*If you like unbiased reporting, turn away now. I am about to go mega-enthusiastic on all y’all*
Last weekend, I went to Paris, and saw the Helmut Newton retrospective in the Grand Palais. It is a stunning building, fitting for such an incredible show. A good exhibition not only makes you oooh and aaaaah at the pretty pictures, it challenges how you think and this one left my head spinning. I got that feeling of awe you get when you read an amazing book and it messes with how you see things. Hyperbole? Only probably. Helmut’s work is at once elegant, refined, honest, brash, sexy and delicate. He elicits all kinds of emotions in his imagery – sometimes they are playful, sometimes they are full of humour, other times they are just the epitomy of chic and dripping with beauty. He didn’t retouch, instead he said “he photographed what he saw”. He never took two photos when he could take one, which is a lesson all of us in the digital age could learn.
Oh, did I mention Helmut Newton was a prolific photographer of nudes? Yea, he’s really famous for taking pictures of naked ladies. However, one of the things that struck me throughout the exhibition was how normal the nudes seemed, like flesh was just another outfit. They were purposeful, not purely titillating. Provocative, erotic, certainly, but not skeezy. Each image was an investigation, a comment. The male gaze is omnipresent in most art, and it is really hard to discuss the female form without assuming overt sexualisation, and certainly in his work it is sexualised. But I don’t know, it’s almost as if the sexualisation is a consequence rather than the motive. There is something empowering about the images. They are images of female nudity that don’t make other females isolated. He photographed all kinds of women, from supermodels to Californian policewomen and lots of shapes and sizes in between. They are all strong poses, confrontational almost. Sometimes fashion poses just with no clothes on. It seems that for Newton, nude and fashion photography are interchangeable and the two inform each other.
He clearly loved women, and not in a lairy, gross way, but genuinely loved female beauty and the female form. Is it weird that I’m talking about naked lady photos? Possibly, but this exhibition provoked me to think about a subject I would normally totally shy away from. While I accept that fashion boob is everywhere – just have a look at Tumblr – I never really consider it, or the impact it can have on self image, which is a not particularly feminist thing to do. I think what Newton’s work did was encourage me to be more comfortable with myself, because the images were not vulnerable, nor did they seem like they were to purely to entertain men – they were sexy, but in an empowered way. It was all very French. They seem a lot more comfortable with themselves than us. And really really chic. I reckon the two must go together somehow.
Enough about birds in the buff though, let’s talk about his fashion imagery. It continues to influence what we do today. Helmut Newton was a master of his craft. The exhibition incorporated a documentary by his wife June – Helmut by June (2007) . It was so inspiring to see him work. As with all masters, he was a complete perfectionist. But he also had a very natural and beautiful way of shooting. He had a wonderful awareness of what he was doing at all times. One of the quotes on the walls of the Grand Palais, taken from Helmut by June was “a good fashion photograph must resemble anything but a fashion photograph. A portrait, a souvenir, a paparazzi photograph”. This is an inspiring approach to FASHUN. Instead of making facsimile’s of fashion imagery, create a new story.
So, go to Paris and see this exhibition. It is so beautiful it will make you want to cry and will fill you full of joy so much so you will feel it bursting in your throat and then you will come out of it and be standing on the steps of the Grand Palais and you might actually burst because it is one of the most beautiful places ever.
*End of gushing*
This image basically describes what happened to us the entire time we were in Paris – never wear colour there. Ever. Even a bit.