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———————————————————————— September 21, 2003 The `King of Kink’ Made Naughty Fashionable By SARAH MOWER ONTE CARLO, Monaco HELMUT NEWTON is concerned for his reputation. “Now, you mustn’t write a puff piece,” he admonishes, racking his brains for people who might say great bad things about him. The list of possibilities he comes up with includes the editors of Playboy, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the editor of a German feminist magazine — “She hates me” — and, he adds helpfully, “Well, New York must be full of them.” Mr. Newton, the 82-year-old King of Kink (a sobriquet he has happily shouldered since the 1976 publication of his erotic photo album “White Women”), has just published “Autobiography,” an entertainingly louche memoir of a spoiled sex-and-camera-mad Jewish Berliner’s adventures through life, women and high-fashion photography. At lunch on the terrace of the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel recently, Mr. Newton, wearing the ideal South of France pornographer’s combo of lurid lime green Hawaiian shirt and white slacks, was easing himself out of a bout with bronchitis. He was skinny and a little frail, but there was no perceptible withering of his wickedness reflex. “Leni! Pity she’s dead,” he exclaimed, of the morning’s news reporting the death of Leni Riefenstahl at age 101. “She once made me promise never to call her an old Nazi, you know.” Mr. Newton photographed Riefenstahl, the documentarian who glorified Hitler, several times, and, as he notes in his book, “admired her greatly as a filmmaker and photographer,” a fascination many find outrageous, particularly in a German Jew of the World War II generation. But this is the whole thing about Helmut Newton: he can see and accommodate at least two views of a woman or a society at the same time. That detached, unblinking apprehension of ambiguity is the key to everything he has captured in the shuttering of his lens over a lifetime. “He loves to be outrageous,” said Anna Wintour, who has long published his work in Vogue. “He has this perverse view of a woman that recurs again and again.” Under her editorship, Vogue has printed, among many others, his photographs of the six-foot model Nadja Auermann with a surgically pinned leg being pushed in a wheelchair for a fashion spread about stilettos, a big woman dominating a small man, and models on all fours cleaning blood from an apparent domestic murder scene for an article on knees. (“That one scandalized the ladies,” he said gleefully.) Sensitive readers may also want to flick past his contribution to the upcoming October issue of Vogue, in which another favorite subject, an oven-ready chicken, illustrates a food essay. It’s wearing a miniature pair of black and white high heels. “Chickens!” he crowed. “They’re so sexy. I saw it when I was passing the kitchen once, and it was sitting there with its legs open ready to be cooked.” There’s that old Newton duality at work again: the shock comparison of a piece of poultry to a woman, merged with a huge joke at the expense of the absurd male ability to see sex in anything. Multiple meanings; extremes and nuances of human nastiness; the frisson of unease and excitement generated by the sight — or even the suggestion — of carnality, narcissism and perversion are Mr. Newton’s eternal subject matter. His menu — threesomes, sadomasochism, sapphism, prostitution, voyeurism, maids, mistresses, masters and beyond — may be the routine fare of pornography, but in his hands the potentially crude acquires an inimitable gloss of luxurious sophistication. As reviled as his work may have been by feminists in the 1970’s, Mr. Newton’s view has so permeated fashion culture that it surrounds us today, aped by young photographers and advertising, and recycled in designers’ clothes. “He is unbelievably influential,” Ms. Wintour said. There’s no better example of that than Tom Ford, whose fall collection for Yves Saint Laurent contains Lucite jewelry based on his memory of Mr. Newton’s late 70’s series of naked women in orthopedic body braces. “I was very aware of his twisted sexual fantasies as I was growing up in the 70’s,” Mr. Ford said. “Every one of them has some sort of debauched setting and the subtlest layers of meaning. It was shocking, stunning and nauseating — but gave the sensation of the utmost glamour. That buzz. That, to me, became fashion.” Strange, then, that even fashion insiders have known little about Mr. Newton’s background. “Until now, the only person who knew my past was my wife, June,” he said. Mr. Newton changed his name from Neustaedter in 1946, when he set himself up as a photographer in Australia, after which he felt “it was like having a new identity.” Not that he paints his upbringing in 1930’s Berlin as overly traumatic. “I wrote what happened to me and my family,” he said. “I don’t make a hero of myself. I was a very lucky guy, but it was very sad for my father. I was spoiled.” “My parents gave me a great youth,” even under the shadow of the Nazis, he said. He was an indulged son of a well-to-do button manufacturer whose tragedy was his inability to believe the Nazis’ intentions until too late. “My father was Prussian,” he said. “He believed nothing would happen to him because he was a German. We youngsters were more cynical. I was saying from 1935 we should get out.” Until the family factory was put under Aryan control, the fecklessly unacademic boy spent his time on girlfriends, jazz, swimming and flicking through news magazines and his