The work of Helmut Newton takes over Amsterdam’s Foam gallery

Photo: Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Rue Aubriot, Paris 1975 © Helmut Newton / Helmut Newton Estate
Photo: Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Rue Aubriot, Paris 1975 © Helmut Newton / Helmut Newton Estate

A major exhibition of the work of photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) takes over the entire building of photography museum Foam on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht from June 17. Helmut Newton: A Retrospective features over 200 photographs, ranging from early prints seldom on display to monumental photographs. Most of them are vintage prints from the collection of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. There is also the opportunity to see Helmut by June, the film made by Newton’s wife June in 1995.

Newton is famous for introducing eroticism to fashion photography and his output is considered one of the most iconic of the last quarter of the 20th century. To fill in the life of this colourful character, here are ten facts you might like to know.

1. Helmut Newton was born Helmut Neustädter on October 31 1920 in Berlin into a liberal, affluent and Jewish family. His father, Max, owned a button factory. Berlin in the 1920s was at the centre of the hedonistic and decadent Weimar Republic, described in books such as I Am A Camera by Christopher Isherwood, later turned into the musical Cabaret.

2. The young Helmut was a dreadful student, but showed an early interest in the two things which would come to define his life: photography and women. He was given his first camera by his father at the age of 12, and, by all acounts, it was around this time he began to show an appreciation for the way bathing suits clung to young girls’ bodies.

3. His parents fled Germany in November 1938 after his father lost control of his factory under the oppressive restrictions placed on Jews by the Nuremburg laws. Helmut was granted a passport after turning 18 that October and sailed for Singapore where he found work as a photographer, first for a local newspaper and then as a portrait photographer.

4. He was interned by the British authorities in Singapore and sent to an internment camp in Australia in September 1940. Freed from the camp two years later, he enlisted with the Australian Army, serving as a truck driver. When war ended in 1945 he changed his name to Newton. He married the Australian actress June Browne in 1948.

5. Newton set up a studio in 1946 in the fashionable Flinders Lane in Melbourne and worked on fashion and theatre photography in the affluent post-war years. In 1955 he secured a commission to illustrate fashions in a special Australian supplement for Vogue magazine, published in January 1956. This led to a 12-month contract with British Vogue and he moved to London in February 1957.

6. But it was his move to Paris in 1961 that saw his career blossom, helped no doubt by his habit of arriving for his first major assignments in a white Porsche. His images began appearing in magazines such as French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, where he rebelled against the subservient women found in these staid fashion magazines.  His photos showed strong, dangerous and dominant women, and shook up the whole idea of fashion photography.

7. Over the following years, Newton established a style marked by erotic, stylised scenes, often with sado-masochistic and fetishistic subtexts. It comes as no surprise that he also spent 30 years shooting pictorials for Playboy. In the 1970s, Newton turned away from fashion photography and towards personal projects.

8. He was the self-proclaimed ‘bad boy of photography’, turning gender on its head, with the women in his work in charge of their sexuality and men, if visible at all, subservient to his goddesses. Despite this, he was called a misogynist and an exploiter of women, labels he did little to discourage as they enhanced his reputation as The King of Kink.

9. In 1999 a record breaking book was published which became the mother of all coffee table books. Entitled SUMO, it was a limited edition print run of 10,000 copies, each signed and numbered by Helmut Newton. It came with its own little table designed by Philippe Starck and it cost €15,000. The contents, edited by June Browne, featured 400 of Newton’s photographs, measured 50x70cm, weighed 30 kg and contained 464 pages.

10. By the end of his life, Newton was seen as the epitome of fame and glamour. Having spent most of his life wandering the world, he settled in Monte Carlo and Los Angeles in later life. He died after crashing into the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in 2004, aged 83. His ashes are buried in Berlin.

The exhibition continues until September 4.

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