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Posted on August 18th, 2012, by

Helmut Newton – Controversies in Fashion Photography and Female Body as an Art Form

The development of art is characterized by permanent search of new forms. Naturally, such a trend leads to the development of new genres, styles and even branches of art. In this respect, the development of photography is particularly interesting because in historical term this art is relatively new and dates back to 1800s. At the same time, photography gave life to new forms of visual art which are extremely popular nowadays, including cinematography, though it does not necessarily mean that photography is in decline at the present moment. On the contrary, photography remains popular and nowadays it is a constituent element of the modern art.

However, it is necessary to underline that photography cannot be viewed as a purely artistic form that cannot be used elsewhere. In this respect, it is possible to refer to fashion which made photography one of the tools with the help of which the recent trends in fashion can be easily conveyed to the mass audience. At the same time, it is necessary to underline that the evolution of fashion and art was dramatically influenced by the evolution of human culture, social life, norms and standards, moral value. As a result, art and fashion by means of photography reflect all substantial changes in social and cultural life.

It is worthy to note that traditionally female played an important role in art since many male artists were inspired by females as well as there were and still are a lot of gifted and original female artists. Naturally, with the development of photography female could not fail to contribute to its progress. It should be pointed out that female body became a form of art which was depicted in different and often unusual ways. In this respect, the works of Helmut Newton seem to be particularly important since they are often considered to be revolutionary though the assessment of his work may vary from total support to absolute rejection of his artistic forms. Anyway, regardless the attitude to his works, it is necessary to agree that Helmut Newton was the artist whose works were focused on the female body as an art form though the realization of his artistic ideas was quite arguable and characterized by numerous controversies which naturally engendered discussions concerning artistic value of his works and their significance.

Anyway, it is through Helmut Newton photography that the audience and specialists can learn about his views and beliefs and, on the other hand, his works perfectly reflect profound changes that took place in the society as well as culture at large throughout the 20th century.

The evolution of the female form as the work of art

First of all, it should be pointed out that Helmut Newton used the traditional form, i.e. the female form, but in quite an untraditional way. In order to fully understand the extent to which his works were innovative and unusual, it is necessary to briefly discuss the development of the female form as the work of art.

Traditionally, the female form was widely used in art at large and in visual art in particular. Unquestionably, this form was extremely popular throughout all epochs and it is quite natural that the invention of photography and its further progress draw attention of photographers to this traditional form. At the same time, it is worthy of mention that photography, being innovative branch of art, turned to be able to provide ample opportunities to artists to depict this traditional form in a new way. In fact, the evolution of the female form in photography from the 19th to the 20th centuries perfectly illustrates how these opportunities were realized.

In this respect, it should be said that initially photography was used in a quite limited way since the technology of 1830s did not allow developing mass printing of photos. As a rule, the photos were basically portraits and the female form was used only in a traditional way as a subject of depiction of female beauty that was typical for paintings.

Basically, the female form was used by photographers as a work of art in order to depict females as personification of beauty. What is probably even more important is the fact that the female form was often and mainly targeted at male audience and was practically destined to satisfy the needs and desires of this audience. In general, the female form was traditionally used to meet aesthetic goals.

However, gradually, the attitude to female form changed dramatically and became more pragmatic. It should be pointed out that the female form acquired new features and the main reason was the new goals and new audience of these works of art. To put it more precisely, the development of photography, implementation of new technology and socio-cultural changes, such as the development of feminist movement, enlarged substantially the audience photographers targeted at. Notably, women became an extremely important category whose interests and wishes photographers should take into consideration, especially with the development of fashion photography which actually was totally devoted to women’s interests. As a result, the traditional female form as a work of art gradually evolved into a fashionable figure of a woman today.

