Helmut and Lisa, the powerful of the shoot
When in 1976 Helmut Newton published his first portrait White Women, there were in many to launch anathemas against the artist and who he would then awarded the prestigious Kodak Award. Because Newton had chosen to subject the female nude and, while putting at the service of the most prestigious fashion houses in the world his art, it was the naked body to dominate the lens, the image, the viewer.
In that portrait it appeared – among others – a model on all fours on a bed, dressed in a leather saddle by Hermès, the look through the lens. In another nude models images were portrayed alongside others dressed in the deserted streets of the Parisian night. No feminist of that era could be happy: there were the years of hard and pure combat women-objects, the years that have changed in women that we become (at least for two to three generations).
Yet that approach changed the way of looking at images of high fashion and the feminine symbolism that represented, for better or for worse.
Only two years later, in 1978, something changes. In Sleepless Nights portrait, black and white dominates on an ambiguous and dangerous game. Women and men, naked or half-naked, taking erotic poses in front of the camera: it is necessary to look very well and crush your nose close to the picture to understand that one of its protagonists is a dummy. In other photos models pose as if they were part of a crime scene: my favorite shows a couple dressed in a few details, clinging outdoors, the bodies are separated from the gravel thanks to the man’s waterproof coat. Two huge symbolic details are the essence of that shot: the woman’s heel red shoes 12 and the muzzle of a Citroen DS, a myth of the four wheels, parked less than a meter from the bodies.
I look to more than thirty years after all these photos of Helmut Newton – now on display in a beautiful retrospective at Gallery Tre Oci in Venice – and find them beautiful, eternal, in moving traits.
Because I was too young to understand them then, grasp the artistic change that upset of course also photography, and to understand too that subtle and ironic game that made fun of fashion, using it and giving importance to the bodies. Ironic, irreverent, Newton is never pornographic, vulgar. A color image of the album of 1978 – a woman lying on the bed of a prestigious hotel in Paris looks at herself in a mirror without losing the sight of the city – it reminds me that selfies had not yet arrived and the photoshop was not yet created, the photos were printed, the exposure could decide the fate of a happy rainbow after the rain, or a human being who stops a tank.
Still, I remember watching the third and final collection on display, Big Nudes 1980-81, as I was in love with Lisa Lyon, Newton’s favorite model. Almost always portrayed naked with heels, arms crossed in front and legs apart. In those years of cold war, folds on itself, articulated dynamics of international feminism and civil strife, as well the woman is not shaved, not tattooed, just as hard as beautiful, seemed caught in all its power from a masculine look that made them the humblest of gifts. Just as the self portrait in which the photographer portrays the same mirror that is laying a model: next to it, sitting absorbed and watchful as Artemis, the beloved wife, who belonged to the reality and therefore did not need to be immobilised in time diaphragm.
In a time when the photos that I tend to look at the most are the reports from the lands of pain and landing, of dead children and beached, barbed wire, and women killed in the woods, the afternoon spent in the company of women and Helmut Newton gave me for a while a different look of gendered world, or rather a different way of looking at it.
Helmut Newton, Photographs, Three OIC, Venice, up to 7th of August 2016 (http://www.treoci.org)