Helmut Newton by Helmut Newton

1. My Photography

The only thing there is to say about my photos is that they are never blurred! I've always taken photos, even when I was a kid in knickers. Photography fascinates me and, in addition, lets me live the way I want to live. I don't consider myself a photographer of the consumer society, but I work in a capitalistic system. I don't claim to produce art either. I've always worked on commission and I'll keep on doing so. With one slight difference over the last 15 years: I always work for others, but now I'm free to choose. That way there's no line between my personal work and what I sell. I don't stash my photos away in drawers under the socks. On the contrary -- I try to show them to the whole world everywhere. All I can say is that I have full control over my work. I call it making the system work for you. The people who use me have more money than I'll ever see. They are rich--they are industrial leaders, big companies, successful magazines. I don't feel sorry for them. But I also work for free sometimes. And it's just as much fun. I can do photos for magazines put out by young people who don't have enough money to pay the people who work for them. If they're doing something I think is interesting, and if I think I can help them out, then I do it for nothing.

2. My Training

I do a lot of portraits which, like nudes, stem from fashion photography, since I've always been a fashion photographer. In the beginning, I wanted to be a big reporter and travel around the world, but it didn't work out that way. When I was 18, I was in Singapore and flat broke. The Singapore Straight Times--it's still being published--offered me a job as a reporter. I had a beat-up Rolleiflex, but every time there was something to take a photo about, I got there too late. After two weeks they fired me, and for a long time I didn't have any money. My inspiration also comes partly from news photos. I really admire newspaper photographers. In my opinion, news is an exciting field for a photographer. I've studied the work of the papparazzi photographers very closely. For me, their photos are very powerful. I think that photography has been made too intellectual. Especially by beginners, or those who study photography but don't dare push the button.

3. The Subject

Q: As a photographer, you are an anti-formalist. Your reaction to fine arts implies that photography must, first and foremost, be the uniqueness of a look at a subject and not only at the form in which the subject is arranged.
A: Absolutely. The subject--that's the big question. That's what I'm interested in.
Q: How do you set up a shot?
A: It's a long process. Something no one knows about is that I do all of my work in writing first. I always carry around a little notebook in which I can jot down the minutest details concerning photos that I'll take some other time. I can't draw. So I make notes on props, lighting, the compositional parts of my picture. Perspiration under the arms, puffed-up lips, a kiss, a man's shoulder, a woman's hand, the inside of the elbow, the interplay of muscles, of vowels and consonants, a man and woman naked to the waist, a man.

4. The Message

There is no message in my photos. They are quite simple and don't need any explanation. If by chance they seem a little complex or if you need a while to understand them, it's simply because they are full of details and that a lot of things are happening. But usually they are very simple.

5. Staging A Shot

It's the staging I'm interested in. I also enjoy working at night. For the same reason: to be seen. I'm fascinated by that. Every photographer has his obsession, and that's mine. I'm used to using everything around me. When I take a picture of diamonds, for example--and I like shooting them on a beach in sunlight--I always have trouble with the insurance companies. They don't want you to take a step without a bodyguard. When I took these pictures, the hardest part was conveying the notion that these men were armed. The woman, the diamonds--they were easy. But I didn't want the bodyguards to notice that they were in the shot. Like a lot of photographers, I am also fascinated by store-window mannequins. I like to lead the viewer on a wild goose chase. Often the women in my photos seem like mannequins and the mannequins seem like humans. The mix-up amuses me, and I like to play on that ambiguity in my photos. Another one of my obsessions is swimming pools. When I was a boy, I competed in sports a lot. I love water, it fascinates me like swimming pools fascinate me, especially the ones in big cities.

6. A Special World

The world I photograph about is very particular: there are always, or almost always, the same kind of characters. There are always women, women who are apparently rich. I photograph the upper class because I'm well acquainted with it. And when someone asks me why I never show the other side of the coin, I reply that I don't really know much about it, but that there are other photographers who can do a marvelous job. I prefer to stick to what I know. If I took a picture of models in a poverty-stricken setting, it would be completely false. People have said that my photos have nothing at all to do with reality. That's not true: everything is based on reality.

7. Women

I don't work very much in the studio because I think that a woman cannot come to life in front of a white background. I want to show how a woman in a certain milieu lives, the kind of car she drives, her setting, what kind of men she sees. It doesn't matter where they come from--New York, Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo. Their nationality doesn't matter either. The women of a certain milieu, no matter where they're from, all look and dress alike. I am very impressed when I travel from one continent to another, from Paris to Beverly Hills; the women can't possibly resemble each other, but their clothes and makeup are always the same. It's a sign of the consumer society. You can buy a Saint Laurent anywhere in the world. I wanted to show the rules of a certain society. It's just bringing out into the open certain types of behavior.

8. Provocation
Q: What does the desire to provoke that so often underlies your work mean?
A: I like and look for reactions. I don't like kindness or gentleness. I want to provoke, but not by choice of subject, although I do need certain subjects in order to create new photographic effects, and especially to find new visual tension that the choice of these subjects allows me. If I drown a woman in props, or if I pose her like a signpost, if I contrast nudity with clothing, if I ask for a black bra under a light-colored blouse, I obtain or I'm looking for new interactions of tension which seem at first surprising and then are accepted. The only provocation I hate is that of the surrealist image. It has no place in my world.

9. Vulgarity

Q: Some works have been published under your name that are not without some vulgarity. How do you react to that?
A: I totally believe in these books. I love vulgarity. I am very attracted by bad taste--it is a lot more exciting than that supposed good taste which is nothing more than a standardized way of looking at things. I am proud of a book like Sleepless Nights. A little less of Secret Women, which was incredibly successful. I don't practise photography for myself, not for art. If the art world rejects me, all I can say is, "Good luck to the world of art." If I look for a real point of view, I'm not going to start by looking at what art will accept so I can conform to that. That's why in Sleepless Nights all that sadomasochism still seems interesting to me today. I always carry chains and padlocks in my car trunk, not for me but for my photos--and by the way, I never make the knots real tight.

[source text: "Helmut Newton by Helmut Newton" in Helmut Newton (New York: Pantheon Press, 1987)]

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