Paging: Helmut Newton for the Masses

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Published September 14, 2009

“The Term â??political correctness’ has always appalled me, reminding me of Orwell’s Thought Police, and fascist regimes,” wrote Helmut Newton. Such was his unconventional mantra as recorded by his autobiography, the body of work in his pictures. Unsurprisingly, ten years ago, when Newton published the landmark photography monograph Sumo, he broke all rules. Weighing in at some 65 lbs and 480 pages, it remains the largest and most lavish photo book ever produced. A decade since its publication, this legendary book is being released again (Taschen), in trade edition format. Didn’t he tell you he favored democracy? (LEFT: GUNILLA BERGSTROM, PARIS, 1976)

The core themes of Newton’s images are straightforward: sex, money, mortality; Newton’s approach is similarly honest. Throughout his career, Newton worked with minimal equipment, limiting himself to two camera bodies, three lenses, a flashlight and an assistantâ??far from the big-budget, highly produced fashion images of today. With this approach he was able to achieve a visceral intimacy unrivaled by any photographer. The sexual charge present in Newton’s work is neither soft nor subtle. Looking at his photographs you feel like a voyeur intruding on a scene of which you are not part, and while you know you should close your eyes, it’s too exciting to walk away. The power of the original Sumo was that draw exactlyâ??the dichotomy of the intimate content of the images, and the massive size  of their display. Detailed lipstick smears on a glass, nail polished chipped, cellulite imperfections were all blown up larger-than-life, and reproduced in the highest quality technically possible. Amazingly, this translates seamlessly in to the smaller redux.

The contents of Sumo are rich, and multi-faceted, and exten0dt far past the fashion work for American, Italian, and French Vogue that Newton is best known for. Newton reports on the changing of the Moscow guards at Lenin’s tomb, and documens moray eels baring their fangs through aquarium glass. These, of course, are juxtaposed with difficult portraitsâ??a naked, and vulnerable Gianni Versace, Jo Champa with a gun in her mouth, Carla Bruni, perched on her father’s lap, displaying proudly her white-pantied crouch. There is even an image called Date Rape-an alarming, yet remarkably stylish photograph of a naked woman being grasped by her face by an unidentifiable figure behind her. Newton describes finding his photographic legs in France, saying “I packed my bags (my two cameras), and my wife into my white Porsche, and left for Paris… The moment I hit Paris I knew this was it. For living and for taking photographs.”

And with Sumo, Newton will take you to Paris; he will take you everywhere.