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Helmut Newton: Naked ambition

He's been called a pornographer, a sick fetishist, a 35mm Marquis de Sade. But Helmut Newton is unabashed. He talks John Walsh through a risqué new show of unseen prints and Polaroids

Wednesday 18 September 2002 00:00 BST

Helmut Newton is standing in the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street, the beating heart of London's art-gallery world, gazing at a woman's bottom. A burly man, with bushy hair and a pair of spectacles with frames so dark and elaborate that they resemble welder's goggles, Newton is not what you expect from a venerable – and venerated – European maestro who will be 82 next month. For one thing, he looks not a day over 60 ("I'm sure you say this to all the girls"). For another, his conversation is shamelessly adolescent. He has been called so many names in his 60-year career, abused so often as a crypto-pornographer, a sick fetishist, a 35mm Marquis de Sade, that he has evidently decided to embrace the accusations, to bask in being a bad boy in his ninth decade.

He and I scrutinise the woman's bottom together. It's naked and all you can see of the rest of its owner is her splendid long legs and one forearm bearing a gold wristwatch. She stands beside a serious-looking limousine, her tender curves reflected in its gleaming paintwork. The woman's classy frame, stripped of adornments, is subsumed into this image of male power and wealth, emphasising her role as a fleshy plaything. The ornate watch on her wrist hints at the mistress-life she leads, and to her entrapment in golden manacles. It's a classic Newtonian image – the photographer as both a peeping-Tom inspector of female privacy and the witness of brutal relationships.

"This is," I say to him, "a bit... ruthless, isn't it?"

"Yes," says Newton, matter-of-factly. "It certainly is. Cruel, in fact."

"I mean, it's a lovely bottom," I say, "but it's not photographed in a beautiful way."

"No, it's not," says Helmut. "And there is that red spot on her right cheek."

"It's a pimple, actually," I say, noting that we've become voyeurs, minutely inspecting a stranger's naked body.

"She's not a stranger," says Newton. "She's a friend of mine in Los Angeles. She's called Evie, and is married to the actor Randy Quaid."

"But Helmut," I say, "this woman's a friend of yours, and you're turning her into something in a butcher's shop, alongside the flank of veal and saddle of lamb..."

"That's good," he replies. "I like that analysis".

"But don't you think it's a bit de-personalising?"

"Yes," says Newton, equably. "That's entirely right. It is."

Later, sounding uncannily like Swiss Tony in The Fast Show, he compares the Eiffel Tower to "a beautiful woman" because they're both "lovely and useless". It's hard to land a critical blow on a man who is so charmingly chauvinistic and self-accusatory. People have tried for 50-odd years, as the subject matter of his photographs has shocked and excited the fashion world, and influenced every frock-snapper that followed his deliciously pervy lead, from David Bailey to Richard Avedon.

Newton's pictures – especially his notorious work for French Vogue beginning in 1961 – always featured aloof and haughty women strapped into tight leather and PVC, their nails crimson, their boots spiked, their shoulders draped with fox fur, hanging out in anonymous hotel rooms, photographed wielding guns or whips in stark, splay-legged tableaux with importuning boyfriends or ageing power-moguls trying (and usually failing) to turn them on. The clothing mostly didn't count. Indeed, the women's exposed flesh wasn't really the point either. It was the atmosphere of glacial cruelty and masked indifference that startled and unsettled you.

When Newton parted company with the fashion world in the 1980s, it was to go hell-for-leather for erotic photography: his first non-fashion collection was called "Big Nudes", though the "Big" referred to the size of the canvases rather than the models' attributes. Why is it, I ask him, that so many artists turn, in the final reel of their careers, to obsessively working at large female nudes – Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Newton... "I dunno," he says shortly. "But the nudes, they were always big from the beginning. I like strong women. I like women who are overwhelming." Indeed. One of the erotic highlights of his life was doing a portrait shot of Margaret Thatcher, fully clothed but with her teeth showing.

The current exhibition in Cork Street pulls together Newton's photographs from a couple of decades under the heading "Sex and Landscape". The landscapes are reminders of what an artist he is when not drooling over breasts and rubber. A panorama of Paris's 5th arrondissement, where he lived for many years, is a wonderful pulling-apart of the city, so that the roads to right and left seem to stream past our eyes, under a troubled sea of stormy clouds.

"It was taken with a pan-on camera, a camera from the Fifties, practically a museum piece now. It's got a lens that passes over the film over a period of time."

"My work is very realistic," he insists. "Nothing computer-generated. I never work with electric light, only natural. Look at my pictures and you'll see none of them has been manipulated in the dark room. I just expose the negative and it gets printed straight. It's what you might call 'old-fashioned photography'." It's clearly important to him that he's seen as a realist, even though every Helmut Newton photograph you can think of is a dream-scape from a private fantasy-land.