History of fashion photography

However, gradually as the technology progressed, the female form and its depiction by photographers had changed dramatically and fashion photography started to progress. One of the first photographers who started the dramatic shift in this field was Adolphe Braun. In 1851, he published a book containing photos of Virginia Oldoni, Countess de Castiglione, a Tuscan noblewoman at the court of Napoleon III. The photos depict her in her official court garb that actually made her the first fashion model. In such a way, Adolphe Braune was one of the first who managed to publish the book containing photos of a woman in different garbs that was quite innovative for that epoch and was soon widely used by other photographers and publishers stimulating the development of fashion photography. What is more, this was the beginning of the transformation of a traditional female form as a work of art into a fashionable figure that grew more popular in the decades to follow and became extremely popular in the 20th century.

Basically, the development of photography in the 20th century was characterized by the further progress of this trend. Due to halftone printing fashion photographs could be feature in magazines that stimulated the great progress of fashion industry and its spread by means of specialized fashion magazines which could not simply exist without photography. Among the first fashion magazines that appeared initially in Europe, notably France, were such French magazines as La Mode Pratique and Les Modes. Moreover, in 1909, Conde Nast took over Vogue magazine and also contributed to the beginning of fashion photography.

Speaking about the development of fashion photography which basically focused on female forms and actually was devoted to women, it is necessary to underline that special emphasis was placed on staging the shots. The innovator and inventor of this trend was Baron Adolphe de Meyer, who shot his models in natural environments and poses making them closer to ordinary women who readily followed the trends depicted in the fashion magazines which started to progress rapidly. To put it more precisely, in addition to Vogue, the new fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar was created. These two magazines became the leaders of the industry which totally transformed the traditional female form as a work of art into a fashionable figure of the modern woman.

Helmut Newton biography

The development of photography in the 20th century was rapid and accompanied by the invention of new genres, techniques and styles. At the same time, there are a few figures in photography that could be compared in their significance to Helmut Newton, who, as many believe (Hebdige 1995), revolutionized photography as a form of art of the 20th century. In fact, his work may be assessed and interpreted in different ways, his photos may be quite arguable but what is really undoubted is the trace he left in the photography of the 20th century.

Helmut Newton was born October 31, 1920 in Berlin. He was the sun of was a German-Jewish garment factory owner father and an American mother. From the early age he was extremely interested in photography and he had got his first camera at the age of 12. Naturally, he decided to become a photographer as he had grown up. Initially, he worked for the German photographer Yva and his style was dramatically influenced by national traditions.

However, being Jewish, Helmut Newton’s family had to flee from Nazi Germany and they moved to Singapore in 1938. There he worked as a photographer for the Straits Times before setting in Melbourne, Australia. When he arrived in Australia he was first interned as well as many other enemy aliens’ did. Later, he had been serving with the Australian army during the World War II. After the end of the war he worked as a fashion photographer for Australian Vogue. In 1948 he married his colleague, June Brown who also was an actress. His wife was also widely known as Alice Springs. Helmut Newton set up a studio in Flinders Lane and kept working on fashion photography.

He even assumed Australian nationality but in 1961 he had left Australia for Europe where he felt he could realize himself as a fashion photographer better than in Australia since Europe, notably France, was the center of the world fashion at the epoch.

Naturally, Helmut Newton settled in Paris and began extensive work as a fashion photographer. He contributed to many fashion magazines, including the most famous and popular ones such as French Vogue. His works were quite original and different from those of other photographers. In fact, Helmut Newton created his own particular style marked by erotic, stylized scenes, often with the sadomasochistic and fetishist contexts (Madoff 2003) that provoked numerous arguments concerning his creative worked and engendered severe criticism from the part of conservative critics and audience.

A heart attack in 1970 slowed his output somewhat but at the same time 1970s were marked by the great qualitative progress of his works, which though were next to scandalous. Basically, his fame for some and notoriety for others increased dramatically, especially with his 1980 Big Nude series which marked the pinnacle of his erotic-urban style (Stangos 2001).

