The infamous partnership between art and fashion is receiving overwhelming recognition throughout New York galleries and museums this Fall. From September to November, 10 Corso Como introduced Private Property by the world-renowned fashion photographer, Helmut Newton. Although Newton passed away in 2004, this specific set of photographs had never been exhibited in the United States. Initially Private Property was created in 1984, but Newton had not intended for these photographs to be seen publicly. This dossier of 45 gelatin silver prints covers a decade of Newton’s career, from 1971 to 1983, and presents a mix of unknown models with well-known celebrities who, at that time, were beginning to gain notoriety.
Back in the 1970s when New York City’s economy was almost bankrupt, and shadowed by increasing civil unrest, haute-couture glamor was mostly invisible from the decay of everyday urban life. Two decades earlier, following World War II, Irving Penn had established America’s postwar stature and set both subject matter and sitters within aristocratic pose. Due to this particular milieu, Penn’s images of products and fashion had very little connection to inner city lives, where creativity itself was its own, different language.
While most recall the 1980s as a video-mediated, kitsch-filled culture, New York City was also thriving with artists who populated the subculture, one that was gradually pulled closer to the mainstream, through a collective energy of curiosity, ambition and desire. Helmut Newton sought to close this gap by transforming the stereotypical representation of woman from a passive figure to a more active, heroic one. Unlike Penn whose female subjects exuded restrained elegance, Newton’s were less conforming and more independent.
By the early 1960s, Newton had already been working as a fashion photographer for both British Vogue and French Vogue. His pictures championed women through an aesthetic perfection, where art and artifice combined. Elsa Peretti, New York (1975) for instance, shows a masked model of an assertive nature, dressed up as a Playboy Bunny who stands on an outdoor balcony, with the skyscrapers of New York City flooding the background. The model’s tall figure is not only downsized by the outdoor urban architecture, but she also disengages with the camera, tosses her head to the right while holding a cigarette on the left. By subverting her role within this iconographic costume, Elsa Peretti lightens the iconographic weight that had long instilled fashion photography.
The portrait of Vivian F., Hotel Volney, New York (1972) shows the model as a call girl, dressed in black lingerie and ensconced at one corner of the bed. A white telephone, fur coat, gloves and luggage appear in the immediate background. This model also looks away from the camera suggesting that there is nothing to advertise. Woman into Man, Paris (1979) however, conveys the artist’s view of the female as a transgressive gender, by showing one figure as very feminine and the other as illustratively masculine. In each of these images Helmut Newton evokes the Flapper of the 1920s, a figure who was strikingly independent.
Helmut Newton’s well-staged photographs combined high-fashion with lavishness. On the one hand, he portrayed an ideal of the 1980s but also one that was an unattainable goal and thus, certainly a dream. Tied Up Torso, Ramatuelle (1980) and Self-Portrait with Wife and Models, Paris (1981) convey the heroic female nude. Within these two photographs, bare-chested, extravagant bodies weave together with impossible contexts. Similar to his photographic portraits of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Sigourney Weaver, Charlotte Rampling and David Bowie, the photographs of “Private Property” reflect staged dreams that were once based upon reality — one that everyone sought to escape from.
The American debut of Helmut Newton’s Private Property was made made possible by The Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin and Fondazione Sozzani in Milan for the opening occasion of 10 Corso Como in Manhattan’s renovated Fulton Market Building. In 2004 Helmut Newton died in Hollywood, California even though he was initially from Berlin by way of Australia. Newton’s staged photography became the intersection of the exotic with the erotic. The strong shadows and contrasts seen throughout his work also reveal his interest in the aesthetic of the theater, as an enclosed black box. Curator Matthias Harder suggested J.G. Ballard’s book titled The Crash that was made into a movie, as a source of inspiration. For Newton, women appeared as cinematic heroes similar to those seen in film noir. Carla Sozzani, the founder of 10 Corso Como, has long been a collector of Newton’s work. While building out Galleria Carla Sozzani, a Milan-based art gallery, Helmut Newton received four solo exhibitions between 1993 and 2003.
Jill Conner is an art critic based in New York City with a focus on Modern and Contemporary Art. Since 1997 Conner has contributed to publications such as Afterimage, Art in America, Art Papers, Interview Magazine, New Art Examiner, Performance Art Journal, Sculpture and Whitehot Magazine.