Helmut Newton, Paris, 1977
“I’m attracted to bad taste,” says Newton, quoted on the wall of his Grand Palais retrospective, “It’s much more exciting than the clichés parading as good taste.”
There is a fine line between good and bad taste in Newton’s photographs: Bulgari jewels dripping from the wrist of a model while she breaks the leg off a greasy roast chicken, an immaculately made up Jerry Hall holding a raw steak against one eye, a model on a bed saddled up like a horse and a variety of masochistic-looking props (one series from 1977 has models posing in a (sexy?) back brace or with crutches or a bionic hand).
Newton has been accused of misogyny in the past. While it could be argued that the women in his photographs are objectified, they are treated like magnificent objects, and along with everything else in his compositions are carefully staged and dramatically lit. They are an impressive presence in a thoroughly recherché setting. In the “Big Nudes” series, inspired by German terrorist identity shots, his models dominate the space, they are strong and monumental, like modern day Venuses.
In the documentary Helmut by June (also on show, although hard to get in as the auditorium is a little poky) made by June Newton, Helmut’s wife of 56 years and co-curator of the show, Newton gives his verdict on what he calls “shrinking violet women”, “they give me the creeps” he says. The film, which follows Newton at work in LA, Miami and Monte Carlo, sheds some light on his working practice and Newton, the man. He is not a sleaze bag (or a “monster” as June has heard him called) but comes across as professional, rigorous (even strict with his models) and not without humour. He uses the models as a sculptor uses his raw materials or directs them as a film director would an actor. The results are sexy and risqué (he was dubbed “King of Kink” by Time magazine) but the process is professional and his women appear liberated rather than exploited.
Helmut Newton is on at the Grand Palais, Southeast Gallery until 17/06/12