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The Helmut Newton show at the Grand Palais in Paris is just one of a few recent exhibits honouring the late photographer. (Francois Mori/AP)
The Helmut Newton show at the Grand Palais in Paris is just one of a few recent exhibits honouring the late photographer. (Francois Mori/AP)

Lynn Crosbie: Pop Rocks

Helmut Newton’s girl power, back in Vogue Add to ...

He is buried in Berlin beside Marlene Dietrich, who sang, so wearily, so hauntingly, of Falling in Love Again. And it would appear we are doing just that with the late, unparalleled Helmut Newton.

Although the infamous fashion photographer was killed in a car crash in 2004, he’s back in the news this week with Three Boys from Pasadena, a new tribute to him in Berlin by his three most intimate protégées – Mark Arbeit, George Holz and Just Loomis. It follows a show of Newton’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris and another one just launched in Los Angeles.

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“There must be a certain look of availability in the women I photograph,” Newton wrote in the book White Women. “I think the woman who gives the appearance of being available is sexually much more exciting than a woman who’s completely distant. This sense of availability I find erotic.” By availability, he meant eagerness, the kind of salubrious-yet-dirty woman we are seeing in everything from Girls to the rise of sexy-nasty female comics, to the now infamous Anastasia Steele.

Concomitantly, the new issue of (American) Vogue features Team USA’s “Wonder Women,” a poolside, black-banded J-Lo and a feature about Vogue International’s commitment to the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Health Initiative. This campaign stands as an unprecedented stance in the fashion industry who are now “specifying guidelines for a healthier diet; vowing to identify and help those vulnerable to eating disorders; establishing minimum age requirements for models; creating a model-mentorship program; and asking that models be provided with plentiful breaks and access to nutritious food during shoots and shows.”

Vogue’s comment on this also invokes a new world for women in and out of fashion: “For an industry that should be about empowering women of all shapes, sizes, and ages, too often the image of attractiveness it has projected has been entirely at odds with that message.”

Is Newton’s work, which, for all its decadence, always featured women possessed of a certain robustness (of form or spirit) being newly celebrated for its remarkable currency?

He may have been leery of all the art shows: Newton loathed the word “art,” and frequently stated that he “just took pictures” and and this work was “for a very definite purpose: to influence, to sell a product, in short, for propaganda.”

But if Newton’s art was propaganda, his message wasn’t always obvious. His work presented stylishly violent images – dramatically challenging not only the nature of fashion photography, but the act of seeing and being seen.

Netwon’s disco-bloodbath work – of tawdry, sexy girls playing with whips and chains, or lounging on the beach in Maui in full-length couture, smoking and ravishing their fancy men – debuted around the same time as Laura Mulvey’s still-popular critique of the “male gaze.”

Like her argument that cinema is a sort of ceaseless eye watching over female subjects, Newton asserted that “any photographer who says he’s not a voyeur is either stupid or lying.” But he also went on to challenge what that voyeurism means for those being watched.

In 1978, he furnished the photographs for the thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, a film about a female photographer who is, essentially, Newton’s doppelganger: She stages shoots where strong models, dressed in pastel tatters, stand over a male corpse while dancing to Let’s All Chant; where the same girls caper in huge, louche furs as cars ignite and burn around them.

It turns out that Laura Mars has been reshooting confidential crime scene photos. And as the film develops, Mars starts seeing crimes through a killers’ eyes, in what appear to be fugue states.

On the one hand, the movie is a generic slasher film. But it also challenges Mulvey’s thesis by asking who has the ultimate power: the watcher or the watched?

Eyes of Laura Mars suggests that there is a free exchange of energy and power between the two; that, in fact, the watcher may be in greater psychic danger (in the film, the killer forces the heroine, to murder him).

This idea – that women being watched could be as powerful as the men gazing at them – continued throughout Newton’s career. Introducing Newton to a Barbican audience in 2001, Alexander McQueen said that, like himself, the influential older artist was “famously fascinated with powerful women” and “preoccupied with role play and crossing the divide between the masculine and feminine.”

McQueen was not merely alluding to fashionable androgyny or the kind of SMBD-lite that Fifty Shades of Grey has now ushered in (though this trilogy’s monstrous success explains something of the Newton revival).

This divide has to do with actual, brute male and female power and strength, cruelty and beauty (a paradox which intrigued Newton) and the way in which art assists in crossing this line.

Newton is moving stealthily back into fashion, as fashion moves stealthily towards a certain 1970s aesthetic.

“We are starting to see powerful girls, with healthy bodies,” says Peggi LePage, a model scout who works primarily for Ford.

With Newton, she says, we used to see women the photographer “was attracted to,” women who were strong and playful. With the advent of Photoshop, though, female beauty became the domain of the “computer geek” she argues.

Now, that era seems to be waning. LePage notes, too, that some of the older models are returning – most notably Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista, women of character and intrigue.

This May, Turlington was on the cover of Tatler and featured inside. She “looks her age,” the article begins. “She is 43 and appears neither eerily young nor haggard from her years in fashion.” In one of the shots, she is, unsurprisingly, photographed in a man’s shirt, tie and hat, wearing a thin mustache and pointing a camera at the lens.

She is relaxed and smiling. She is spectacular.

 

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