It should be said that Helmut Newton never stopped loving his native city, Berlin and in October 2003, he donated an extensive photo collection to the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage. In his later life, he lived in Monte Carle and Los Angeles. He died tragically in the accident in the driveway of the famous Chateau Marmont, the hotel on Sunset Boulevard which served as his residence in Southern California. It has been speculated that he suffered a heart attack in the moments before the collision. His ashes are buried in Berlin, Germany.

Helmut Newton controversies

As it has already been said above, Helmut Newton’s works were highly controversial. Basically, controversies of his works are explained by their revolutionary character since his original style was quite different from canons of photography that existed in his epoch. In a way, it is possible to estimate that Helmut Newton was a photographer whose style, ideas and performance was not fully understood in his time, notably in the mid-20th century and 1970s but nowadays his works are perceived more objectively.

On analyzing the controversies that may be found in his works, it should be primarily pointed out that traditionally fashion photography creates an image of society and the role that women in it. In this respect, Helmut Newton works are particularly important since he perfectly felt the profound social and cultural changes that took place in the society and reflected them in his work. Naturally, the audience could not fully understand his insight view on the most significant trends that took place in social and cultural life because it is only gifted individuals that can do it.

It should be said that often Helmut Newton remained misunderstood by his contemporaries especially in 1970s-1980s. Feminists were probably the strongest opposition to his works since the image of a woman depicted by the photographer is really controversial. On the one hand, his photos tended to incorporate erotic elements which often were quite explicit combined with violent and provocative elements. As a result, his works were perceived as the works which exacerbated the difference between the sexes to such an extent that feminists accused him in misogyny and made a united stand against him. On the other hand, this was rather a simplistic view on his creative work and in order to better understand his ideas and intentions, it is necessary to analyze the other side of the medal.

It is really true that Helmut Newton’s works are aggressive, erotic and provocative and exactly in such a way solely were they perceived in the epoch of their creation. Nowadays, it is possible to view them in a different way that makes his creative work extremely controversial. To put it more precisely, in response to the irritation of feminists with his works, it is possible to estimate that Helmut Newton just attempted to reflect the sexual revolution and forecast its consequences in relation to women. From such a viewpoint, the women of Helmut Newton’s world are women who know and get what they want. In fact, they totally change the existing stereotype. For instance, often he was accused by his critics, especially from the part of feminists, of conceiving and producing photographs of that are pornographic, that reduce women to sexually attractive bodies (Steele 1999). However, in actuality, his works were not about objectifying his typically female subjects by presenting them in a sexualized manner but rather that he was attempting to contest or at least unsettle the dominant structures of the gaze or the visual pleasure. In such a way, in response to criticism from the part of feminist partially justified, it is possible to fid a counterargument, notably that Newton’s women are far removed from weak, compliant, sex-object dominated by the misogynist macho. Actually, this is the reason why his work had been found so shocking, for his staged photos thematize the discovery of this new kind of freedom and the fantasies that this freedom engenders.

Furthermore, many argued that Helmut Newton’s works violate the norms of Christian morality that is actually true.

However, it is possible to argue that it is not his fault and it was not him who changed the epoch but the epoch that changed the whole world, while he, in person, just reflected these changes in his photos. To put it more precisely, it should be said that the sexual revolution and other substantial social and cultural changes practically led to the decline of traditional Christian morality. Instead freedom in all aspects of life became the dominant moral principle. In fact, Christian morality had collapsed and Helmut Newton just forecasted the upcoming new epoch of new morality.

Also, it is possible to briefly dwell upon the genres he worked in, which are also quite controversial. Even though Helmut Newton himself divided all his works in three main categories – fashion, nude, and portraits he often mixed these genres so that a fashion photo could be nude, and vice versa, and a nude photo could also be a portrait.

 

The difference between female pornography and photographing females nude

In fact, often Helmut Newton was accused of making female pornography instead of photographing females nude.

