On June 21 2001, Leeta Harding interviewed Helmut Newton over lunch at the legendary Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich. Newton was in town for the opening of a major exhibition of his work at the de Pury & Luxembourg Gallery. Also in attendance was Newton’s friend and supporter Leon Constantiner.
LEETA: What’s your favorite magazine?
HELMUT: It’s called Housewives In Bondage. It’s a porno magazine that used to be for sale in Los Angeles. I don’t know whether it still exists, but it had very good content.
LEETA: Did you shoot for them?
HELMUT: Unfortunately, no.
LEETA: But you did shoot for Playboy.
HELMUT: Oh yes, I was a contributor for nineteen years. Now I think my work may be too kinky for Playboy. They’re nice people, very generous and understanding. My relationship with them was always quite good. But the man in charge in Chicago once wrote me a very formal letter, saying, “Helmut, you haven’t worked for us for such a long time. Do something for us … but nothing as kinky as what you do for French Vogue.”
LEETA: You once wrote that American Vogue in the ‘70s was quite daring to publish your photographs.
HELMUT: Yeah, Alex Liberman was great.
LEETA: He must have been.
HELMUT: Dangerous. We all feared him.
LEETA: Why? Was he a dictator?
HELMUT: The worst was when you were called into his office and he started off by saying, “Dear friend.” Then you knew you were up shit creek without a paddle. He was a great man.
LEETA: Did he always publish everything you sent him?
HELMUT: Oh, no. He would put all the photos up on the board, enough for ten pages. Then he would publish four-and-a-half. I would ask, what happened? And he would say, “You’ve got to stay flexible, Helmut.”
LEETA: Which magazine first published your work?
HELMUT: I started in the early ‘50s with Australian Vogue. Some of that work is in a book called Pages from the Glossies, which traces my fashion photography from Australia to the late ‘90s.
LEETA: Flipping through it you really get a sense of the consistency in your work — from beginning to end, it’s all strong. Do you follow any of the new magazines?
HELMUT: Well, there’s the Purple thing, and Dazed & Confused. They all ask me to contribute, but I just feel that those pages should be filled by young people, not by old geezers like me.
LEETA: And do you like the work of any of these young photographers?
HELMUT: Terry Richardson. I can see what he’s after. Some time ago I thought what he did was shocking for shocking’s sake. I find that sort of thing a little bit boring. But now I can see he’s got a certain handwriting that comes through.
LEETA: I usually feel that there’s some sort of narrative going on in your pictures.
HELMUT: Alex Liberman once said something that I liked very much: “Helmut’s pictures are like a story that has no beginning, no middle, and no end. You don’t know how it fits together, but it’s got a story.”
LEETA: That’s it exactly. Also, the women in your photographs always seem to possess a strong spirit. In a lot of other fashion photography, the models look so out-of-it and withdrawn.
HELMUT: I don’t like using girls who are already very famous. That way they don’t have a routine — which I prefer.
LEETA: What do you generally look for when you choose a girl?
HELMUT: It depends — my tastes change with the times. Every decade women’s bodies seem to be different. I remember when I first came to Paris in ’56, or ’57, all the models in the haute couture houses were little. They were five-foot six … and they were all French. Now you look at a French girl, and she’s like an American girl. It has to do with what they eat, working out, going jogging, bicycling. There’s an American influence on everything. Everybody looks the same around the world — sneakers and jeans.
LEETA: I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.
HELMUT: Then there was a time, in the early ’60s, when women had no waist. Remember the sack and the A-line dress? Before that, when I was in Australia in the ’50s, if a girl could wear a dog collar as a belt, that was the ultimate. Then you got the Twiggies. You know who Twiggy is don’t you?
LEETA: Yes, the original waif.
HELMUT: And then the big Swedish, German, and American girls came on the scene in the ‘80s. They were built like truck drivers, which is a look that I like. It was the heyday of the super models like Cindy Crawford — Cindy had a great quality. Then it went back to this kind of zonked-out, anorexic girl in the early ’90s.
LEETA: A lot of photographers in the ‘90s copied your style, using hard flash, hotel rooms, cars, even dogs.
HELMUT: I’ll tell you something, I’m touched if I can influence young people. I was influenced by Brassai, by Erich Salomon — they’re the people that I admired when I was very young. In fact, I still think there’s some Brassai in my photography — which is a good thing. But what really pisses me off is when famous photographers do it. I’m not mentioning names, but I’m thinking of a Versace campaign. You know the photo of the woman with the garters?
LEETA: You mean Steven Meisel?
HELMUT: Mind you, he’s a very good photographer. But it’s a dumb way to work. But look, young people have got to start somewhere. I grew up in the Bauhaus period, I looked at Maholy-Nacy, Cartesh [fc], and Brassai.
LEETA: They loved abstract shadows and sharp angles …
HELMUT: They all photographed from their balconies, and I still do the same. Which means that you either look down or you look up. And everybody photographed chimney stacks on the diagonal after Rodchenko — I think he was the first to do it.
LEETA: You’re really a child of European modernism.
HELMUT: Yeah. The first picture I ever took was of a fountain in Berlin. I was twelve years old. And what did I do? It wasn’t straight, it was diagonal, because I had seen all these diagonal pictures!
LEETA: The ‘20s and ‘30s were such an interesting period in photography, especially in Germany.
