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Why I don't like Helmut Newton - click opera
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Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 11:59 am
Why I don't like Helmut Newton

Yesterday, on our way to the zoo, Hisae and I visited Berlin's Museum for Photography -- which, since 2004, has been a shrine to Berlin-born, Hollywood-dead photographer Helmut Newton.



The building faces a statue of a Teutonic knight, a memorial for the fallen German warriors of World War One. If you follow this mournful knight's gaze into the museum lobby it's met by something much less apologetic in its aggression, much more steely -- the fuck-you glare of a series of vast Newton nudes hung halfway up the grand, symmetrical staircase.



I wanted to write something about the oddness of this museum, a place where aggressive yet strangely unsexy photographs of naked bodies have become a new sort of official culture, a place where nudity has become armoured, metallic, martial. Googling for pictures of the lobby, I discovered that in 1909 the same staircase had a series of images of soldiers in the exact positions the Newton nudes now occupy -- to very much the same effect.

Despite liking naked female bodies very much, I've always hated Newton's images. I dislike the place where fashion and SM imagery meet. I dislike "stylist sneer syndrome" -- the attempt to offset the passive subordination of the model by demanding she adopt an expression of arbitrary and spurious aggression, sometimes punky. I dislike Ballard's Crash and Tarantino's Kill Bill. In fact, I dislike anyone who thinks it's "empowering" to show women in various states of undress as castrating or killing machines. It's a particularly stupid male fantasy of a certain vintage. Ballard correctly stated, in a 1999 article for Bookforum about Newton, that "he desexualizes his subject matter. His photographs drain the libido from the once-charged spaces of the late 20th Century, from hotel bedrooms and luxury bathrooms, and from those penthouse apartments where unwatched porn films play behind the heads of people with more pressing concerns than pleasure or pain."

"'I’ve always liked the idea of cowboys" Newton told Index magazine a couple of years before he died " — 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."

If they aren't cowboys, these nudes are 1940s pin-up girls painted on the side of martial aircraft, phallic tailfins from 1950s cars, terminators, replicants, robots, soldiers, extras in Robert Palmer's Addicted To Love video, Betty Page-style whipper-nannies. They stand in the hotel corridor, musclebound in underwear, suspenders and stilettos, with a withering look on their faces. "Suck my cock!" they're commanded to command, and then "Whoops, I don't have one!" and then "Damn this penis envy, I'm going to buy a pistol!"

It's one of the most pathetic fallacies of the Anglosphere that this vintage Teutonic-American fantasy figure -- think of Brigitte Neilsen with her peroxide crop and Pershing hooters -- is passed off as some kind of feminism. Policewoman feminism, I call it. It's the moment when TV cop shows ran out of steam in the 70s and some exec had the idea to do a cop show in which the cop was a woman. And so the tired old normative-authoritarian tropes not only got their wretched lives extended, they got to pose as some kind of lefty liberation. Women could be men too! Policewomen could be policemen! The pistol was the missing phallus! Screw this business of deconstructing patriarchy, just let us in! All of mankind will one day be men! Or, better yet, naked killer cowboys! Screw women! Yes, screw them! Plug them! Bang bang!

Add to "stylist sneer" and "policewoman feminism" the charge of "genetic fascism": as k-punk noted when Newton died, "the real elitism in Newton's images is not of gender, but of privilege and beauty. He lays down wreathes for a genetic aristocracy whose magnificence we plebeians can either revere or resent".

The Berlin Photography museum has a weird section called Helmut Newton's Private Property, where you can see locks of Newton's hair, his cancelled passports, ensembles of the clothes he was wearing when he received the Medaille D'Or from Jacques Chirac, a model of his living room, his old cameras, his bookshelves, and a film of him bossing a naked girl about, making her do his fetish poses, become his kind of cowboy. It's all, finally, a tribute to the penis-as-weapon, and yet it leaves the penis-as-desire buried in a cold metal sheath. Nudity has never looked less fuckable or -- in this museum -- more bullyingly public and official.

62CommentReplyShare

olamina
olamina
blackgirlgenius
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)

Bravo! Great piece! I never liked Newton but I never stopped to think why. While I actually don't mind the idea of a tough desexualized nude, these nudes were no challenge to the status quo.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 12:28 pm (UTC)

I´m so shocked, how dare someone take pictures of naked women that aren´t sexy. I thought that was the point of women?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 12:33 pm (UTC)

I think Newton thought they were sexy. I just don't share his particular fantasy-set. De gustibus non est disputandum etcetera...


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 12:29 pm (UTC)

Then again I´m a ´masculine´ woman so I guess I´m a genetic fascist anyway, right? Or at least have penis envy.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)
Lick my shiny monochrome high heels, worm.

