INTERVIEW : How many fantasies can one man have?

The photographer Helmut Newton has a thing about scars. And surgical appliances. And breasts. But that doesn't make him a sexual fantasist. Oh no. By Helen Birch
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The Independent Culture
Half-way through our allotted hour, Helmut Newton is getting restless again. We've already left the privacy of the print room of his London gallery, Hamiltons, so that he can bounce up and down on the bannister to relieve the pain of his hernia. "Ah, this is better," he says, smiling, brown button eyes mischievous behind round glasses. "Well, go on, fire away." And now, having neatly sidestepped interview convention, he's wandered off in search of the "powers that be" - his wife, June.

Is he bored? "No." Then, "Do you like it?" He turns to face the woman standing beside June, who is examining a 7ft black-and-white print of a nude, head flung backward, hair teased and sprayed and breasts jutting upwards like two fairy cakes.

"I love it darling," the woman purrs, plums rolling round her mouth. "I think they're all marvellous. We're just trying to work out which tits are real. These look as if they were assisted." "They're amazing," says Helmut, reverently. I hate redone boobs, but this is an amazing job." His friend walks over to another picture, this one of a woman perched on a sculpture of a horse, torso twisted like a corkscrew. "Amazing body," says Helmut. His voice is hushed with awe. "It was an extraordinary body, you know. I wanted to show her behind and her breasts. And I said, 'twist more'. I don't know how she did it. It was like ball bearings. But an incredible body."

Helmut Newton gives his critics plenty of ammunition. Since the Seventies, when his fashion photography brought fetishism and nudity off the top shelf, out of the sex shop and into the glossy pages of French Vogue and Der Stern, his images of women, legs splayed, breasts bared, often clad in little more than a pair of impossibly high heels, suspenders and a chain, whip or handcuffs, have made him one of photography's few brand names. The Newton photograph is a sexual tableau, carefully confected and tastefully lit, his favourite mise en scene an opulent hotel room or chateau garden. It is for Newton that the term "pornochic" was invented, and it is he, his detractors say, who has helped make pornography acceptable. Only his technique, the argument goes, gives his pictures of women - cold and objectified as they invariably are - the veneer of artistic credibility.

Then there is the fact that Newton has been widely imitated. Newton took fashion photography to the edge, and now it may have fallen into the abyss. Over the years Newton has ducked and dived around this issue, trotting out platitudes about his admiration for women and literal-minded statements such as this: "You can see that any idiot could get out of those ropes," (when asked whether he is degrading women by depicting them in bondage). Now, however, he declares himself "bored" by the whole subject. I ask him what he makes of the recent attack by Laraine Ashton, managing director of IMG models, on the exploitation of models in women's magazines. "A British newspaper," he says, limbering up on his bannister, "faxed me and asked me to say something about that. I said I had too much work to do to talk about such bullshit. The whole thing was ridiculous."

Newton was born in Berlin but fled in 1938, under the shadow of Hitler. This fact, coupled with his professional penchant for lush black and white and high class S&M, has led to the trite observation that he is obsessed with Weimar decadence - "come to the Cabaret, old chum". He has, however, lived longer outside his native country than in it. He currently lives in Monte Carlo with June, a photographer who works under the name of Alice Springs, to whom he has been married for 47 years.

"There's sun there and low taxes," he says matter of factly. "I lived 26 years in Paris and I wanted to leave because I'd photographed everything there that I wanted and the climate was getting me down and the 70 per cent taxes were getting me down." He stresses the contrast between the glitzy world of his pictures and his cosy lifestyle. His wife, he says (and this is one subject on which he is consistent), has always supported his work with nudes, encouraged him to push the boat out further. And he likes Monte Carlo because "it's very quiet in there and I go to bed early and get up early. My wife calls me Helmut the hermit."

The difficulty with Newton's work has always been its wit and its knowingness. Unlike "the reader's wife", snapped in sweaty disarray, his women are untouchable, poised, in control. They exude a power that has less to do with sex than with the detachment their bourgeois surroundings confer. They gaze haughtily at the onlooker from their sybaritic bondage, without so much as a hint of pleasure, or a flicker of individuality. Newton works with numerous different models, mostly professional. He has no real favourites, no personal fixations. They are empty vessels frozen on film. And there he is in so many of his pictures, cast as the knowing voyeur, popping up in the background with his camera, gazing up at his Amazonian female like a weak-kneed teenager. As you walk into his new show at Hamiltons, two massive nudes stand, one foot forward, one arm thrust out in mock imitation of tribal people brandishing spears in a natural history museum. ("They are my stuffed women," laughs Helmut.) And there he goes again, the dada of pornochic, in the catalogue for his 1992 show, "Archives de Nuit", juxtaposing a picture of a jalopy with its engine taken out with one of a female dummy, entrails spilling from the split in its belly. Trite? Perhaps, but ironic commentary on the objectification and voyeurism of his chosen genre is the passport proffered by his fans to the rarified world of postmodern seriousness.

