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Helmut Newton: The Surprisingly Sunny L.A. Legacy of the 'Porno Chic' Photographer

George Holz's portrait of Helmut Newton
George Holz's portrait of Helmut Newton
Courtesy of the artist

Writer Eve Babitz, who knows art and Hollywood better than most, says that when hotelier Andre Balazs bought the Chateau Marmont circa 1990 and wanted to redo the rooms, he consulted Helmut Newton. Or perhaps Newton insisted on being consulted. The German photographer, known for his overtly sexual and austerely staged fashion photographs, had lived at the Chateau in winter for years, "making sure no one went too far -- or not far enough," says Babitz. Director Sofia Coppola, who set her 2010 feature Somewhere at the Chateau, saw Newton there the day he died in 2004 and thanked him for a photograph he'd recently sent her.

Hours after they saw each other, Newton would have a heart attack and crash his Cadillac right outside the hotel, against one of its walls, and some obituaries would say he died while "vacationing." But it's probably more accurate to say the still-energetic 83-year-old was in his second home. Two summer exhibitions, one at Perry Rubenstein Gallery in Hollywood and the other at Art Center in Pasadena, give a glimpse into the photographer's surprisingly warm, friendly L.A. legacy.

Though Newton loved L.A. enough to coming back year after year, working in the states annoyed him. Twelve minutes into the documentary Helmut by June, Newton is wearing a light green bathrobe and sitting at the kitchen table in Room 49 of the Chateau. It's 1992, years after his work became known as "porno-chic" and years after he took his first bondage-inspired photographs of severe models with chests or ankles wrapped in rope. His wife, June, has a camera trained on him, and Newton is talking about women while eating cake. He had a meeting earlier, with an entertainment magazine, and explains how it went. "Oh, you know, the usual bullshit," he says. "No nipples. American women have no pussy, they have no nipples. They don't smoke, they don't drink. They don't do anything.... " Here, he puts a forkful of his cake into his mouth.

"That's all right with me," he continues, sipping tea. But you can tell it's not. "It's always the same," he continues. "They'll say, 'We can show the nudes. We're going to bleep out the nipples, and we'll bleep out the sex.' They put some kind of optical thing over it. I don't know. . . it's very. . ." He searches for the right words, then, when he finds them, says with vengeance, "I think it's sick."

Helmut Newton's Parlour Games, Munich, 2002.
Helmut Newton's Parlour Games, Munich, 2002.
Courtesy of Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles. © The Estate of Helmut Newton

Just Loomis was a photography student at Art Center when he met Newton in 1979. He would assist Newton in Europe as well as here, and describes watching the photographer at work in L.A. as most interesting, precisely because the Americans always wanted to "bleep out sex."

"It was a cat and mouse game he would play with the editors," says Loomis. "He went right up to the line." Sometimes, he'd get the biggest woman he could find and pair her with a small, sleek male model. Or he'd cover up nipples in funny ways. In the current Newton exhibition at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, called "Sex and Landscapes" after a series of images Newton published the year he died, an image called Debra and Red Interior, Beverly Hills (1991) shows two women. One, nude and lounging in a chair, has her hand over her breasts. The other, lying on the floor, has the tip of her robe over one nipple and the corner of a stray newspaper barely covering the other.

Mark Arbeit's Atelier Barreault
Mark Arbeit's Atelier Barreault
Courtesy of the artist

"Sex and Landscapes" is Perry Rubenstein Gallery's L.A. debut. The gallery moved here from Chelsea, and officially opened in July. Owner Perry Rubenstein says he was hell bent on saying hello to this city with a Newton show, even though some art world regulars were surprised -- a fashion photographer and provocateur?

Rubenstein worked in fashion before working in the art world, and he knows people Newton photographed. The show is a way to call back the past while acknowledging that he's starting this next phase of his career in the heart of Hollywood, a place whose appeal Newton perfectly understood. "Helmut captures the grittiness and sexiness of Los Angeles," he says of the photographer.

The Perry Rubenstein show opened a month after the exhibition "Three Boys from Pasadena" opened at Art Center. It features work of Newton mentee Just Loomis, and Loomis' friends, Mark Arbeit and George Holz, who had met the newly notorious photographer before Loomis did, at the Beverly Hills boutique Arbeit worked at. Then they'd brought Loomis with them to camp out outside Newton's Beverly Hills Hotel room (Newton had yet to discover the Chateau), hoping to show him their photographs. They stayed long enough that Newton let them in, and would again and again. June Newton curated "Three Boys," which originally debuted in Berlin. According to her, Loomis, Holz and Arbeit are the only Newton apprentices who really made it as photographers in their own right.

Just Loomis' photograph Julie and Deborah
Just Loomis' photograph Julie and Deborah
Courtesy of the artist

Their work isn't necessarily much like Newton's. "Some of what I do is a reaction," says Loomis, whose photographs of in-between moments -- a show girl backstage, a child dressed as spider-man and playing in sunlight, a boy with head in his hands -- aren't staged at all, unlike Newton's often tightly posed work. Mark Arbeit's photographs of nude models in artist's studios, comprehensive images in which a body's curves resonate with organic curves in the paintings or objects that fill the background, sometimes feel more aligned with the romantic Henri Cartier Bresson than Newton. George Holz's images of nude women outdoors in the landscape, leaning up against an airstream trailer or holding a pitchfork that casts a shadow across her chest, also have a softer, contemplative feel.

But the show mainly pays tribute to Newton by suggesting how much the photographer, who's easy to write-off as an egotist (especially since he described himself as one), cared about his community, here in L.A. and elsewhere. There are cases of memorabilia, notes Newton wrote to Arbeit, Holz and Loomis and photographs of them up together up until the '00s. Holz remembers how Newton showed up at the opening for one of his first exhibitions, and Arbeit remembers how, after he'd spent a day in awe, watching Newton shoot a group of models under the California sun, Newton came over to him as if they were peers. "What I do, it's not so different from what you do," Newton said.

Helmut Newton's Miss Longwell, Sherman Oaks, California (1992)
Helmut Newton's Miss Longwell, Sherman Oaks, California (1992)
Courtesy Perry Rubenstein Gallery

Loomis suggests that while the photographer certainly appreciated Hollywood glamor, it was a certain kind of community that kept Newton and June coming back to the Chateau. "The [hotel] had a pull for them," he says. "They were low-key, a little Bohemian."

If you see "Sex and Landscapes" at Perry Rubenstein Gallery after seeing "Three Boys from Pasadena," you'll likely notice more of that Bohemian, communal spirit than you would have otherwise. The images taken in SoCal will seem a bit like a game Newton and his subjects are playing together, having fun with the lore of this city. One of the most memorable photographs in the exhibition features model Renata Pompelli standing like an Amazon woman surrounded by brush in the Pacific Palisades, with the coast behind her -- but she's wearing sunglasses, something an Amazon women wouldn't do, so it feels like you're behind the scenes in a movie, and the star has come out of character and turned to pose teasingly for a friend.

"Three Boys from Pasadena" continues through August 26, with a closing party at Art Center at 7 p.m. tonight, August 23. All three artists are represented by Fahey Klein Gallery in L.A. and a catalog accompanies the show.

"Sex and Landscapes" at Perry Rubenstein Gallery continues through September 6.

Follow me on Twitter at @cgwagley, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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