Helmut Newton loved to repeat his father’s admonition that he would end up in the gutter because his young mind was so singularly focused on girls and photographs. Instead, the feckless, unscholarly boy grew up to transform fashion photography and glory in the rarefied jet-set lifestyle he documented on the pages of glossy magazines. Probably the most imitated (and controversial) fashion photographer of his time, Newton earned the nickname King of Kink—as well as a fortune. “If a photographer says he is not a voyeur, he is an idiot,” Newton once said. His erotic and dreamlike images were like a peep through a keyhole, spied moments of a heightened reality.
As a person, Newton was—unsurprisingly—complex. A bohemian and yet very pragmatic, he insisted that he was not an intellectual and did not stand for much. His sardonic humor, delight in mischief, and nonchalant sense of irony are obvious in his work. He considered America weird, exotic, and outrageous; the suburbs, funny; and claimed to carry a monocle, a cigarette holder, and a pair of false nipples in his camera bag at all times.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Newton preferred to work with lesser-known models and hated surgically amplified breasts. “He’d always say, ‘Don’t send me any of your scrawny, undernourished models,’ Newton insisted, “I am not looking for a perfect body, whatever that means, because I find that boring.” Still, his subjects—tall and Teutonic, blonde and beautiful, confident and cruel—consistently achieved a glossy perfection. Though they are often naked and surrounded by the accoutrements of sexual desire, they remain immune to seduction and are never consumed by passion. Posing insolently in richly ornamented chairs or reclining with spread legs, his haughty, high-society belles convey a blasé aristocratic demeanor, untouched by their surroundings and their circumstances. Sinister props (a pistol, handcuffs, medical corset, wheelchair, or dog collar) mingle with status objects (stilettos, dark lipstick, furs, an Hermès saddle, a chauffeur and his limousine), giving the erotically charged scenes a sense of palpable menace.