Happy birthday Helmut!

By Christopher Osborne,

Silvergrain Classics – the analogue photography magazine.

Iconic photographer Helmut Newton was born on 31 October 1920

Today is a special day in photography. Is the birthday of the late Helmut Newton. Were he alive today, he would be one hundred years old.

Newton’s style stands out as one of the most recognisable of the twentieth century. He is remembered for his high contrast B&W images which combine sexuality and style, and a thoughtfully considered play towards surrealism expressed through fetishism.

Expect to embrace a plethora of celebratory events. The Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin opens its “Helmut Newton 100” exhibition today. A new documentary movie “Helmut Newton: The Bad And The Beautiful” was released in August. You can find the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zArKTAutyo. Hamiltons Gallery in London is also exhibiting Newton’s work.

American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour says “‘That’s a Helmut Newton photograph,’ and there aren’t that many photographers of which you can say that”.

“Helmut had lived through the Nazi burning of books in his native Berlin in May 1933 and its terrible aftermath, and he became a determined though not overtly political champion of the principles of freedom of expression and a free press”, commented Philippe Garner.

The nude was a central figure in Newton’s imagery. Yet, unlike the work of many others, women were always portrayed as being the centre of power in each scene. Newton was also the master of the prop. Cigarettes were suggestive objects, men were mere playthings, and if worn fashion garments somehow seemed optional. There was always an undertone in his fashion imagery that suggested that women don’t need expensive clothes, which is of course ironic given the amount of work he made for Vogue.

It is hard to imaging many photographers being able to pull off a fashion shoot in which the model is butchering a chicken while dressed to the nines and but Newton could.

The text on Hamiltons Gallery could not put it better “Newton challenged society’s perception of female desire, portraying powerful women commanding their environment. He viewed the protagonists in his pictures as triumphant and liberated, the nude female body a symbol of a woman’s strength and control. With the encouragement of his wife, June, Newton pursued themes of voyeurism, lesbianism and fetishism in his work, at a time of gender and sexual liberation”.

His work still challenges convention and our moral sense of what is right and what is wrong today. Yet in this period where society is re-examining what is right and what is wrong with movements like “me too” and “BAME”, there is an argument to suggest that Newton’s work is a valuable mirror to society.

In a Vogue UK article, model Nadja Auermann is reported as saying “We can say that this is sexist or misogynistic, but we can also say that he holds up a mirror to society: and basically shows [that] you want your wife to run around in a short skirt and basically treat her like a Barbie.”

There is no doubt that images shot for Vogue magazine in the 1950s and 1960s would undoubtedly be censored by the bots of Facebook and Instagram today. And while some of the West is prepared to accept his work, there are still many parts of the world which struggles with his views on visual morality. Perhaps the world still isn’t ready for Helmut Newton?

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