Beauty, darkened and disrobed

Photographer Helmut Newton knows that much of fashion's lure lies in forbidden fantasies.


October 14, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

There's no doubt in my mind that in the future, fashion photography will be considered one of the 20th century's seminal art forms. That day hasn't yet arrived, however.

Fashion photography is the orphan stepchild of the art world, a curious hybrid of journalism, entertainment and advertising. Its status suffers from a close association with pop culture and commerce, and from the idea that fashion is inherently frivolous and ephemeral.

Yet the best fashion photographs always have transcended the commercial purposes for which they were created. Early on, photographers discovered that their real subject isn't the gowns or jewelry the models wear, but the fantasies such garments and their settings evoke in viewers' imaginations. A good fashion shot distills the ocean of unfulfilled desire created by consumer society into a single, unforgettable image.

So fashion photos are about lifestyles, not clothes. They are miniature dramas that invite us to participate vicariously in an idealized world of luxury and ease, and they do so by appealing directly to our subconscious, with its limitless craving for wealth, power, sex and love. The great fashion photographers always have understood that the glamorous life depicted in their photos must remain forever unattainable.

Such is the glittering world of photographer Helmut Newton, whose seductive, often disturbing images of jet setters, royalty and the obscenely rich have appeared in the world's top fashion magazines for more than three decades. Newton, now 80, is the subject of a major retrospective at the International Center for Photography in New York that includes some 200 of his most provocative images.

Newton is nothing if not controversial. Feminists will hate him for depicting women as sex objects, but there's countervailing opinion that interprets his women as powerful figures in full control over their destinies and appetites.

The models Newton favors look like Amazonian sex goddesses in stiletto heels. He photographs them against incredibly opulent backgrounds. They seem engaged in miniature dramas in which the plot is ambiguous, but which clearly involves seduction, intrigue and a languid aura of erotic decadence that feeds their colossal self-absorption.

Newton was born in 1920 in Berlin of prosperous German-Jewish parents, and many images recall the riotous license of the doomed Weimar Republic. (Newton and his family fled Germany in 1938 after the upsurge of Nazi violence.) His mise en scenes recall such film noir classics as Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel and Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, as well as James Bond movies and the Hungarian photographer Brassai's haunting night images of the 1930s Parisian demimonde.

Newton was the original bad boy of fashion photography in the late 1960s. In contrast to the cool, studied elegance of Irving Penn or the sheer physical exuberance of Richard Avedon, both representing the era's mainstream, Newton's work seemed deliberately perverse.

A 1967 shot for British Vogue, for example, depicts a group of three elegantly dressed women in a darkened hotel room with three male companions. One man is watching a pornographic movie, while another fiddles with the zipper on the dress of the model nearest the camera. Half-empty champagne flutes, overflowing ashtrays and the remains of a seafood hors d'oeuvres complete the scene, which suggests an after-hours tryst between a trio of expensive call-girls and their businessmen clients.

Or take the 1976 shot for French Vogue titled Office Love. The shape of the bejeweled blond model's pricey white dress is unrecognizable because a tuxedoed man has pushed the woman on her back atop a huge, polished desk. We cannot be sure whether we are witnessing a couple in the transports of passion -- or a rape. But we are certainly voyeurs.

Even when Newton emerges into the sunlight, his pictures are marked by stark contrasts between light and dark, with a menacing subtext of sex and violence. In a 1998 illustration for the French fashion house Thierry Mugler that was shot in Monaco, a wasp-waisted model leans against a lamppost dressed only in a sheer black corset, gloves and stockings. Behind her, a man in black is stretched out on the pavement, as if dead. The woman's expression suggests she's aware of the corpse but is completely unconcerned, as if death were a normal part of her landscape.

If the early fashion photographers learned to liberate viewers' fantasies, Newton's singular contribution was the recognition that fantasy evokes the forbidden. Every freedom ultimately involves the breaking of a taboo, and Newton is the poet of fashion's dark side, as Brassai was of Paris' nocturnal world of thugs, streetwalkers and petty criminals.

Though Newton's photos are transgressive and shocking, that doesn't necessarily make them art. Some go no deeper than a witty, hyper-real immediacy, such as his early 1970s shot of a woman pressing a bloody slab of raw meat against one elaborately made-up eye.

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