Breaking Taboos With the Master of Fashion Photography, Helmut Newton

Photo: Catherine Deneuve, Esquire, Paris 1976 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography.

“In my vocabulary, there are two bad words: art and good taste,” German-Australian fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1920–2004) observed. He believed, “ Some people’s photography is an art. Not mine. Art is a dirty word in photography. All this fine art crap is killing it already.”

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With this freedom from the restrictions of art and good taste, Newton charted his own course, one that redefined the genre of fashion photography itself. Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, he purchased his first camera at the age of 12 and began working at the age of 16. But as the Nazis rose in power and enforced the Nuremberg laws, Newton’s family came under fire. His father lost control of the factory he ran and, following Kristallnacht, was briefly interned in a concentration camp, before the finally family fled the country that same year.

Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Rue Aubriot, Paris 1975 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography.

Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Rue Aubriot, Paris 1975 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography.

Newton revealed the influence of these formative years on his aesthetic to American Photo in 2000, stating, “…growing up, I was surrounded by Nazi imagery, like everybody in Germany, and for a boy obsessed with photography it left an indelible impression on me. Later this influence was tempered by Brassai and Dr. Erich Salomon. My love of photography at night started with m early experience of [shooting in] the Berlin underground [subway] stations. Even today I love photographing by the light of street lamps or in the glare of my flash.”

After leaving Germany, Newton worked for two years in Singapore before moving to Australia in 1940. In 1948, he married June Browne, who would become his art director; together they shared six decades of success as Newton’s career rose to worldwide prominence, redefining the representation of women to a complex elixir of beauty, power, and sexuality.

In celebration of his iconoclastic career, Foam, Amsterdam, presents Helmut Newton – A Retrospective, on view now through September 4, 2016. Featuring more than 200 photographs that date back to the earliest prints and extend through monumental images made at the height of his career, the exhibition also includes a film screening of Helmut by June. Organized in close collaboration with the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, the majority of the exhibition is composed of vintage prints from their collection.

X-Ray, Van Cleef & Arpels, French Vogue, 1994 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography

X-Ray, Van Cleef & Arpels, French Vogue, 1994 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography

Newton’s work reflects the course of the second half of the twentieth century, as modernism gave way to a postmodern sensibility. In this period of liberation, women rose forth as independent agents in control of their individual fates. This sense of self-determination manifests in Newton’s photographs of women, whether clothed or nude. At a certain point, it became evident that one of the primary sources of a woman’s power is in her ability to stand her ground.

There is a sense of raw strength combined with tender sensitivity that makes Newton’s photographs so groundbreaking yet timeless. After crashing through the boundaries, today they are ideals for photographers, models, designers, and art directors alike. Perhaps it is because Newton rejected the need to elevate his aesthetic to something more than the fashion photograph, for as he observed, “Look, I’m not an intellectual – I just take pictures.”

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.