mother’s German Vogue. At 12, he bought a box Brownie and became possessed by the glamour of becoming a photojournalist. Despairing of a serious future for their son, his parents apprenticed him to Madame Yva, a society photographer who taught the 16-year-old Helmut the trade through such thrills as shoots for lingerie catalogs. Mr. Newton has always attributed his obsession with the powerful female nude to his adoration of strong women, but the resemblance of these impossibly perfect specimens to the classic Aryan ideal has always provoked. He doesn’t deny the double whammy. “Don’t forget, from the age of 13, I was surrounded by the images of Nazi Germany,” he said. “You know, the photography wasn’t bad. It was very, very good in that period. Russian photography was very interesting, too. What certain persons in Germany have accused me of is making fascist images, referring to my `Big Nudes’ ” — his 1980 series of life-size women, dressed only in high heels. “My answer was, I recognize that,” he said. “It was a throwback to my youth.” “But,” he chuckled, “the rest of my work would never have been acceptable in any dictatorship.” In 1938, his mother managed to arrange a passport for her son (“My Jew passport! Stamped with a J on every page! Why did I get rid of that?”) and buy his passage to Singapore. There, the 19-year-old was picked up by a stylish older French woman and kept in snazzy clothes as a gigolo, before being shipped off to internment in Australia with a group of fellow German Jewish “enemy aliens.” Eventually, he joined the Australian Army, and as an elegant slacker, met and married June Browne, an actress, in 1948, and set himself up, penniless, as a portrait photographer. What emerges from the autobiography is how Mr. Newton’s spoiled-boy self-centeredness, epic sex drive and what he calls his “rather nasty Berlin sense of humor,” helped him survive. Those facets of his personality, implanted in Germany and burnished in the steamy amorality of prewar Singapore, mean he is constitutionally drawn to societies with excessive, sexually permissive, money-oiled underbellies. No accident, then, that he thrived in Paris in the 70’s, selected Monte Carlo as his habitat in the 80’s, and winters with June (they’ve been happily married for 55 years) at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where he hangs with his friends in the movie business like Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson. Everything he sees has been grist for his mill. “What I love is the way he weaves his own personal history, going back very significantly into his own past, back to a sense of an old Europe,” said Philippe Garner, a photography historian and consultant for the auctioneers Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. But less artistic questions continually arise around his content. “Journalists always ask, did I sleep with my models and was June jealous?” Mr. Newton said, with profound boredom. In fact, June Newton (who takes photographs under the name Alice Springs) not only tolerates his work, but acts as agent provocateur. Jenny Capitain, a German fashion editor who posed for Mr. Newton naked but for a leg cast and neck brace in the mid-70’s (one of the images hardwired into Mr. Ford’s imagination), told how June Newton approached her on a Paris street for the job. “I thought she had the best legs I’d seen in years, but I would never,” Mr. Newton shivered fastidiously, “pick up a girl myself.” Subjects and collaborators attest to Mr. Newton’s hygienic, highly controlled professional methods. The leg-cast shoot, Ms. Capitain said, “felt kind of impersonal, almost like a movie set.” Franceline Prat, a French Vogue editor who worked with Mr. Newton in the 70’s, recalled: “He likes sex a lot, but he never touches the girls. If something had to be changed, I had to do that. With him, it was never with the hands. All in the head.” How will Mr. Newton be assessed in the long term? His pictures can bring $100,000 at auction, Mr. Garner of Phillips said. Undoubtedly the work produced for French and American Vogues in 1975 are images without which the story of fashion couldn’t be told. One, of a girl in a mannish pinstripe pantsuit, was photographed at night in Paris; it has an equally famous partner showing the same girl, same suit, but accompanied by another girl, who is naked but for a veiled hat (shot illicitly for the photographer’s private use). Another series of images, American Vogue’s “Story of Ohh” featuring a man, two girls and a dog, contains an epoch-making shot of the model Lisa Taylor, wearing a Calvin Klein dress and eyeing a shirtless man with frank lust. Mr. Newton is delighted by the memory of how many readers, disgusted by the fully clothed but suggestive m�nage unfolding on Vogue’s pages, canceled their subscriptions. Is the octogenarian’s notoriety finally dissipating in the warm bath of establishment accolades? True, a Newton image for Wolford tights had to be removed from a Times Square billboard in 1998 because of the danger it posed to boggling pedestrians stepping into the street. But as the massed choirs of fashion and photography sing his praises, the man is scrupulously appalled at the idea of losing the power to incite. He’s keen to draw attention to some photos of sex murders he’s been working on recently. One has to say, they’re incontrovertibly vile. But then again, that’s just the sort of compliment Mr. Newton adores. Copyright 2003�The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

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