This is why it is necessary to clearly distinguish these two categories and it is equally important to underline that regardless numerous accusation Helmut Newton’s works are anything but photographing females nude.

First of all, it should be said that female pornography is an extremely simplistic if not to say primitive view on females. Even though it basically implies nudity that may be amply observed in Newton’s works, but it also transforms females into a kind of objects, emphasizing only the sexual attractiveness of their bodies. On analyzing Newton’s works, it is getting to be obvious that the photographer did not attempt to annihilate females to the role of subjects depicted in a sexualized manner that would be pornographic. Instead, he attempts to have a more profound look on the female body as a form of art and his main goal is not just depict a nude body but to evoke some profound emotions by means of the visual pleasure his works can provide for the audience.

Finally, it should be said that his photos simply change the role of women that is not typical for pornography, which in contrast sticks to the depiction of women in a traditional dominated manner, while Helmut Newton, as it has been mentioned above, reveals them as free and new women of the new epoch. In this respect, aggressiveness and provocative character of his photos only make this impression stronger.

Helmut Newton’s promotion of fashion through his photography

Obviously, Helmut Newton’s works basically serve to primarily promote fashion and it is just the choice of the photographer to use the photography of females nude to achieve his goal. On the one hand, such a choice was really quite unusual since it could and did provoke strong opposition from the part of conservative and feminist circles but, on the other hand, such a choice was predetermined by the epoch and the most productive period in his career from 1960s to 1980s coincide with dramatic socio-cultural changes.

Consequently, the photographer had to find the original way to promote fashion that would be up-to-date and correspond to the needs of his time. In fact, his works were challenging but this was the challenge to the past, a kind of rebellion against traditional fashion photography of the first half and the middle of the 20th century. In such a situation, his innovative works naturally attracted the younger generation and contributed to the growing popularity of fashion at large and fashion photography in particular.

In fact, it is hardly possible to underestimate his contribution to the promotion of fashion since his works practically revolutionized the world of fashion. His photography made fashion more interesting revealing an alternative way for the culturally and morally rebellious generations of 1960-1970s. Helmut Newton actually showed a new way of original self-expression in the world of fashion.

Controversies of fashion in relation to identity

Unquestionably, Helmut Newton produced a significant impact on the development of fashion photography and fashion of the 20th century but indirectly he also produce a profound impact on all people who are interested in fashion. In this respect, it is necessary to underline that fashion plays an extremely role in the life of individuals, especially in the modern epoch but it is also characterized by serious controversies in relation to identity.

In fact, the development of fashion in the 20th century was unprecedented and rapid, not in the last turn due to the progress of fashion photography. However, the progress of fashion engendered a number of problems related to identity. It should be said that fashion, to a significant extent, defines individuals’ identity. On the one hand, fashion stimulates individuals’ creativity, imagination, affects their feelings and emotions, but, on the other hand, many people are getting to be dependent on fashion and attempt to follow all recent trends in fashion completely loosing their unique identity.

Seduction empowerment tool for women in the workplace

At the same time, fashion contributes to the seduction power of women which they can widely exploit in their personal and professional life. It is not a secret that fashion basically tends to create a positive image of an individual. In the case of females, fashion also tends to make them more seductive and sexually attracting to the opposite sex. As a result, as fashion interferes in all spheres of life, including work, seduction as a product of fashion can serve as an empowerment tool for women in the workplace. In such a way, due to fashion female could benefit from their position in workplace.

Conclusion

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Helmut Newton produced a profound impact on fashion and fashion photography and, consequently, on society as well. At the same time, his work helped the photographer to define himself as a professional, artist who perfectly felt the profound changes that took place in socio-cultural life of his epoch. Obviously, his works are highly controversial but it is natural for fashion which produces controversial impact on the society affecting individuals’ identity. Nonetheless, the criticism of Helmut Newton is not always justified since he has managed to bring in a new meaning to the portraying women in quite an unusual, even revolutionary for his epoch, way.

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