“Some people say photography is an art. Mine is not. I’m a gun for hire.”
The motto at the entrance of the Grand Palais in Paris reveals a lot about the photographer whom the current exhibition is celebrating: Helmut Newton was a provocateur.
Although he worked for the glossiest fashion magazines in the world, he liked to portray his models in the trashy style of tabloids. They often seem caught unawares in a private moment by an indiscreet paparazzo, far removed from the conventional poses on the chic Avenue Montaigne or Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore.
“I’m attracted to bad taste,” Newton said. “It’s much more exciting than the cliches parading as good taste.”
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It’s no surprise that he collected old mug shots.
Newton (1920-2004) was born Helmut Neustadter in Berlin. He Anglicized his name after emigrating to Australia where he served in the army during World War II. He later worked as a portrait photographer in Melbourne, specializing in weddings.
In 1957, he and his wife, the actress June Brunell, moved to Europe, first to London, then to Paris where he found a well- paid job with Vogue. In 1981, when the Socialists came to power, the couple settled in Monte Carlo for tax reasons.
Three years later, the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris mounted a retrospective of the photographer, by then as famous as Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and the other famous designers with whom he worked.
In 2004, at 83, he died in a car crash on Sunset Boulevard.
Organized by Newton’s widow, the Grand Palais exhibition – the first major show in Paris since his death – gathers about 200 images, including some very large formats, all printed under the photographer’s supervision.
Fashion, of course, is the show’s focal point. There are plenty of examples of the satirical Newton touch: One model is running away from a biplane, like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s 1959 film “North by Northwest.”
A diptych presents the same group of models twice – nude on the left, fully dressed on the right. The title “Sie kommen” (Here They Come) could be interpreted as an ironic allusion to the Prussian army.
Another symbol of Prussia, the spiked helmet, pops up in a rape scene. Sadomasochistic scenarios were a Newton specialty: He traveled with handcuffs and chains, though he insisted they were for professional, not personal use.
Newton frequently was accused of misogyny, and he could be demanding toward his models. Yet they came back, eager to pose for him, as did celebrities.
From Salvador Dali to Margaret Thatcher, Liz Taylor to Claus von Bulow and Leni Riefenstahl to Paloma Picasso (with monocle, echoing an Otto Dix painting) – they all sat for him.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of France’s extreme- right Front National, is portrayed with his two Dobermans. Recently asked by “Le Monde” newspaper whether the allusion to an image of Hitler and his German shepherd bothered him, Le Pen said: “Not at all. Lots of people pose with their dogs. And lots of people see Hitler everywhere.”
The show runs through June 17.