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The dark room of a photographer's life

Helmut Newton Autobiography Helmut Newton Doubleday: 320 pp., $27.95

September 14, 2003|Joan Juliet Buck | Joan Juliet Buck is the former editor in chief of Paris Vogue from 1994 to 2000.

It may turn out that fashion photography was a 20th century phenomenon, born, along with fashion magazines, at the intersection of commerce and art. It has produced three masters, none of them young: Irving Penn, born in 1917, Richard Avedon, born in 1923, and Helmut Newton, born in 1920. Penn and Avedon, with their use of white backgrounds and strong light, are the Apollonians, Newton the prince of darkness. Born in Germany and transformed during World War II into an Australian, this gregarious, cranky, charming man with a drawling accent and the candor of a Berliner returned to Europe in 1961 and began shooting for the French, then English, then American Vogue.

Over the last four decades, his compelling photographs have made sexual provocation and menace a part of fashion and allowed us to see the potential for danger, mystery and juice in our time. There was even a thriller built around his work, "The Eyes of Laura Mars."

Newton uses certain elements in his photos so consistently that they amount to fetishes: tall women, short men, dark shadows, white skin, dark lipstick, long legs, exposed breasts, and very high heels. He likes hotel rooms, beaches and parks, has an affection for leather, cross-dressing and women in various kinds of trusses and braces. He has been much copied by other photographers whose heavy pastiches have infected the pages of magazines, but no one can approximate him. His photographs describe a polished demimonde so sexually specific as to appear a dogged re-creation of fantasies and memories, as if he were trying to rebuild a lost world.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I've known Newton for years and worked with him occasionally, as a writer and as an editor.)

With the publication of his autobiography at age 82, Newton's lost world is revealed, and so is his character: a Candide whose journey from spoiled rich kid to refugee to gigolo to political prisoner to ringmaster of stylish fantasies, narrated in a flat conversational tone, reveals boundless optimism and an endless appetite for what we'll call boom boom.

He was born into the Jewish bourgeoisie of Berlin. His mother, known as Klara or Claire, was a wealthy widow with one son, Hans, when she married Max Neustadter, a poor soldier from Silesia who took over running her late husband's factory, which made buckles and buttons.

Claire had an ample bosom, beautiful legs and frequent attacks of "nerves." She dressed their son Helmut as a girl, in velvet suits with high collars, taffeta bows and short pants, and kept his hair long, in a Louise Brooks bob. He was a cosseted child, 10 years younger than his half brother, Hans. He had weak ankles, a tendency to faint and a short attention span. "I was insufferable, but I was cute," he writes. A chauffeur conveyed him to school, where the other children beat him up. "Not because I was Jewish, but because I couldn't defend myself." His was a secular, wealthy household where Christmas was celebrated and the synagogue ignored.

"Many of my fashion photographs have been taken in places that remind me of my childhood," he writes. By the beginning of the first chapter, the essential elements of Newton's photos are there. The dark rooms: an apartment "as big as a house" on the Innsbruckerstrasse, with a green tiled stove in the foyer, parquet floors, Oriental carpets and heavy dark furniture with turned legs that "looked like giant corkscrews." The towering women: "great big" East Prussian housemaids. A focused attention on said women: 3-year-old Helmut in bed, watching his half-naked nurse, the Kinderfraulein, putting on makeup, and becoming excited by his mother's bare arms when she comes in to kiss him wearing only pearls, a bra and a slip, which, he notes, is always flesh colored. The louche surroundings: his parents taking "cures" in the summer at spa hotels where "a gigolo and a gigolette sat at separate tables away from the customers."

Menace: "I would stand on the balcony ... to watch the Zeppelin come in from America, and I would look down the street and watch the pitched battles between the cops and communists and Nazis."

And sex: Hans showed him his first prostitute on the street, "Red Erna," so named for her red hair and red riding boots. She carried a whip. He masturbated so much that his mother took him to the family doctor, who advised him to "do boom-boom with girls," and once he had done so, he told his mother. She increased his pocket money so he could buy condoms, because "I don't want you bringing any stuffed pigeons home."

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