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A Helmut Newton Exhibit Shows His Photos of Sexy Women Were More Empowering Than Titillating (NSFW)

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Mon, Aug 12, 2013 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Rue-Aubriot-Paris, by Helmut Newton, at the Annenberg Space for Photography - ©ESTATE OF HELMUT NEWTON.
  • ©Estate of Helmut Newton.
  • Rue-Aubriot-Paris, by Helmut Newton, at the Annenberg Space for Photography

The notorious photographer Helmut Newton died almost ten years ago, crashing his car into a wall at Chateau Marmont while suffering a fatal heart attack in early 2004.

Time and a decade's worth of provocative images, many based on his work, may have taken some of the edge off Newton's photographs. Yet this may also mean it's time to reevaluate Newton, variously called a fashion photographer, a star photographer, an artist, exploitative, an erotic creator, "naughty" and, always, a provocateur.

A new show, "Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes" at The Annenberg Space For Photography in Century City lets you make up your own mind.

click to enlarge Saddle, by Helmut Newton - ©ESTATE OF HELMUT NEWTON
  • ©Estate of Helmut Newton
  • Saddle, by Helmut Newton

While some dismiss Newton's work as just shock and "kink," the models quoted in the show disagree, saying that "he loved women."

click to enlarge Villa dEste, by Helmut Newton - © ESTATE OF HELMUT NEWTON.
  • © Estate of Helmut Newton.
  • Villa dEste, by Helmut Newton
Newton's fame came from his arresting female images, particularly fashion spreads for prestigious publications like British and French Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Some would say he revolutionized the business of selling clothes in general and couture in particular by bringing voyeuristic and even fetishist elements to fashion photography. The exhibit features large prints of strong women in various poses, including paired shots of a group of supermodels on the steps in couture and in the same pose, sans culottes.

click to enlarge Here They Come by Helmut Newton - ©ESTATE OF HELMUT NEWTON
  • ©Estate of Helmut Newton
  • Here They Come by Helmut Newton

Yet the women shown in this exhibit, as their comments in the accompanying videos reveal, did not feel objectified, but rather celebrated as dominant, attractive female (role) models. Indeed, many of the images in the show, from three collections of images -- White Women, Sleepless Nights and Big Nudes -- are of glamazons confronting the camera fearlessly. As my art-going partner noted, she liked the images because they celebrated the female body and mystique, showing women as strong and forthright, rather than objectifying them as cheesecake.

Newton's back story is almost as fascinating as the images he created. Born Helmut Neustädter in Berlin, he bought his first camera at 12 and apprenticed with famed fashion photographer Yva, later murdered by the Nazis. Hoping to avoid such a fate, Neustadter's parent took the family to South America. Young Helmut chose to go to Singapore, where the British interned him as an enemy alien and sent him to Australia. He joined the Australian Army and changed his name to Newton. After the war, he married Australian actress June Browne, who became his lifelong collaborator. He worked as a fashion and theater photographer in Melbourne until 1957, when his growing fame won him a contract with British Vogue. He later lived and worked in Paris, Monte Carlo and Los Angeles.

click to enlarge Helmut Newton Self Portrait - ©ESTATE OF HELMUT NEWTON
  • ©Estate of Helmut Newton
  • Helmut Newton Self Portrait

The videos accompanying the exhibition are well worth watching, both for a look at Newton's pixieish charm and working process, and for the comments by participants. Wife June Browne, models like Daryl Hannah, Carla Bruni and Cindy Crawford, and photographers influenced by Newton all appear. Particularly memorable is the creepy appearance of famed Hollywood producer Robert Evans, 83, a long-time Newton friend. The seven-times-married Evans crows with unseemly glee about how his ability to introduce young models to the great Helmut Newton "worked every time."

The show, which runs through September 8, is free. Annenberg Space for Photography is at 2000 Avenue of the Stars in Century City. More info at annenbergspaceforphotography.org/. Self-parking in the underground garage is $3.50 for three hours with validation Wednesday through Friday before 4:30pm. After 4:30 p.m. and all day on Saturday and Sunday parking is $1 with validation.


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