Now 74, Newton looks anything but the randy old man in a raincoat. Slim, tanned and diminutive, he wears a pinstripe suit, burgundy silk handkerchief peeping out of the top pocket, a white T-shirt and spanking new white trainers. Casual and elegant and decidedly Eurochic. He greets me with an abstracted smile and a handshake, chattering all the while about his latest contract (with the New Yorker) and commissions - a calendar for a petrol company, a series on male designers for Marie Claire, ("Do you know Glenda Bailey [the editor of Marie Claire]? Lovely girl." Everything for Helmut is "lovely", "amazing" or "boring". He does, he admits, "get bored very easily".

Which may be why, in each interview you read, he contradicts himself so happily. At an exhibition of his work in Paris last year, he told the Herald Tribune's Susie Menkes that these were "mes derniers nus" ("my last nudes"). He went on to say, uncharacteristically for someone famed for his refusal to analyse his work, that he had had a "strong reaction" against the naked female body: "I have a strong desire to photograph women clothed head to foot with hardly an inch of flesh," he said. "I was bored," he says now. "I'd had it up to here with nudes. I can't always keep doing the same thing."

But with the notable exception of his portrait photography, he has been doing exactly that for a quarter of a century. Which is where all the fancy theorising about his pictures of women stumbles. In isolation, his most famous images, like say, that of a sleek, elegant model wearing black bra, jodhpurs and riding boots, kneeling on a bed with a saddle on her back provoke wry amusement, but together, in book after book, show after show, they mimic the eventual monotony of pornography itself. How many fantasies can a person have? And how many times can you depict the same one?

"There are no sexual fantasies in my pictures. Maybe the early ones, but not now. It's just statement. I don't have anything to say." Why so many nudes then? "I don't know," he sighs (bored?). "I have done landscapes, but no one would want to see them." Really? "I'm not looking for a perfect body, whatever that means, because I find that boring. But what would be the raison d'etre of photographing them with their clothes on? I mean, you can evolve, you can change, but you can't get out of your skin. June has done a video about me, and at one point she says, 'If someone were to drop dead in front of Helmut's camera, he would try to arrange the corpse.' I'm a very ordered person."

And necrophilia may be where he is headed. From women emptied of humanity, to dummies, and then, in the late Seventies, he began shooting women wearing surgical appliances - neck braces, corsets. He has photographed June following an operation, himself with electrodes strapped to his chest after a heart attack. And in the new edition of his occasional series of monographs, Newton's Illustrated, a nude stands, back to the camera, in regulation high heels, fringed gauntlets covering her hands, with one leg encased in a complicated stainless steel brace, its tip almost piercing the flesh of her buttocks. "A doctor in Berlin made that for me," says Helmut, without irony. "I told him exactly what I wanted."

"I like scars," he adds, seriously. "I photograph women who've had bad operations, who've been badly sewn up. And every time I have something done to me, which is often, I photograph myself. I am very squeamish. I find I can face surprises better when I have a camera between me and the crisis." And in his other pictures? Why the need for distance there? Disingenuity again: "I do reject cloying romanticism and soft focus, but I don't look for my pictures to be cold. It just happens that way."

Newton admits to a different approach with his celebrity portraits - of actresses, aristos, pop stars - even some men. They are his best work, suffused with ego: playful, ironic, intimate and occasionally cruel. "With portraits, it's important to intrude," he says. "I'm an admirer of paparazzi - that's the ultimate intrusion. But I ask my subjects to present themselves in front of my camera. I think it's important if you do a portrait... I will obviously decide how I photograph it, the place and the situation, but it's very important that I don't make this person into another person."

So he has Sigourney Weaver in lustrous black-and-white drag, playing off her androgynous screen image - and her appeal to both sexes and all sexualities. And again, as screen goddess, standing, legs splayed, arms flung back in triumph, on rolls of discarded film. He has Michael Caine and his wife, Shakira, in full dinner uniform, lying on a sun lounger by a huge swimming pool, luxuriating in wealth. Were they complicit? He won't say. Or there's Jackie Bisset as aspiring high-class sex symbol in fishnet tights and a slimy slip that could come from Anne Summers.

Most of these, like the majority of his pictures, were done to commission. He prefers to work that way, he says, getting animated now. "I need the frame within which to function. I find it more difficult to please myself than when someone comes to me and says they want to sell something - jewels or hardware or clothes."

This means of course, that in the case of models and nudes, the fantasy, the "statement" can always be made to fit the brief. It is this limitation, this failure of imagination if you like, that has consigned Newton ever to be the voyeur, peering through the window of the serious major galleries. But he doesn't really care. He is happy to be "a gun for hire" and to command "a lot of money," he laughs. "A lot of money."

Helmut Newton's 'Nude Works 1992-5', Hamiltons, London W1 to 18 Nov (0171-499 9493). He will give this year's Blackburn lecture on 'Risks for Art' at Glasgow School of Art, Monday 20 Nov (0141-353 4500)