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.
What is your relationship to your models?
My relationship is one of only work. I’ve got a theory: I think if I know those girls too well, all the mystery disappears. I make them look different than what they are in life. For instance, I worked with a Swedish model during the ’70s an awful lot. We have never I think said anything more to each other over several years and in the most intimate nudes than, “Hello, how are you? It’s cold, isn’t it?” I don’t want to know, but I did find out at one stage that all she wanted was to have a pretty little house in Sweden with lace curtains and pillows, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, a Volvo car and a lot of kids. That’s very nice but I don’t want to know that’s what she wants. I want to think that she’s some kind of wild, incredible person.
Why must your women be erotic, mysterious?
I don’t like things that are spelled out. That’s what I like — in the photographs, you’re up in the air. Movie people are concerned with logic. I’m a photographer; I work with one image. There’s absolutely no logic. I go from one image to another. It’s a moment, suspended. We have no continuity. I photographed Sigourney Weaver on the Warner Bros. lot in front of a cardboard tank or something and she fell apart. She said, “Helmut, what am I doing here?” I said, “I don’t know — I like the light, I like the background.” She said, “But what am I supposed to be doing?” I said, “Don’t worry — it’s only a fashion picture. We’re not doing Gone With the Wind.”
But what is it with you and women? Are you fascinated by them?
Oh yes, yes.
Don’t you find this embarrassing?
Never. Whenever my wife and I go to dinner, I stare — I always stare. And she says, “Stop it, Helmut! You’ll embarrass this person.” But I don’t give a shit. That’s my job. All I’m interested in is to look at people. I love sitting in a cafe — or wherever I am — watching the people go by, watching everything.
The quintessential Helmut Newton model seems to be both worldly wise and sexually available.
I don’t know if any of these women that I photograph are available. If I were to worry about that then one would never take another picture. I don’t live the life of the kind of pictures I take. I like going early to bed, to look at television and get up early.
But could one say that your favorite type of model — worldly wise and available — would be a sophisticated animal? Would that be unfair?
That’s not bad; that would be fair. She may not be a sophisticated animal — I make her look like that. What she is, I don’t know. Most of those young ladies I know are not that bright. I wouldn’t like to go out and have dinner with them. I wouldn’t know what to say to them.
Don’t men interest you — as subjects?
Well, David Bowie was like photographing a most beautiful woman. His face is androgynous and it pleases a man as much as it pleases a woman. I’d be happier photographing David Bowie than some dumb model, thank you very much. The most beautiful girl wouldn’t be as fascinating.
Do you find unintelligent women unattractive?
I wouldn’t like to go with a dumb woman to dinner. That would be silly. But a lot of the women I photograph are pretty dumb.
No doubt. But that just gives credence to the notion that you create a negative image of women in some of your photographs.
The pornographic ones.
But I don’t do any pornography! Have you ever seen any pornography by me? None has ever been published.
But when you put a saddle on a woman —
That’s not pornography! Not pornography!
But it is humiliating, don’t you think?
Well, I will admit that that image, as much as I love it — it’s not a picture that pleases feminists. I thought the idea at the time was funny and it’s gone all over the world, that picture. I’m not in any way ashamed of it. But some of those women’s liberation followers might feel very offended by it. It wasn’t meant to be that, you know. It’s only a photograph — one mustn’t take it too seriously. My pictures should not be taken seriously.
Don’t you take them seriously?
No, no, I certainly don’t take myself seriously. I love taking pictures and I take my work very seriously. But if somebody says, “I hate your pictures” (which a lot of people do), I say, “Well, all right, that’s fair enough.” Not everyone can like them. You put your things up to the public, you must expect criticism. Thank God there are a lot of people who like it.
Are you a moralist as well as a hedonist?
I show certain things. Every picture I take that I arrange has a basis of reality. I show how women of the upper classes live. I put them in situations — I think I’m good at that. I think I’m good at depicting the world of that kind of woman, which I refer to as a tribe. You know, war paint; the tribe has the same war paint whether the tribe lives in L.A. or in Paris.
You’re talking about the upper classes?
The bourgeoisie. You’ve seen Buñuel’s Belle de Jour? It depicts a certain class of Paris woman. It’s highly erotic. It shows a certain class, and it is correct. I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand on end.
I would guess that voyeurism is a concept you’re not unfamiliar with?
You guess right, I live with binoculars. And I don’t think you have to be very kinky to do that. I think we all like watching, unless you’re very dumb and have no imagination. Only an idiot or boor wouldn’t be fascinated by what goes on around him.
Of course there are many people who aren’t curious.
Yah, well, I’m not interested in them. Most people have no imagination. That’s why most people work in a bloody bank or insurance company or sell shoes. I would never have worked in a bank — I would have died. I’ve been a truck driver, a fruit picker, and I worked on the railroads, loading and unloading. That’s OK. It wasn’t all that amusing, but it didn’t worry me; that’s not slavery. Slavery for me would be to work for a boss, to rely on the idea that I will please this boss by what I do or say or else get thrown out and have no work. That is truly terrible. Many times when I truly didn’t have any resources, I burned my bridges because they were going to conform me. They wanted to and I said, “Fuck you.” I’d prefer to have no money and do what I want. I don’t mean I want to be without money, but freedom and independence are for me the most important things. See my box of cameras — that’s all I need.