By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery
Photographer Helmut Newton died January 23 after suffering a heart attack while driving his car from the Chateau Marmont, his regular winter home for many years. He was 83. The following is an edited interview that appeared in the Los Angeles Reader in 1985.
. . . Look at the girls, Bob . . . beautiful, and again, and again, wonderful . . . Come on, Letitia . . . stay like that . . . yah, yah, that’s it . . . Frown a bit, Letitia . . . good, like that . . . perfect, perfect . . . Stay, stay like that . . . wonderful . . . wonderful . . . Come a little bit more this way, Marina . . . yah, stay, stay . . . That’s good, that’s good, that’s good . . . marvelous, marvelous . . .
That Helmut Newton has taken up winter residence at the Chateau Marmont should have been evident to anyone who passed along Sunset Boulevard in front of the Chateau recently, where the 65-year-old photographer had set up a fashion shoot for the German magazine Stern. Huge billboards line that part of the boulevard — to the east Starman and Mrs. Soffel, to the west a Marlboro Man the size of King Kong. And, should anyone forget what city this is, they need only look directly across Sunset. For there, like some absurd mockery of the hero statuary found in every other major city in the world, stands a giant purple and orange Bullwinkle the Moose.
Into this quaint setting Newton puts his strange cast of characters: An LAPD motorcycle and patrol car have pulled to the curb just west of Marmont Lane where two ultrachic, sultry hookers lean pouting against a lamppost. One policeman stands between his car and the women, looking but not touching; the other sits poker-faced on his Kawasaki. It is a moment frozen in time; no words are exchanged. The officers, Bob and Fred, are real cops hired for the occasion but they look right out of Central Casting. Bob is a pipe-smoking charmer with hairy Popeye arms. Fred, a portly motorcycle cop with deep-set eyes and a thick red mustache, looks as though he must have to grease his head every morning just to get his helmet on.
The women, on the other hand, are exquisite: exceedingly tall, elegant, beautiful. The slighter of the two, Marina, her black hair in a Louise Brooks bob, wears a red leather minidress and gloves, black nylons, and gold jewelry by Chanel. A big woman in a black Norma Kamali halter top and a long, tight blue-and-green skirt featuring flesh-exposing holes, Letitia attracts most of Newton’s attention. Both models wear heels from Fredericks of Hollywood. The Germans will love it.
Newton and I spoke in the Chateau Marmont suite he occupies with his wife, June (a.k.a. photographer Alice Springs), following a long photo session for Vanity Fair with actress Michelle Pfeiffer and renowned Hollywood photographer George Hurrell.
Your Los Angeles photos are different — much less elegant and mysterious than your European photographs.
Well, I’ll tell you what: When I like a place, I use what’s there. For instance, London I don’t like. I’ve never been capable of doing a decent picture in London. People live at home there. Here, and in Paris and Berlin and on the Cote d’Azur, they live outside. You can observe them on the streets, on the beaches, in cafe terraces, and all that. I think in a way I’m a chronicler of a certain kind of society. Although it’s made up; they’re not factual photographs.
Why isn’t the factual good enough for you?
It’s not that it’s not good enough — I have no talent as a reporter. When I was very young I lived in Singapore and had no money — I mean I was starving. I got a job at the Singapore Straights Times, the biggest newspaper there. This was in ’38 or ’39. I was thrown out within two weeks because by the time I got my camera ready, the event had passed. I’m no good at that. I have to quote my wife, June, who always says, “If a guy falls dead on the street in front of Helmut, he wouldn’t photograph it because he didn’t arrange it.”
I find your portraits much more interesting than your fashion photos. Why don’t you do more?
I’m doing them all the time! That was a big surprise in France, too. Nobody had seen my portraits. That’s why the show [a portrait retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris] became such a success. Because all of a sudden, Newton — who’s this guy who photographs these women with chains and whips and boots and stockings and this and that, this decadent person — comes out with people that look like people. Nobody’s ever connected me with that kind of work, but I’ve been doing it for a long time.
Where would you place your work among that of your contemporaries?
It’s not up to me, it really isn’t. I find most photographers [to be] the most pretentious, boring people in the world. All this shit art talk really gives me the shits. People say, “Well, you have your photographs in a museum and you’re very pleased about it.” Of course I’m pleased, but the thing is, the photographs were never made to go into a museum. Those photographs are made to be printed, to be sold, to be used. If they find their way to gallery or museum walls, it’s very nice. But I don’t go out like many — what’s laughingly referred to as — fine art photographers (I still don’t know what the hell that is) to hang my pictures on a museum wall to be sold. Mine are there to be sold to the highest bidder. But even when I’m paid — and I always am — it’s a personal photograph.