Mar 24, 2012 12:00AM

An Homage to Helmut Newton

The original 'King of Kink'.

Last night I went to the press preview of a new Helmut Newton retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. In attendance were a handful of press, and Newton's 89-year-old wife, June, who answered some questions (in French) from the media. I couldn't follow all of the conversation, however, when June became impatient with the questions she would make loud exclamations in English: "I can't hear you!!!" "What do you mean, what does it mean?" and (to her companion) "I think you need to tell me to calm down!!" She's Australian and it was comforting to see someone else frustrated with the French. June's frustrations, however, are unlikely to be cultural - she has lived in Europe longer than she has lived in Australia - it's probably that she's spent a lifetime explaining and (at one time) defending Helmut's work. Maybe she just wishes people would read the press release.
 

Helmut Newton was an interesting photographer, not just because of his provocative photography of women but also his commercial success. Although he had his fair share of critiques (mostly feminists), Newton was not only a great artiste, but also a well-paid one: a self-proclaimed "gun for hire", at the height of his career he was commanding 15,000 USD a pop. As June explained last night, "he never took photographs in the hope that they would appear in an exhibition, he really did it because it was his job."

Helmut and June met in Melbourne, after Helmut fled from Germany during the Second World War. She walked into his studio one day as a model and ended up his wife of more than fifty years, accompanying him on most of his shoots.

Although Newton's images might be indicative of a certain type of man, " a pervert, a monster" as June said last night, the reality was something very different. He was "like a little boy" and as such was always drawn to strong women - amazonian types. The supers of the eighties and nineties were his stars and it's hard to imagine what he would have done with the size zeros of today.

Just as Helmut loved to photograph strong woman, he was drawn to them in life and June was his perfect match. (Major props to anyone who is unfazed by their husband shooting nude supermodels for a living.) The love between Helmut (Helmie as she calls him) and June (Junie), is most apparent in June's documentary, Helmut by June (2007), for which she had filmed Helmut at work. (Helmut passed away in 2004 so the footage predates the 2000s). In one scene he finishes shooting a half-naked model, then dances toward the video camera (which June is holding) and says, "Another $10,000 to buy more diamonds for my Junie." What a guy!

The film (which is also on show at the exhibition) shows Helmut not as a sex-crazed "monster", but a dorky, jolly German who wears Hawaiian shirts, has a killer tan and gets sad when he realises his favourite underpants are on their last legs. As the credits roll, June is in front of camera for the first time and he asks her to pose. He giggles and comments admiringly, "That's great... that is beautiful ... Nice cleavage - not bad for an old lady ... Oh, she's great."

I was lucky enough to interview June earlier this week (in English), but you will have to wait a few months until that comes out in the magazine. In the meantime, check out this old news feature about Helmut, featuring a young Andre Leon Talley, bad eighties hairdos and Karen Mulder's laugh. Or try and get to Paris to see the exhibition. It is incredible (as is Paris in the spring).

Images courtesy of the Grand Palais and the Helmut Newton Estate.

www.helmutnewton.com

Alice Cavanagh

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