Helmut Newton Polaroids offers a rare glimpse into the creative process of one of the most influential fashion photographers of the 20th century. Over 300 of Helmut Newton’s enlarged Polaroid snapshots from the 1970s to the early 2000s are on display for the first time. The unfinished test shots reveal an insider’s view of his experimentation with composition and light as well as the often surreal nature of the high fashion photo shoot.
We spoke with the curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation, Dr. Matthias Harder, about this unique and personal exhibition. Helmut Newton Polaroids is on view from June 10.
What is the main aim of the Helmut Newton Foundation?
We focus on different aspects of Helmut Newton’s work at the Helmut Newton Foundation. There are many different ways to transport his visual ideas, his visual genius, if you will.
This concept was the idea of (his widow) June Newton. She worked with Helmut Newton very closely for more than 50 years, and she has curated his shows all over the world.
I’ve been the curator here for a few years, since the very beginning when the museum opened in 2004. June and I work out the exhibitions together, including this one.
How is Helmut Newton Polaroids different from some of his other work you’ve presented?
What this exhibition does is investigate something that hasn’t been focused on before – Newton’s work with the Polaroid camera and Polaroid film. He used this film since the 1970s, and we’re now showing a selection of over 300 works based on this kind of working material, the kinds of snapshots he took specifically at professional photo shoots.
These are test photos on display, so you can see the iconic shots during their creation, before the final images were taken with the ‘real’ camera. Newton once said that he was very impatient to see the results, and this was one reason that he really loved the instant camera idea. He could see immediately what a situation, the model or the lighting would look like in two-dimensional form. It was the immediate fulfilment of the ideas that were in his mind before he started shooting.
How did the idea come about to show these behind-the-scenes snapshots?
Actually, these photos are working material that should never have come out as an exhibition. But in the year 1992, Newton released a book called Pola Woman just showing his Polaroids that he used for fashion shoots, nudes and some other advertising work. This was the first time he let the world see his Polaroids.
When this book was reviewed, the Polaroids were published in magazines and attracted a lot of interest. Until then, the Polaroids had been in a drawer, in shoeboxes, under control. Before 1992, he never thought of them as exhibition material. After that, the works came into the art market.
If you go to the big photo fairs, they have some of Newton’s signed original Polaroids, and sometimes they go for up to $25,000. All color Polaroids are different, so the collectors realize they have a unique piece by Helmut Newton.
How were the Polaroids initially received by critics?
Some critics wanted to see the process, some didn’t. Some were disappointed in the quality. Helmut Newton said, “Okay, you didn’t understand anything. This was the idea. Of course they are blurry or a little bit hazy. It’s all about speed and spontaneity.” This was very close to his heart, this publication.
So, Newton didn’t want people to compare his snapshot sketches to their corresponding final photographs?
Well, in this show, we are opening a new field and a new focus in his work. We are consciously not showing the Polaroids in comparison with their final photographs, to compare the colors, or the aesthetic or the blurriness or sharpness. That is not the question.
If someone comes here to our museum to see the Helmut Newton shows, most people come two, three or four times. These are Newton enthusiasts, and they have his work already in their minds. So you can see some models, some motives that you know from his ‘real’ official photography. It is actually quite interesting to compare these images in your mind.
Additionally, downstairs there’s a permanent display, Helmut Newton’s Private Property, and we have 100 posters on the wall with a lot of iconic images he did in the last 50 years. He worked a lot and was probably the most published photographer in the 20th century. Everyone has an idea of the Newton style and image.
Did Newton consider himself a photographer or a fashion photographer?
I would say both. In his interviews, if he were asked a question like this, he would probably answer “I’m both. I’m a photographer, and maybe especially a fashion photographer.”
He wouldn’t see a distinction between the two?
I mean, he never called himself an artist. This came later, that other people called him an artist, because his artistic way of seeing and printing is obvious. He called himself a “gun for hire.” We shouldn’t forget that Helmut Newton worked for magazines. His aim was to make a shot that would be published in a magazine. This was his first aim.
At the Helmut Newton Foundation, we don’t play with the myth of originality. We have a lot of original works here at the Foundation, some signed. We play around with his visual ideas, with his motives and visual world, and that’s it.
Much of his work is very provocative. What do you feel are the qualities that distinguish the images of Helmut Newton from some of his fashion photography contemporaries?
When Henri Cartier-Bresson was asked what constitutes a good picture, he said “A picture is a good picture when you look at it for more than one second.” It’s a very nice, short definition. Applying this type of definition to the work of Helmut Newton, it’s obvious that he did a lot of great pictures.
Flipping through the pages of a magazine and coming across a Helmut Newton shot, it’s like “Oh, wow. What’s this?” You can definitely see his style. His pictures have a special atmosphere that grabs people’s attention. And he was naughty enough to bring images into magazines that were spectacular.
From the 1960s until the end, he always reinvented himself. He was always ahead of the zeitgeist. He was not following the zeitgeist; he was creating it in a way.
Helmut Newton Polaroids | Through November 20