Fashion is an industry that assigns ‘genius’ status to its style gods, and the cult of Helmut Newton proves that this tendency extends to fashion photography. Not that the reverence is undue – Helmut Newton’s audacious and elegant style set a new standard for the editorial magazine spread – but walking into the palatial Helmut Newton Foundation is like entering a church where the altar is adorned with monumental black-and-white portraits of naked women. The latest Newton sermon comes in the form of Helmut Newton Polaroids, an exhibition featuring more than 300 of his Polaroid snapshots from the 1970s to his death in 2004.
Viewing these enlarged prints opens a window into Newton’s creative process; he became quite fond of using a Polaroid camera to take test photos during high fashion shoots and ad campaigns in order to experiment with composition and lighting. These Polaroids are not displayed as supporting documents alongside their final corresponding prints, but as individual explorations, his first bold steps toward finding his shot.
The light quality of Polaroids changes with age, and it is remarkable that Newton is able to elicit so much drama working in such a simple medium.
While some of the images are beautiful and stylish, many are purely surface and tend to blend together fairly easily. Though Newton’s approach and sensibility was nuanced and artistic, one is quickly reminded that this is fashion photography: slick, sexy and filled with spectacle. If you’re looking for something deeper, most on view here will not be incredibly interesting.
In a dark room to the side plays a filmed interview with Newton from 1978, where he discusses shooting “the most beautiful women in the world.” At one point, Newton waxes poetic about the special nature of shooting high fashion, saying that he works with the best of the best: designer clothes, supermodels and exotic locales. He describes the beauty that he captures as “rarefied”. In fashion, exclusivity equals success, which brings up the question of value and the forces that generate it.
Many 20th-century cultural theorists have commented on the changing definition of luxury goods; it used to mean that they were finely crafted by the best artisans, and now the definition of luxury has shifted to signify what is the most expensive. Newton never called himself an artist, a curious fact but one that is probably irrelevant. More intriguing was that he called himself a “gun for hire”.
An exhibition in ‘June’s Room’ called Helmut Newton’s Private Property features 75 high-quality, silver gelatin, signed Newton prints from 1972-1983. It is worth coming to the exhibition for this room alone. Stunning portraits of David Bowie in Monte Carlo (1982), Andy Warhol in Paris (1976), and Charlotte Rampling in St Tropez (1976) are on view.
Also to be discovered is S&M-themed fashion and erotic photography, some of Newton’s most provocative and engaging work, proving that he could subversively push boundaries while simultaneously working within an extremely regulated and commercialized industry.
Helmut Newton Polaroids | Through November 20