Sex and landscape, he says, represent two aspects of his personality, broadly speaking, raunch and romanticism. He reserves his strangest emotions for unpeopled landscapes, pausing for minutes before a darkened lake with rippled lines of wrinkled water lapping towards the camera, and the distant shore a dark and threatening frontier, like Hades.

"This lake is in Berlin," he says, wistfully. "As a young man, I used to go swimming there with my friends. I find this picture very moving, very Berlin, you see, with its dark light." Was it photographed at dusk? "No, no," says Newton, who dislikes the twilight. "It's what I call 'black light'. You don't see much sunshine in Berlin..."

Soon, we are back among the foxy babes, looking at a blank-faced young waitress holding a tray of green cocktails, clad in a tiny white apron. Elsewhere, Newton's Chinese studio-assistant can be seen tearing the photograph of a blonde model in two, vertically, ripping her asunder. An alarming S/M queen in a horned-goat head-dress threatens the supine photographer with a whip and a spiky shoe ("This lady calls herself Nurse Wolff. She is the most expensive and dangerous dominatrix in New York. I've photographed her torture chamber, she's very serious about her work. I was there for five hours. She wouldn't let me go. We got on very well"). Best of all is a charming study of dinner at an Italian castle, where four topless beauties sulkily toy with their spaghetti while a beady-eyed sommelier tries to pour the wine without spilling it all over the tablecloth.

"This was on an estate in Italy. They'd commissioned me to take these four girls from Paris and do a series of photographs over a day. I think we stayed a week. The wine was very good. Very expensive."

I gaze at the photograph. Faces, breasts, pearls, nipples, candles, profiles, necklaces, wine glasses, forks, napery, lamplight... What exactly, I ask, were you trying to capture here? "My brief," says Newton, grandly, "was to look at this property, at this estate, and introduce my world into it. I brought my world with me." So you drew up at the front door in your big car with your stock company of naked dreamboats? He spreads his hands in a what-can-I-do? gesture. We regard the picture in silence for a minute. "Lovely pearls," I say. "Mmmm," says Newton. "They could almost be real."

A whole room is devoted to little Polaroid snaps, never seen before, taken in the Seventies and Eighties. Alfresco fashion shoots include naked women posing on plinths. Famous faces – Jagger, Deneuve, Saint Laurent, Rampling – stare, a little suspiciously, at the lens. Languorous odalisques in opera gloves listlessly pleasure themselves in front of TV sets. "People like Polaroids," Newton muses, "because they're unique. There are no negatives. You've got it once and no more. That's the charm and fascination about Polaroids – that they can't be duplicated".

He grew up in Berlin in the Twenties and Thirties, his puberty years coinciding, rather neatly, with the heyday of Weimar decadence. The family was bourgeois ("I'm still very bourgeois") and Jewish, and were forced to flee the Nazis as late as 1938. After much travelling, Helmut arrived in Australia, settled in Melbourne and married a local photographer, June, who works under the nom de guerre of "Alice Springs". They've been married 54 years but have no children. Had he hung out in decadent circles as a young man? "No, that came later in Paris, where I knew girls who were working for Madame Claude [the brothel-keeper of the rue St-Denis]. When I was young, our girlfriends were all from good families."

But you always wanted to see what lay behind the red plush curtains? "Yes!" he says with feeling. "There are always doorways in my pictures. A longing to see..."

Has the kind of woman he finds attractive changed over the years?

"Of course my taste changes," he says, testily. "I get bored very quickly."

He prefers a mask to a real face? "No, no, no," says Newton. "But I like a certain cold look. Because I hate sentimentality and romanticism. I like romanticism in my landscapes but not in women."

Like Hitchcock? "Yes," he says. "When you see them, you should feel that, under the right conditions, they'd be available. Maybe it would cost a lot of money, maybe it's a matter of timing. Who knows?"

We look round the gallery. These women look less frozen than their earlier, hotel-room sisters; their faces suggest annoyance at being under a tree without their knickers, for Mr Newton's whimsical interest. When Annie Leibovitz took his picture, and suggested he got his penis out for all to see, he was outraged. There is something of the naughty schoolboy about Mr Newton, a chronic voyeur rather than a participant.

We talk about the modern democratisation of pornography, how middle class it has become, with porn directors making Britney Spears videos, The Erotic Review attracting mainstream contributors, the fuss about Victoria Coren's amateur porn movie. "In Hollywood last year, I spent 12 hours in a porn-movie company. I found it comical, but not a turn-on." But does he mind that we seem to be crossing a line between acceptable and unacceptable images?

"I don't care," he says. "I've been working for Vogue since 1965, and there's always been a line you aren't supposed to cross. But," he raises his chin, rather grandly, "I've always stuck my neck out. I seem to have been on the razor's edge all my life."

Sex and Landscape, Mayor Gallery, London W1, to 31 Oct (020-7734 3558)

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