Did Helmut Newton Take Edgy Photography Too Far?


Feature image: Helmut Newton for Taschen via New Mag

Did Helmut Newton Take Edgy Photography Too Far?

“Any photographer who claims not to be a voyeur is either an idiot or a liar.”

Helmut Newton

Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle are among the most notable fashion magazines and the driving force for quickly evolving trends. Print photographers opt for an editorial approach that captures the silhouette and fabric of the clothing. Coinciding with the creativity of the fashion designers, editorial photographers are more expressive and bold with each shot. Some direct the models to keep it as simple as a slight sway, while other photographers challenge societal norms and traditional approaches.

Meet Helmut Newton: the product of voyeurism collaborating with art. 

Helmut Newton for Taschen via New Mag
Helmut Newton for Taschen via New Mag

German photographer Helmut Newton, dubbed the "King of Kink," was a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of modesty and embraced unconventionality in his work—sometimes to a questionable degree. His controversial career, which took off in the 1960s, a decade after he started at Vogue, left an indelible mark on the fashion industry and sparked a revolution. Despite the evolving fashion trends of the time, societal norms still expected women to maintain a certain level of modesty. However, Newton's daring and provocative photography challenged these norms, ushering in a new era in fashion photography. His work often featured women in powerful, assertive poses, challenging the traditional depiction of women as passive objects of desire. 

Capturing fashion in a photograph is tricky; designers and publications want to showcase the clothing's texture, color, and silhouette. In stark contrast to the traditional approach, Newton, in his rebellious fashion, chose black and white photos as his modus operandi. This bold style set him apart from his peers in the fashion editorial industry and redefined the boundaries of fashion photography. His photos were not solely about the color and texture of the fabric but the aesthetic and mood he captured. 

Other prominent fashion-forward photographers like F.C. Gundlach and Maurice Hogenboom highlighted the eras of fashion with color and methodical posing. Comparatively, Newton’s camp stylistic choices drove him to the opposite end of the spectrum. In a time when women had unrealistic expectations paved by the patriarchy, Newton’s bold photography not only challenged the traditionalistic behaviors of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s gender norms but also sparked a conversation on societal expectations and self-expression. 

Woman Examining Man, 1975. Calvin Klein for Vogue. Photo courtesy of Maconochie Photography.
Woman Examining Man, 1975. Calvin Klein for Vogue. Photo courtesy of Maconochie Photography. 

The boldness of Newton's work for Vogue varied by country, depending on the culture, social norms, and laws. For American Vogue in the mid-1970s, he reversed the traditional gender roles that magazines, movies, and other forms of entertainment often portray. In his photograph "Woman Examining Man," Newton placed the woman on the couch, legs widely man-spreading with a sultry look upon her face. In front of her is an anonymous half-naked man. Sex appeal is at the forefront of the fashion industry and advertisement. The German photographer redefined "sex sells" by incorporating edgy and contentious variables like exotic animals, drugs, and full nudity. His bold approach to editorial photography, which often challenged traditional gender roles and expectations, paved the way for future photographers and opened the conversation surrounding expressionism in the industry. 'Expressionism' refers to a style of art in which the artist seeks to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world. 

Often, the most profound art involves controversy that propels its success. Newton created a legacy with his niche and daring style. But with success comes opinions, hate, and a debatable life. Because his work lived in an extreme side of art—especially for his career’s era—critics question if Newton took “different” too far. Some argue that his work was exploitative or objectifying, while others praise his boldness and artistic vision. In the name of art and self-expression, you can’t help but wonder if Newton took edgy photography too far or if his work ultimately got editorial photography to where it is today. 

A Scene from Pina Bausch’s Ballet, Wuppertal, 1983. Image courtesy of the Helmut Newton Foundation.
Lauren Hutton Wresting Alligator, Miami, 1989. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Estate.

A Scene from Pina Bausch’s Ballet, Wuppertal , 1983. Image courtesy of the Helmut Newton Foundation; Lauren Hutton Wresting Alligator, Miami, 1989. Image courtesy of Helmut Newton Estate.

Newton's exploration of other muses in his work besides fashion is a testament to his versatility and artistic vision. While his style remained consistent—black-and-white film and nefarious and provocative scenes—he also dabbled in photography for personal projects. “A Scene from Pina Bausch’s Ballet, Wuppertal” incorporates Newton’s definable traits—nudity and controversy—while straying away from the other fashion editorial aspects he’s famous for. This image speaks explicitly to the provocateur’s outlandish and daring stylistic choices that lack allegorical meaning. A naked body lying halfway out of a crocodile's mouth is undoubtedly a statement. But is that all it is: a statement? Is it possible that Helmut Newton over-sexualized women and animals and advertised voyeurism? 

 Heather Looking Through A Keyhole, Paris, 1989. Image courtesy of AnOther Magazine.
Heather Looking Through A Keyhole, Paris, 1989. Image courtesy of AnOther Magazine.  

Voyeuristic photography involves capturing images that involve observing or spying on subjects without their knowledge or consent. Some consider the act itself crude, out-of-line, and disrespectful. While creative freedom and self-expression are crucial for artists, it's also important to note that voyeuristic photography can be a powerful artistic tool for exploring themes of privacy, intimacy, and human behavior. It also raises ethical concerns regarding consent and respect for individuals' boundaries. Photographers should approach this style with sensitivity and awareness.

His exotic work is a collection of social commentary and defies the sensualization of women's bodies as sex objects. At the same time, this seems contradictory, considering Newton captures women's naked bodies for publications. His images are tasteful, unique, and purposeful. His influence on the fashion editorial industry is everlasting. Newton's daring approach continuously inspires current photographers. Sarai Mari, a Japanese photographer, has openly discussed her admiration for Helmut Newton and his photos' intimacy.

Photo by Sarai Mari, Speak Easy, 2017.
Cyberwoman 3, Helmut Newton, 2000. Photo courtesy of Helmut Newton Estate.

Photo by Sarai Mari, Speak Easy, 2017; Cyberwoman 3, Helmut Newton, 2000. Photo courtesy of Helmut Newton Estate.  

Helmut Newton perfected the art of photographing a woman’s body in a moment of empowering sensuality while omitting indecency and lewdness. His style is a tumultuous yet necessary contribution to the photography industry. Some of his work involved unconventional factors like nudity and taboo topics. One could argue that Newton took edgy photography too far depending on personal morals and cultural upbringings. Self-expression is an expression of oneself, not a group of people or an entire culture. Some art, like Newton’s, is simply an acquired taste. 

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