The crowd at photographer Helmut Newton's show isn't what one usually finds at an exhibition of fashion photography. Sure, there are some beautiful people fashion editors, models and photographers but there are also a suspiciously large number of men in trenchcoats. The site of the show, London's Barbican Centre, is near the financial district, but it's hard to imagine that these middle-aged, white-collar workers just stumbled upon the third-floor exhibition, called "Work," during a lunchtime stroll. No, the truth is that the work for which Newton is best-known photographs of tall, domineering and scantily clad women draws the admiration not only of the chic fashion set, but also of perverts.
Newton doesn't mind. In the 1980s the Berlin-born Australian citizen (he now lives in Monte Carlo) tried his hand at pornography, shooting for the likes of Playboy. And he has proclaimed that he intends to become less politically correct as he gets older. He turned 80 last year and is selling better than ever. Earlier this month "Sex and Landscapes," the first commercial sale of Newton's work in two years, opened at the De Pury et Luxembourg Art gallery in Zurich. Even before the opening, some 40 prints sold for $30,000 each. This fall the Mary Boone Gallery in New York will also have a Newton sale, making it the art dealer's first photography offering. At De Pury is some of the usual titillating stuff, but also 54 landscapes never displayed before. "They're actually quite romantic," Newton says. "It is the first time I do something romantic."
Just because Helmut Newton is 80 and has a major new show of his work doesn't mean he's getting soft. Hardly. One of his landscapes, The Grim Reaper, above, was shot for Absolut Vodka. The firm chose not to use it because it was deemed too dark for a mainstream audience. Newton recently sat down at the Barbican with a menagerie of onlookers students, fans and perverts for an interview.
Q: Is it still possible to get an extreme response from photography?
A: Everything seems permitted in new magazines. I didn't go out to shock people. To me fashion and fashion photography were sexy. There was a pearls-and-twinset culture in England at the time [Newton worked at British Vogue in the 1950s], so I left for Paris.
Q: Would you consider shooting for a new magazine in exchange for creative freedom?
A: These magazines should be filled by young people. It would be cynical and stupid for someone of my generation to take those pages.
Q: Do your photographs reflect your life?
A: They are the way I would like to see the world. I do see pictures in my head, but they're not sexual fantasies. Not at all. I don't go in for that sort of thing.
Q: Why don't you shoot more transvestites?
A: I photograph people I think are beautiful. I don't care if they're men or women.
Q: How has silicone changed the shape of your work?
A: When I do nudes I won't shoot a girl who has silicone in her breasts. Except one. Every time I go to L.A. her breasts are bigger. Now they're so far out, it's an interesting subject. But I don't care about bosoms. I like boyish-looking girls.
Q: Which woman would you most like to photograph?
A: It was Margaret Thatcher before I shot her. I think she got better looking as she got more powerful. Some people think I'm pretty weird.
Q: How do you choose your subjects?
A: For portraits, I prefer to shoot older people. There's a landscape in a face. Young people their faces are bland. For fashion, I don't find those anorexic 13-year-old girls very interesting. Blonde starlets? Boring. I prefer Sigourney Weaver. But don't forget, I'm an old guy.
Q: Why do you love red lipstick?
A: I don't love red lipstick. It's my camera that loves red lipstick.
Q: Tell us about your days as a wedding photographer.
A: I hated doing it, but I had to eat. Today young photographers sell shoes so as not to prostitute their art. I was always for prostituting myself.
Q: Don't you want to do films?
A: I have neither the talent nor the attention span. The reason I have so many friends among film people is that I've never asked them for a job.