In 1920, Helmut Newton was born into the Schöneberg region of Berlin. When David Bowie rocked up to the same spot 50 years later, it was the heady decadent days of Newton’s upbringing that he was fantasising about.
The swinging sixties get a lot of credit as the chequered flag marking the age of liberation and progress, but in Europe, between the wars, a budding bohemian revolution was already underway to such a rabid extent that it often descended into decadent oblivion. Berlin in the mid-1920s was a cesspit of hedonism that would even make David Bowie at his rock ‘n’ roll pinnacle blush with prudence.
Bob Dylan may have sung “the times, they are a’changing” but Marlene Dietrich and the likes had already stubbed out the smouldering cares of the past under a sauntering heel and were lighting up the future with a phosphorescent flare of unapologetic bravura.
To give you a whiff of the zeitgeist, the cultural queen of Berlin was Anita Berber, a lesbian cabaret star who was married to the sex scientist Magnus Hirschfeld. In the cabaret bars, she was known to mix an equal measure of chloroform, morphine and ether in a small rice bowl on the table. She would then remove a single white rose from her handbag and gracefully begin to stir the mind-bending concoction. Then, like some sort of demented gardener of all things Godless, she would eat the rose petals dipped in the ‘Class A’ potion and, presumably, the high kicks would soon cease thereafter.
This pungent scene of sexual liberation and skylarking heathenry flowed over from Berlin into the kaleidoscopic scene of Parisian café culture and beyond. The streets were awash with artistry, an atmospheric boom of sanguine spring following the dark winter of the war, and all those things that money can’t buy like poverty. This was a mind-blowing scene for any child to be brought into, but the worth of the eye-lid peeling frenzy of pure emancipation would soon be known to Newton in the wash of horrors to come.
The Nazi’s used the phrase ‘Berlinerluft’ to describe what they perceived to be an alkaline chemical present in the air clinging to the bohemian sprawl. They saw this as the only feasible explanation for the ‘excessive self-liberation’ that the city enjoyed. They believed it was alkane chemicals making the Berliners ‘perverts’. It is a ludicrous truth in the pages of history; however, the evidence was empirical; people were seemingly going wild on the sweet air blessed by a favourable Ph scale. Amid the despair of the 1930s, the city was still a cocktail shaker of decadence and dumbfounding sights.
In 1938, the Nazi forces would attempt to quash the culture of Berlin and Helmut Newton was forced to flee. He grabbed two still cameras, left his home behind, and absconded to safety. Though on the surface his work might simply be dubbed as ‘fashion’ photography, it is underpinned by the clash of this horrific incident and the liberty that unspooled around him before its tragic end. Forever in the welter, it is this depth that brings the alluring lustre to his work. As such, it is a sense of artistic defiance and the empowerment of scorned culture that forms the iconography of the Vogue movement. As he said himself: “I hate good taste. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a creative person.”
Following his fleeing from the horrors of a besieged home, he eventually found himself living in Australia. Here he met the actress June Brunell who posed for him as a model and within a year they were married. Ten years later, in 1956 Newton acquired a one-year contract with British Vogue, and with that, despite quitting with a month to spare, his legacy was sealed as was the aesthetic of Vogue.
1956 was the dawn of sexual liberation as existing ideologies were challenged by pop culture, post-war philosophies and the rise of contraceptive technologies. It was the same year that the snake-hips of Elvis Presley led CBS to the decree that he was only to be filmed from the waist up following his gyrating antics on The Ed Sullivan Show. Meanwhile, in the literary world, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious became the uber-salacious and provocative best-seller that thrust sex unapologetically into the living rooms of the masses.
In short, the raucous ways of his youth were returning, and he was not only keen to capture them but to spearhead them while he coloured them in the hue of his own singular aesthetic. Throughout his life, he had been somewhat of a travelling outsider and that is how he saw his snaps, as he once declared: “I am a professional voyeur.”
In his work women boldly took centre stage and he ensured that they subtly soared therein. However, it is also notable that he was working in a period where liberation ran alongside sexual exploitation that we are still evidently coming to terms with to this day. “There must be a certain look of availability in the women I photograph,” he once said. “I think the woman who gives the appearance of being available is sexually much more exciting than a woman who’s completely distant. This sense of availability I find erotic.” Although this quote in itself might not be nettlesome on the surface, it is, nevertheless, indicative of the era he operated in.
Now his work resides as not only some of the most iconic of the 20th century but also among the most viewed. Whether hanging up in fancy cocktail bars or galleries alike, Newton’s art offers up a striking impact, proudly sporting the philosophy that if you’re going to capture an image, then at least make it worthwhile.
You can check out some of the most striking pictures selected from his SUMO collection below.