Photography is my leisure job, an express interest and something I have some very definite opinions about.
I must say I absolutely agree with your sentiments on Newton, there are quite a number of famous hugely over-rated photographers I do not like but Avedon and Newton particularly come into my cross-hairs.
The photography I find myself most drawn through has a certain snapshot quality - I'm particularly enjoying a book of Robert Frank's pictures at present for example - and as such Newton is the antithesis of that photographic aesthetic.
Newton's pictures meticulously technique-based images are cold, militaristic, posey, enforced, pretentious, inorganic, unsexy and profoundly, profoundly fucking boring.
Thomas Scott.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Lick my shiny monochrome high heels, worm.

It's funny, there are certain parallels between Newton's images and the performance pieces of Vanessa Beecroft, which I don't object to in quite the same way. The military parallel is there too -- Beecroft's women are depersonalized, and interchangeable. They're naked in stilettos a lot of the time, and yet seem to be clothed and invulnerable. They can be replaced (as in the Intrepid performance held on a battleship) by uniformed soldiers with surprisingly little difference in effect.

Is it just that Newton is a man and Beecroft a woman, or is there some essential estrangement going on in Beecroft which makes it all rather more wholesome?


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 01:02 pm (UTC)

I see no distinction between Helmut Newton, 'Big Uns' monthly and the Observer Women's Magazine. They all say, within varying degrees of taste and prudery: Women's bodies are the sexual territory, men are operators on or around that territory. It's unfair to women, it's unfair to men, and it's more of a burqua culture than we'll ever know.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC)

At least 'Big Uns' monthly doesn't go for quite as much patina,nor does it call itself art.
Thomas.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 01:05 pm (UTC)
Three Cheers For Men's Cocks

Men are so lucky, we have beautiful cocks and balls and they don't piss blood every month. (Well, not every month. Hey, it's on my 'to do' list, okay?)


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 01:12 pm (UTC)

Newton had a brilliant, charged aesthetic, a queasy collision of high modernism and pomo commercialism. I really couldn't give a shit about the "morality" of whether these images are "another male fantasy". What pictures made by men of women aren't? I think you need to take another step back from it, k-punk's entry is closer to describing what makes Newton's oeuvre work, albeit from a limited leftist perspective. Try and forget about your personal kinks for a second, the "sexuality" of these pictures is the least interesting thing about them.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)

But if the sum of the Momus' aesthetic is 'does it get my dick hard', then he's a born art lecturer!


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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC)

Any real Japanophile doesn't like Kill Bill.

What a very rockist statement.


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fireflesh
fireflesh
fireflesh
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 02:39 pm (UTC)

These images ignite in me a fantasy of myself and of other women that give me joy, strength, mental acumen and, sometimes, clitoral titillation. Yes, clitoral titillation--because I find it far more oppressive that you assume every robust woman has penis envy--when we have a soft, spongy projectile organ of our own.

I hardly think I'm acting the part of the daughter of the patriarchy by reveling in the archetype Mr. Newton articulated so consistently. I work every day specifically to prosecute and disarm violently oppressive dictators--while providing rectification and reconciliation to the survivors of mass atrocity--and my cubicle is adorned with the images of Mr. Newton's women. This is in no way a concession to "fuck me feminism" or some other two-faced pop psych term. It is instead a simple recognition of the contradiction inherent in my life, of new and refreshing ways of expressing beauty and power, exactly because these images DO NOT resort to over-played tropes of simple fascism. The livid, hungry naked woman (curved stomach highlighted, legs akimbo, giant furry pelt thrust forward) contradicts the cold homosocial matrices of power.

What exactly about the fleshly, Northern, long-legged woman is so very fascist to you?

Sometimes I wish you would admit to simply resenting any form of power you have no avenue into possessing, instead of collapsing everything you see into spirals upon spirals of gendered binary and watered-down late Freud. It gets boring to everyone, but is plainly offensive to the women for whom you deign to speak.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 03:15 pm (UTC)

I think your direct sexual response to them is great, and personal to you. But I can understand someone asking 'But why does power HAVE to keep coming into sexuality? Why defend defend, pretend pretend, why not just be our honest, charming selves?' Is it, ultimately, a coping with body fear, a model of the paranoid pole position; a sexuality full of life's other wish lists.


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mountaintops
mountaintops
nai
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)

ugh, i agree. i have never liked his stuff for exactly this reason. not appealing at all & i hate how people look to him as a legend.


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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 03:56 pm (UTC)
A Pomosexual's Wet Dream


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
Re: A Pomosexual's Wet Dream


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hollowuvula
hollowuvula
denial o'niall
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 04:36 pm (UTC)

Hear hear!


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mippy
mippy
Wronger Than Ten Hitlers
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 04:59 pm (UTC)

I enjoyed this entry. Just so you know.


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_ponytails
_ponytails
ponytails
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC)

life/sex...


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peacelovgranola
-
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC)

yes, something is off about newton's high-modernist
stupid male fantasy image thing, as well as about the pubescent
schoolgirl sucking on your finger stupid male fantasy image thing,
too...both are hardly "empowering" anyone.

new leftists take note: old squares' fetishes are fascistic, ours
are ironic and transgressive (read: not subject to the same level
of criticism--they're "given a pass").

but, finally, there's no accounting for kinks, i guess...


