Walking through the Helmut Newton exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is like a stroll through the pages of French Vogue. After all, it's the magazine most synonymous with the legendary photographer known for shooting provocatively pale female flesh. Newton's first three books are the exhibit's subjects, presented in succession through five galleries.
The highly anticipated show delivers both in execution and content, with large-scale prints of many beautiful women — or rather "Newton nudes." His models always exude power, even when depicted bound or restrained (or even dead). First and foremost, he was a photographer of women.
As a fashion photographer, Newton was well aware that he was selling clothing and even called his work "propaganda." But he sold products in the most interesting way he could muster. His shots seem both meticulously posed and utterly natural. His lens, at times, was like a voyeur, peeking at a secret, erotic world of luxury and intrigue. More often, he was an engaged onlooker, observing the private fantasies happening in front of him.
The era is early/mid '70s to 1980, the height of the "jet set" resurgence and the glory days of the Concorde. Newton's major destinations were New York City, Paris, Lake Como and Saint Tropez (where a sexy time was spent around a pool during the month of June in 1975). Models pose brazenly topless in front of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or on balconies and penthouse rooftops of high-rise Manhattan condos, like elite creatures of leisure. They lounge near windows offering stunning views of Paris and New York and wander stately European estates, half-dressed in equestrian gear. Without the fashion-magazine context, the photos could be construed as studies in decadence, but Newton is also a maker of moments. In the exhibit catalog, Karl Lagerfeld remembers Newton once saying, "I tell no stories."
We fill in the narrative details, as if looking at a still shot from a film we've never seen. Most intriguing is a 1973 shot of the British actress Charlotte Rampling, nude, sitting on a table, wine glass and cigarette in hand, looking directly into Newton's lens, as if saying, "So what if I wanna walk around naked, smoke, drink white wine and sit on a table? What are you gonna do about it?" She could be chastising, seducing or simply greeting the guest who walked into the room.
His moments range from portraits of elegance and wealth (with a deviant streak) to crime scenes. In these photographs, the men are almost always dressed in suits, and in one image, a man sits near a fireplace looking intently at something across the room. A mirror over the mantel reveals the two nude women kissing on a sofa. In another, a man and two women are having drinks in a posh hotel, standing around a table crowded with room-service plates and wine bottles. He's in a tux; they're wearing breast-revealing couture. In another, a nude bends over to apply makeup to a seated man's face, glasses of champagne bubbling nearby. In these photos, sex isn't something that's there to titillate or predict a sexual encounter. It simply exists. It needs to be there. But other nude photographs turn up the sin.
There's a series of humorous murder scenes of a nude model killing a burgundy-suited man, as well as a relatively famous shot of a nude blond lying unconscious on the floor of a Manhattan balcony, surrounded by an overturned chair, a broken ashtray, cigarette butts, a spilled tumbler and ice cubes. The shot was taken from the floor above, so the frame includes the street below, where a white van and a yellow cab could possibly be carrying a perp making a getaway. Newton brilliantly posed the nude lying on a red robe or towel, which both acts as a background for the pale flesh and looks like a pool of blood. "I don't think sex should be fun," Newton once wrote. "Sex is deadly serious, otherwise it's not sexy. To me there's got to be an element of sin to get people excited."
Newton was also interested in falseness, something he explored in a series of mannequin photographs. Of course, mannequins being a necessary fashion trope, it feels like a natural subject for Newton, and he stages them in provocative, sometimes sexual, positions in which it's often difficult to distinguish between the real and the fake model. "Everything that is beautiful is false," he wrote in his notebooks. "The most beautiful grass is Astroturf!"
From this period of Newton's career, earlier is better in terms of captured moments, snapshots in a larger narrative. His photos from Big Nudes (1981) are closer to portraiture, more of a meditation on women as independent, powerful and mature. A series of eight-foot-tall prints towers over viewers like a line of Amazon statues. There are a series of nude photographs of Lisa Lyon, the first famous female bodybuilder, who would also become the subject of an entire photographic series by Robert Mapplethorpe. Lyon was actually petite at five feet three inches, but Newton's photos render her as a giant.
The exhibit ends gracefully with a self-portrait of Newton photographing two nudes in front of a mirror with his wife June sitting nearby watching (perhaps doing a bit of directing). It suggests that a woman is, in fact, the artist behind the curtain, guiding the photographer's lens. That, of course, would be untrue and a gross disservice to Newton. But we get a sense of the trust, collaboration, support and passion behind the work.
In the catalog June writes that she feels the exhibition succeeds in showing the man behind the camera. June turned her own lens on Helmut for the documentary Helmut by June, which screens on a loop at the exhibit's end (It's also available on YouTube). "This film is about the famous photographer Helmut Newton," she narrates, "who also happens to be my husband." It's obvious she relished the ride at his side.
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