In my pictures,” says Helmut Newton, “the woman is completely in charge—she’s the mistress of the situation. My women are like ice; they can take care of themselves.” Or can they?
One of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers, the 58-year-old Parisian has gone to bizarre lengths to eroticize—some say degrade—his female subjects. Yes, that still of the woman crouched on a bed with a saddle on her back is a Newton. And so is the woman posing spread-eagled in a car wearing only black boots and a bikini decorated with a sequined Eiffel Tower. A Newton model is likely to wield a whip or wear a neck brace, and she seems more disposed to claw the eyes of her beholders than say fro-mage—all of which has earned Helmut Newton the title “King of Kink.”
Newton fans are fascinated by his limitless variations on the same intimations of decadence. Parisians queued endlessly for a peep at his latest local exhibition, and there is a waiting list for prints from his recent shows in the U.S. (The most in demand: a shot of two women embracing.) His published collections, White Women (1976) and Sleepless Nights (1978), are coffee table favorites, and there’s hardly a rock group or department store mannequin that hasn’t been influenced by his S&M chic. The photography in Eyes of Laura Mars, the Jon Peters film starring Faye Dunaway, was inspired by Newton’s work. This is not to say everyone admires his erotic views. New York Times critic Hilton Kramer called his oeuvre “clamorous and unsavory.” And at a recent dinner party in Paris, one enraged woman threatened to act out some of Newton’s brutal visions on the artist himself.
To those who know him, the man behind the Pentax is no chauvinist pig. He says his main interests are photographing flowers, swimming and simply sitting in cafes clicking his mental shutter. (He does admit to playing Peeping Tom on his Paris neighbors with field glasses.) Though he photographs the likes of Raquel Welch, Paloma Picasso and Catherine Deneuve (for those famous Chanel ads), he is generally unimpressed by celebrities and seems hopelessly dependent upon June, his wife of 31 years.
Detachment is a Newton hallmark. When models arrive to audition at his Left Bank studio (they often pose without fee just for the notoriety of appearing in one of his photographic fantasies), he is brusque. He glances at their portfolios and barely looks at the girls as he questions them. “Don’t take off any clothes. Just tell me if your legs are good and give me the measurement of your bustline.” Like a doctor with a nurse, he never works alone with a model.
Newton’s fascination with fashion and women dates back to his boyhood in Berlin, where he used to dress his American-born mother in different outfits and snap her picture with a dime store camera. His father was determined that the boy should take over the family button business, but by the time he was 16 Helmut had dropped out to apprentice for Yva, a well-known fashion photographer in the ’30s.
Moving to Singapore and Australia (where he met his wife), Newton was one of the first photographers to click with the Australian Vogue in the early 1950s. But his most outré work did not begin until he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1971. In that moment of truth Newton had erotic visions of beautiful women with powerful shoulders and feral faces. Since then his pictures have grown increasingly lurid, and Newton admits he has walked a tightrope between good taste, which bores him, and vulgar bad taste.
Ironically, just when his reputation and income (well into six figures) have reached new highs, the King of Kink threatens to abdicate. He admits he is tiring of tortured lesbians, bondage and other set pieces. “Maybe it’s a pity,” sighs Newton, “but I’m getting straighter. My wife says if I go too straight, we’ll end up living on welfare. Nobody wants to buy my pictures of flowers.”