BERLIN — Famous and infamous for his naked, high-heeled amazons, Helmut Newton also left behind a considerable oeuvre starring designer-clad women.
This chapter of his work is assembled for the first time in “Helmut Newton: A Gun for Hire,” the new exhibit at the Helmut Newton Stiftung here and an accompanying Taschen book of the same name (the show will run indefinitely at the gallery in Berlin’s Museum for Photography). Both document five decades of Newton’s advertising photographs for Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, Blumarine, Thierry Mugler and Biba; editorial assignments for American, German and Italian Vogue, and catalogue shots for Villeroy & Boch and Absolut Vodka, among others.
“You could call this ‘covered girls,'” quipped June Newton, the photographer’s widow, at a press conference last week, “for there’s very little nudity to be seen. But you can see the work he put in to get the muscles working. These are not skinny sticks in a dress, but human women with busts, bottoms, hips and muscles. It’s all there.”
The aim of the show, she continued, “is to show his versatility. And the other side of the artist — the workman who [took photographs] to earn his living.”
Newton, who died in 2004, dubbed himself a gun for hire, “because that is what I am,” he said once. “When I was young and poor and starting as a photographer, I decided to accept any job that came along.”
Those jobs had him silhouetting Ines de la Fressange wearing Chanel against a Monte Carlo sky in 1984; going photo surreal with Mugler in 1998; trucking it with Versace in 1986; pairing femmes fatales with sinks, toilets and bathtubs for Villeroy & Boch in the Eighties; exploring the sexy side of braided, Heidi-esque innocents such as Monica Belluci, Nadja Auermann or Eva Herzigova for Blumarine throughout the Nineties, and cloning brunettes or crossing genders for American Vogue in Monte Carlo in 2003.
“It’s just as well that Helmut’s not around, because he would have killed me for going digital,” his widow said. “But the show [and book] wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. And I’ve found clues Helmut left behind for us.”
At a shoot for YSL in Paris for fall-winter 1992-93, for example, a woman in an animal print devore gown has her hands over her eyes and a crumpled letter in her hand. “She had been sitting in the chair for ages and was bent over, but Helmut kept telling her to bend and bend some more. At the time, I wondered why,” June Newton recalled, “and when I saw the print, I said, ‘My God.’ At the back of the tapestry chair there was a beautiful cock — as in male hen. And that was what he was photographing. Nobody knew, and it took the new technology to find out.”
Other images dear to her heart are from a series taken for German Vogue in 2001. “There are three girls at the Port of Monte Carlo, except one isn’t human. It’s a big solid doll, though you can’t tell at first.”
Also recalled were some of his last fashion pictures for American Vogue, shot in Los Angeles in 2002.
“This little hairy man came in looking like someone out of the bush, but Helmut threw everyone out and got hair and makeup working on him. And the result was this perfect specimen of a small bodybuilder. With a man like that, Helmut didn’t have to go searching for a tall girl, for everyone looked tall behind him. Though how he got him into that toy car, I’ll never know,” she said.