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silenceinspades
silenceinspades
silence in spades
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 12:15 am (UTC)


new leftists take note: old squares' fetishes are fascistic, ours
are ironic and transgressive (read: not subject to the same level
of criticism--they're "given a pass").


yeah. newton is just too 80s to be sexy.


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rodebrecht
Robert
Sat, Aug. 4th, 2007 08:45 pm (UTC)

"You're wonderful! You're a wonderful woman! No, no, you're more than a woman, you're a man!"


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 02:38 am (UTC)

"Whimsy" is right! I despise cunts (yeeeaahhh....I said it) who instead of actually contributing to a discussion, fall back on some shit pun or "witty" comment to make themselves seem interesting. Clearly, looking at your your photo, you're somebody that deserves to be culled. I mean, you even bothered to post an image to illustrate what a useless sack of shite you are. Pull yourself together, fuckwit.


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murdermystery
murdermystery
FORGET ABOUT THE KILLER, STRIP NUDE FOR ME
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 12:33 am (UTC)

I think Newton is an amazing photographer of the fantastique, whether one looks at it as a power trip or not. Passing it off due to the aggressive projection of fetishism seems a bit reductive.


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beketaten
beketaten
Juliet
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 02:59 am (UTC)

gosh, stop policing other people's sexual fantasies. everyone's into their own thing, and it's all good.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 03:41 am (UTC)

NO! Don't you realise that MEN IN TANKS are BOMBING fucking villages and KILLING LITTLE KIDS because the world is TOO NASTY and that Helmut Newton CONTRIBUTES TO THIS MISERY.

Sinead O'Connor mode *off*


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bonsai_human
Bonsai Human
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)

I dislike anyone who thinks it's "empowering" to show women in various states of undress as castrating or killing machines.

Is this because you prefer the dominated woman? From reading your posts about porn, you seem to enjoy depictions of women as docile and submissive (i.e. the cliche - not the truth in my experience - of the Japanese woman). I personally find that far, far more distasteful (and dangerous).


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 04:09 am (UTC)

see peace love and granola's well-meaning
post above about (old leftist-style) hypocrisy. :)

yes, not the truth about japanese women--only one
of the fantasies of those who continue to "orientalize" them,
i suspect. (i'd not include momus here).

michael


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
meh.

meh -- you can apply the reasons you hate newton to any artist who has left a clear-cut legacy in his/her wake.

you'd be worshipping him if the photo above were four 22-year-old 152cm-tall japanese art students wearing floppy hats and pastel cotton underwear.

oh, and you just know he was doing something downright dirty in the hotel moments before he died -- and that's probably why he did... who doesn't want to go out like that??


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 12:52 pm (UTC)
meh.

meh -- you can apply your hating sentiments to any artist who has left a clear-cut legacy in his/her wake.

you'd be worshipping him if the photo above were four 22-year-old 152cm-tall japanese art students wearing floppy hats and pastel cotton underwear.

oh, and you just know he was doing something downright dirty in the hotel moments before he died -- and that's probably why he did... who doesn't want to go out like that??


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)

There are three types of entries on imomus: a) those declaring dislike for something, typically not just on aesthetic / individualistic, but also on moral grounds, also typically with some, however strenuous link to US (politics, culture, whatever); b) those declaring love for something, typically not just on aesthetic / individualistic, but also on moral grounds, also typically with some, however strenuous link to Japan (never politics, always culture); c) those promoting Momus' own music.

If there were only type c) posts, this blog would contain a lot less bullshit -- but it would be a lot less entertaining.

der.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Aug. 5th, 2007 11:30 pm (UTC)

Hmm, I wonder which of these three categories Zoo orchestrates exoticism fits? I suppose it's secretly anti-American.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Aug. 6th, 2007 01:05 am (UTC)

I notice you don't include any suggestions of "woman as a gay man" which comes right to my mind when I look at these pictures. I would say that definately applies when you look at the here and now version of this type of photography especially the Dolce & Gabbana "rape" commercial.

-Marc.


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eustaceplimsoll
Eustace Plimsoll
Mon, Aug. 6th, 2007 11:31 am (UTC)

I used LSD for the first time a couple of months ago. In my room, above my desk, there's a picture of Simone Weil aged about 13, very beautiful. As I looked at the photograph, many women's faces passed through the underlying form, and feminine love and mystery shone through all of them, almost incredibly potent - I was either totally off my onion or it was a deeply meaningful and nourishing vision. I choose the latter of course. Anyway, after this, I was inspired to take out and inspect my 'weapon'; I spent a long time WEEPING with laughter at the pathetic thing! In its defence, it also struck me that it was like a weary little pilgrim, quite noble in its way.




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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 9th, 2007 08:03 am (UTC)

Bloody hell! I should probably try LSD some time.


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