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Helmut Newton’s work isn’t misogynistic – it’s the kind of sexy, risk-taking art we need

In an era when all provocative art is treated like a crime-scene, the late photographer’s work is a thrilling, sensual tonic

 Crocodile, Wuppertal (1983) by Helmut Newton
Crocodile, Wuppertal (1983) by Helmut Newton Credit: Helmut Newton Foundation

Female friends are often surprised when I say I admire the work of Helmut Newton. “But he objectified women!” a younger colleague scolded me a couple of years ago. I knew the sort of photos she’d have in mind: pneumatic Bunny Girls, a model on all fours on a hotel bed with a Hermes saddle on her back, and a taxidermied crocodile with the buttocks and long legs of a woman protruding from its jaws.

Plenty of feminists loathed the work of the late photographer, who would have turned 100 at the weekend, and who’s celebrated in a new documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful. For instance, the film shows a clip from a French TV show in the 1970s, where Susan Sontag jousts with Newton over his work. The photographer protests, “I love women!” and Sontag replies, “A lot of misogynistic men say that. I am not impressed.” 

My colleague would have agreed. Still, I told her that I see many things when I look at a Newton photograph, but certainly not a passive object. Even the saddled woman – an infamous photo from 1976 – gazes from the frame with humorous malevolence, as if taunting the viewer with knowledge of their own tawdry fantasies. Newton’s women have an uber-vamp quality that emits strength, not vulnerability. 

Newton died in 2004 aged 83, after crashing his car into a wall opposite his beloved Chateau Marmont hotel. The film’s director, Gero von Boehm, who befriended the photographer and shot footage with his permission, opted to make all his key interviewees women who had sat for his subject, including Isabella Rossellini, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling and Newton’s formidable wife June (whose alter ego is the celebrated photographer Alice Springs).

Newton fled Nazi Germany in 1938 at the age of 18. But he had begun to nurture an interest in photography when, two years prior, he worked as an assistant to the innovative Berlin photographer Yva (Else Ernestine Neuländer) – who was later murdered in the Majdanek concentration camp. He was also unabashedly inspired by the work of Nazi sympathiser Leni Riefenstahl, who he photographed in her nineties, every facial line exposed. It’s easy to see how Riefenstahl’s monochrome, sculptural Olympians feed into the towering, cold beauty of Newton’s models. 

Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren, Los Angeles (1985) by Helmut Newton Credit: Helmut Newton Foundation

It’s easy to feel as if Newton sprang from the womb fully-formed shooting naked women, but we learn from the film that his first nude portrait was Charlotte Rampling in 1974, when he was in his fifties. It was also the first time the actress felt comfortable enough to disrobe. Rampling says the experience gave her “huge power” and the autonomy to “do what I want.” She had just starred in The Night Porter, and it seems likely the film’s exploration of perverse power dynamics (a former SS officer rekindles an affair with a Jewish woman he first encountered in a concentration camp) would have appealed to Newton.

The key thing to remember is that Newton was never interested in approval for any of his choices. He’s shown in the documentary naming the two concepts he detests: “art” and “good taste”. Anna Wintour explains how Newton wrote to her after finishing a controversial shoot for Vogue, begging to be informed about any complaining letters. He told the editor, “As Kaiser Wilhelm II said in 1914, ‘More enemies, more honour.’”

He wanted to scandalise – and scandalise he did. Sometimes to the good, as in the notorious portrait of Jean-Marie Le Pen with his Dobermans, which calculatedly referenced the famous portrait of Hitler with his German Shepherds. Le Pen had no idea that he’d been skewered until the photo appeared. More divisively, there was a notorious fashion shoot involving a wheelchair, crutches and callipers that many felt mocked disability. 

In another image, Newton used the splayed, lewd carcass of a chicken to offset manicured models’ hands wearing Bulgari jewels. (Bulgari threatened to withdraw their advertising.) And widespread outrage was caused after his photo of a naked Grace Jones with chains round her ankles appeared on the front cover of Stern – though Jones says in the film it didn’t occur to her at the time there were connotations of slavery, explaining she’d tied up “big white guys” in the past. 

A new outdoor exhibition, Helmut Newton One Hundred, has just opened in Berlin Credit: Shutterstock

What’s clear from the film – and everything I’ve ever heard about Newton – is that the photographer’s exploration of the push and pull of desire never extended beyond the frame. His models talk of feeling safe, strong and protected and there’s been no hint of #MeToo style impropriety. Newton clearly enjoyed a Puckish and mutually respectful relationship with his favourite models. Jones says, laughing, “He was a little bit [of a] pervert, but so am I – so it’s OK.”

The post-Newton landscape can’t help but feel bland by comparison. The German's provocations felt genuine, unlike his many imitators. He had something real to say about scary Teutonic beauties, power and cultural excess. You were always aware of the dark psycho-sexual vision arising from his Weimar upbringing; Berlin was awash with decadence when he was a teen. Lust engendered peril, and sometimes you had to say: to hell with the consequences.

The current crop of fashion photographers feel neutered by political correctness and, perhaps, timid erotic fantasies. I can’t help feeling it’s better to feel outraged and lustful than bored. Isn’t it time for a lens that restores the dazzling danger of the femme fatale?

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is available on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download