography, nudes, portraits, sex.

Within a "world" of black and white and coloured pictures, the viewer can discover the beauty, the sensuality of the male gaze upon the female, yet at the same time can go ‘behind the scenes’ into our most secret feelings and understand the contradictions in photographic art itself: in the age of the digital picture, that aims at eliminating error and each imperfection that eradicates the random, in the age of Photoshop and the boundaries between what seems and what is, Newton appears both modern and classical at the same time – perhaps even carefully bold.

Let us not forget though that Roland Barthes likens the possible interpretations an image allows with a floating chain: "The photograph as a transformation of the real takes an opposing position. The photographic image does not mirror reality, but is a means of analyzing, interpreting and ultimately transforming visible reality, at the same level as language and equally codified."

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