Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 130 (6/13) -- The Best of Helmut Newton

In my old post How To Read a Book a Day, I explained certain sneaky ways one could keep up the pace of reading a book a day, particularly on days without a whole lot of time to read. (Such as today, when I woke up in Baltimore, drove four and a half hours to get home, and had various family and work stuff to do as well.)

This current run of Book-A-Day, though, isn't about reading a book a day -- it's meant to keep me disciplined as a blogger, and so I have to write a book-review blog post every day. Still, it's difficult to review a book if one hasn't read a book, so there are times when I fall back on my old tricks.

Like this entry, for example: I got The Best of Helmut Newton at the end of last year, when my usual comics shop was drastically reducing their erotica/porn section. (Because, honestly, who gets their porn on paper these days?) It's from 1993, and so represents the then-most famous photographer of arty nudes at the moment before the Internet hit, utterly democratizing arty nudes, anti-arty nudes, and every other possible variation of nudity and sexual imagery that human mind (or Rule 34) could conceive.

Newton's career, as this book represents it, seems to have gone in a few stages -- first were the cold fashion models, completely dressed in the fashions of the day, staring at the camera or ignoring it, but always utterly indifferent to their images, since their images were absolutely perfect. Those run from the '60s through the '70s, mostly in the various flavors of Vogue, with other fashion magazines and designers thrown in.

But in the '70s, two other strains start to come in, both separately and together: the cold models are now often nude, or partially nude, though still as chilly and independent of the camera. And Newton also begins to photograph famous people. Some of the famous he uses like any other models -- Charlotte Rampling, Grace Jones, Catherine Deneuve, Jodie Foster (the cover image). But many others are in much more conventional photos, even in color, photos almost any man with a camera could have taken: Daryl Hannah, Elizabeth Taylor, Helmut Kohl, Princess Caroline. These are the photos that most of us think of when we think "Helmut Newton" -- the casual nudity, often in surprising circumstances, the matter-of-fact affectlessness of the models, the odd juxtapositions and motifs, and the inevitable high-heeled shoes, even on women who wear nothing else.

And then the end of the book has some of what was Newton's newest work then, in another distinctive style: close-ups of medical models and wax busts and other oddities, taking his detached view of the human body even further and making it vastly less appealing.

For my generation, Newton was the unique case of a semi-pornographer who was utterly respectable. But in this post-Annie Sprinkle, post-Suicide Girls world, where the strip of sex shops on New York's 42nd Street was razed to make room for Disney musicals but Sex re-emerged downtown with its own Museum, Newton is no longer unique, and no longer has that prestige to stand on. All that's left are the images -- all those forbidding '70s women (and we can always tell that they're '70s women, from their hair -- all of their hair) who seem to promise sex as long as none of us expect it to be any fun. He'll have a place in the art museums of the future, but perhaps not as large a place as it might have seemed in 1993.

This book also has a couple of essays as introduction, and all I can say tactfully about them is that they were translated from the German, and I am sure that they were far less turgid, jargon-filled, dull, and overreaching in their original form.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Asobi Seksu - I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me
via FoxyTunes

No comments:

Post a Comment