HELMUT: There was a lot happening there. There was a very important exhibition in Stuttgart called Film and Photo. And in America, of course, Margaret Bourke-White was fantastic. Beautiful woman, too. She must have been a wild lady. I read that during the war she would sleep with the American generals to gain access to the scenes she wanted to photograph. Apparently she was a very bad technician. She had an old man who did all her printing for her.
LEETA: Do you ever print for yourself?
HELMUT: I did when I was poor and young, but I was always a very bad printer. When I met my wife June, we had no money, so I would expose the print in the enlarger and she would do the processing. But I’ve worked with the same printers in Paris for years now. Nothing gets by them. There is never any retouching, sometimes a little cropping, but mostly my pictures are full frame.
LEETA: June really captures you in her own book of photographs, Alice Springs Portraits.
HELMUT: She’s a very good photographer. She’s got a gift, a natural eye.
LEETA: She works so closely with you on all your projects. Does June ever object to anything in your work?
HELMUT: Sometimes. Women have a different sensibility about flesh. Especially June — she’s very square.
LEETA: That’s not what I’ve heard.
HELMUT: You know, women are very unpredictable. I remember June once brought home two pictures by Robert Mapplethorpe. This was before anyone had ever heard of him. One was called “The Golden Shower.” When I saw it, I said, “Are you crazy? I’m not going to have this kind of stuff hanging on my walls.” But June said, “This is great.”
LEETA: I’ve always thought that you were instrumental in getting fashion photography out of the studio and into the street.
HELMUT: I shoot with a 35mm Canon. Ninety-percent of the time it’s on automatic. I even use the flash that’s on the camera. It’s really an amateur’s equipment.
LEETA: The underlying beauty in your photographs comes from the light. It seems very simple, but you really see light in the most nuanced way.
HELMUT: Did you see the last series I did for American Vogue, the bathing suits? They were done in a very big studio in Hollywood. They set up all these sophisticated, very professional lights. But I said, “Get rid of them.” I used my 35mm camera and flash. I generally use very, very little lighting.
LEETA: You’ve often said you prefer to shoot close to home, rather than go out and find exotic locations.
HELMUT: True. Years ago, I was in Maui shooting for American Vogue. One morning I got a call from Alex, who said “Helmut, move your ass out of the hotel and get into the crater,” — because there’s a big crater there — “I have had reports that you’re shooting everything around the hotel. That’s not what we want. We want to see more of Maui.” I think Vogue had done a deal with the tourist bureau there or something.
LEETA: I think it’s extraordinary that you photograph in color and in black-and-white equally well.
HELMUT: You know, a lot of stuff that I do, I double up. I shoot both color and black-and-white film. You never know. It’s a very fragile business, taking pictures.
LEETA: What kinds of things do you think about when you’re working in color?
HELMUT: I don’t think. And I’m color-blind.
HELMUT: Well, I can’t see the difference between green and blue. I like the colors to be strong. I don’t like this artistic monochromatic look that some photographers use. I tell my printer that I want the photograph to look like a postcard, “The sky’s got to be blue. The grass has got to be green.”
LEETA: The women you photograph all appear to be very strong. They look in control. I think you have a great understanding of female form and female sexuality.
HELMUT: Maybe I wanted to be a girl.
LEETA: So is the model a substitute for you?
HELMUT: Absolutely not. But I do think most photographers and fashion editors create images of who they want to be. Take Anna Wintour, who’s a very thin, chic woman. She will only have thin, chic young women around her and in her magazine.
LEETA: And what about you?
HELMUT: I’ve always liked the idea of cowboys — the way they look, they way they walk, especially in the movies. Why? A cowboy stands a certain way. He’s got a gun here, a gun there, his hands are always ready to draw. So I make the girls into cowgirls — with their hands ready to reach for the guns. But I don’t tell them, I just show them. I stand for them. I show them exactly what they should be doing.
LEETA: So the hands are always active?
HELMUT: The hands are very important. It’s not that they’re always active, but they must have a certain strength.
LEON: Helmut, why do you think you have been so misinterpreted and misread? Some people see you as a chauvinist. Do you think they don’t understand your sense of humor?
HELMUT: I don’t care. But when they say that I’m a pornographer, that’s stupid. I gave up fashion for two years because I’d done so much of it. I just worked for girlie magazines like Playboy and Oui. I did that to overcome the security that I had built up after years and years of working for Vogue. It’s true that I did make a pornographic film. But I only showed it once, in a museum.
LEON: The European art world has always been more accepting of your work. The museums in America are just now showing interest.
HELMUT: Well, let me tell you, there is a very important museum in a major American city — I’m not going to say where, but as I spend a lot of my time in California, you can imagine. Years ago the curator wanted to do a show of my work. And I told him he would never get approval. It had to go through ten stages with the trustees or whatever. By the ninth they said, “Sorry, but we’re planning to build a new extension. We need money. If we show Newton, we won’t get the money.” So the show was off. I didn’t give a shit.
LEON: That same show was exhibited at The National Gallery in Berlin.
HELMUT: It’s very nice to hang on a museum wall. I was very proud when I saw my work in Berlin. But I became a photographer because I like taking pictures, and I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve always been what I call a “gun for hire.” I’m not going to get any money from the museums. I get my real money from dress designers, and from people who build motorcars or supermarkets.
LEETA: I remember the advertising campaign that you did for Wolford, the hosiery company, in 1998. One day I was walking along Broadway at Times Square and I looked up to see this massive billboard. It was of a girl wearing silver tights and red spike heels. It was the hottest thing I’d ever seen in New York.
HELMUT: Unfortunately they had to take that down too. It was too much of a risk.
Via Index Magazine