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Turning the lens on a photography legend

Helmut Newton's wife reveals details about his work
/ Source: The Associated Press

Helmut Newton was known to the world as the King of Kink, the 35mm Marquis de Sade and the trailblazing photographer who liked to shock and loved taking pictures of big, strong, naked women in stilettos.

To his wife, he was known as Helmie.

In a tribute to her late husband, June Newton has put together an exhibit of photographs and films intended to show a different side of Helmut Newton and to answer some frequently asked questions about one of the 20th century’s leading photographers.

“Women sometimes ask me how I can live with such a monster,” June Newton says in one of the films, shot in the years before the January 2004 car crash that killed her husband at age 83. “It’s easy. Watch.”

More than just explaining how their 56-year marriage worked, June Newton’s goal in turning the lens on her husband is to explain how his mind worked. She films him on photo shoots of celebrities and supermodels, capturing the humor, wit, playfulness and subversiveness that governed his life and work.

Newton’s pictures appeared in magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Playboy but he was best known for his stark, black-and-white nude photos of women.

None of those nudes appear in “Gun for Hire,” the exhibit named for how Newton referred to himself. It is on view at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, the couple’s adopted homeland since 1981, through April 24 before reopening at Berlin’s Helmut Newton Foundation on June 3.

Helmut Newton built his reputation with fashion photography, both for magazines and for industry catalogs used by fashion buyers but not for public consumption. June Newton, an artist who works under the name Alice Springs, selected 113 of her husband’s fashion pictures from the past three decades. More than half have never been exhibited before.

'Something out of a movie'In the film “Helmut by June,” co-produced by the French pay-TV channel Canal Plus in 1995 and part of Newton’s foundation, he explains his philosophy: “The perfect fashion photograph is a photograph that doesn’t look like a fashion photograph. It looks like something out of a movie ... maybe a paparazzi shot. Anything but a fashion photograph.”

Indeed, his images evoke more than models in pretty clothes. They are dramas set in Riviera gardens and gritty Mediterranean landscapes that capture beautiful women in unresolved conflicts — Claudia Schiffer as a wealthy, well-dressed wife walking in on her husband with the maid; three scantily clad women at a Monte Carlo construction site — one of the models is not living but a well-endowed blowup doll.

“In my 20 years working with Helmut, it was my privilege to be aghast, awe-struck, and always amused by the offerings of this visual genius,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour says in the show’s catalog. “The Helmut Newton woman was an instantly recognizable, exhilarating specimen.”

His women were larger than life, often towering over the landscapes behind them and striding through a fantasy world of his creation.

Newton explains in the film how his love for strong women started with his mother, who plotted his escape from Nazi Germany when he was 18. Newton, born a German Jew, fled in 1938, a month after Nazi-led persecution programs began. He eventually settled in Australia and became a citizen, changing his last name from Neustaedter. He married June Newton, an Australian, in 1948.

“When he proposed to me, he said we’d never be rich, we’d always be poor, and that photography would always be his first love — and I would be his second,” June Newton says at the start of her film.

The poor part didn’t pan out, as one clip from a Carla Bruni shoot in Nice makes clear. Newton leans into his wife’s video camera and whispers playfully: “Another $10,000 to buy more diamonds for my June-y.”

The film also illustrates the story behind the pictures and the complex planning, down to every last detail and facial expression.

“As far as I know, he’s never used a motor drive on his camera. He has to be in total control,” June says.

For a portrait of an aging Billy Wilder taken shortly before the legendary director’s 2002 death, Newton coaxes a satisfied grin: “I want a Hollywood smile,” he snaps, then jokingly reprimands Wilder. “Don’t move! This is NOT the movies.” Click.

In a shoot with opera star Luciano Pavarotti, Newton demands: “Be dangerous!” “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot” is playing in the background. Newton tries another approach. “I want the devil!” And with that, the great tenor offers up the perfect meaty pout.

Among the poster-sized photographs are familiar faces, Kate Moss and Ines de la Fressange for Chanel and Monica Bellucci for the Blue Marine catalog alongside pictures for Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and others fashion houses. The exhibit, showing he pursued his passion until the end, includes photos taken just months before Newton crashed his Cadillac into a wall while leaving Los Angeles’ famed Chateau Marmont hotel, where the couple spent winters.

“People want to get inside his head, to know where the images come from, to know the formula,” June Newton says. “But there is no formula. He sees things differently, and you don’t know what he’s seeing until you see the photograph.”