Today Foam in Amsterdam opens its doors for an extensive retrospective celebrating the life and work of the legendary photographer and self-confessed voyeur, Helmut Newton. We caught up with co-curator Mirjam Kooiman to talk in length about the multi-layered nature of the collection on show, Newton’s perception of womanhood, and the ambiguity in interpretation.
The collection includes over 200 prints – both images that rarely go on display as well as those considered iconic. What can you tell us about the collection on show? Newton is one of the most renowned photographers in the world. How does the exhibition bring a fresh perspective to his work?
We find it important to show that Newton was much more than a fashion photographer, that’s why in the exhibition we deliberately mix autonomous and commissioned work – he himself made little distinction between the two. He always managed to maintain his own artistic position as a photographer and to hold onto his own style, even in his commissioned works. His innovative and unique way of weaving his own vision into all his pictures binds the various perspectives of the exhibition. Therefore we pay special attention to his working process: Newton was also technically very talented in capturing his personal fantasies in his photos without extensive use of digital manipulation. Important themes in Newton’s work, such as fashion, nudity, eroticism, portraits, humour and surrealistic undertones will form the running thread of the presentation. We will also organise a public program of events that will further reflect on different themes in Newton’s oeuvre, such as his relationship with surrealism and his depiction of womanhood.
Matthias Harder from the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin will open the exhibition with a Q&A. How have you and the Foundation collaborated on the exhibition? What sort access did you have to their collection and contents?
Together with Matthias Harder we’ve discussed what would fit Foam. We were, for example, very interested in showing The Private Property Suites, a portfolio he created in 1983. Each suite includes exemplary photographs that demonstrate the unique way in which Newton drew together the disciplines of fashion, portraiture and the erotic. There are too many iconic photographs by Newton to fit in our building, so we had to be selective, but we sorted it out in themes to let the collection as a whole make sense as an exhibition.
Two Pairs of Legs in Black Stockings Paris 1979 Black and White C Helmut Newton Estate  Maconochie Photography.jpg
Two pairs of legs in black stockings, Paris 1979 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography
Which is the most powerful image from the collection for you personally? And why?
I love Newton’s series for the Bauwelt Catalogue from 1987: the model is dressed extremely sexy and half futuristic, half masochistic, playing with tools that are usually assigned to men. On the one hand she fits in a tradition that runs since the 19th century, in which women were the ultimate objects to sell male products through the desire that they’re supposed to provoke at their male viewers. But on the other hand the woman in this series is completely appropriating the tools, almost as if she stole them from men, never to return them again. This woman is quirky, dangerous, almost making fun of the male costumer that is supposed to buy these tools from Bauwelt. It is as if she owns man through taking possession of his most “manly” tools. This ambiguity in interpretation is exactly what makes Newton’s work so heavily discussed and I admire that. 
Helmut by June will also be screened alongside the display. What light does the documentary shine on the man himself? Why did you feel it important to include the screening in the exhibition? Is Newton’s relationship with June as well as her presence as a subject in his work an important part of the exhibition at Foam? 
June Newton was always on his side and had a great influence on his artistic development. Despite her old age (92), she still closely supervises his oeuvre. Within the exhibition, the importance of their relationship regarding Newton’s career comes to the fore through the movie Newton by June, personally shot by June in 1995. The exhibition also includes an intimate portrait Newton made of her at their kitchen table. It gives a cheeky glimpse of their life together and all the fun and humour they must have shared. During their marriage of more than 55 years, she photographed him and worked with him on his books. And it was June who encouraged him to pursue his most controversial work, after he suffered from a nearly fatal heart attack in 1971. So her role in his career is important. It’s not completely pointed out in the exhibition, we wanted it to be subtly visible, as she was throughout his career: always there – in the background.
Which of his muses is the protagonist of the collection you’ve chosen to display?
The Austrian model Sylvia Gobbel was his favourite model and appears in a lot of photographs on display. It was her on the cover of his book Big Nudes, one of the women in Sie Kommen and the protagonist of the series for Bauwelt Catalogue. Having her featuring in these big-sized prints brings her presence well to the fore within the exhibition.
X Ray Van Cleef Arpels French Vogue 1995 C Helmut Newton Estate.jpg
X-Ray, Van Cleef & Arpels, French Vogue, 1994 © Helmut Newton / Helmut Newton Estate
Voyeurism, sadomasochism and fetishism – through his work he brought these taboos to a mainstream audience. Do you think his work continues to shock people in 2016? How do you think Newton’s images impact the 2016 spectator?
His depiction of womanhood remains provocative, because the discussion essentially remains the same throughout the decades. In relation to today’s sexual morality, social conservatives and some feminists are worried that the rise of streaming, hi-def pornography causes men to think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure, and these people often feel the same about Newton’s work, which is not pornography but, in their eyes, still sexually objectifies women. On the other hand I think a lot of female artists like Beyoncé have used Newton’s idea of womanhood –sexy and self-assured, independent of man but still highly attractive– consciously or unconsciously as an example for a contemporary version of feminism. So his work remains a matter of interpretation and that is what makes Newton’s work so timeless and still relevant in 2016.
Newton once said, “If a photographer says he is not a voyeur, he is an idiot.” After working on this project, what do you make of Newton as a person? Has working on the exhibition taught you anything new about him or changed your opinion of him in any way? What are your thoughts on this quote?
I can relate to his quote in the sense that a photograph is always a subjective version of reality, framed by the photographer through his or her lens. The lens is like a keyhole, so to say. Photographers are voyeurs who cut out pieces of reality and decide what we as viewers get to see.
While some of Helmut Newton’s photographs may seem shocking at first sight, during my research in preparation of this show I learned to see the many layers in his work, containing a lot of humour, irony and strong connections to surrealism. On the one hand, Newton depicts an image of woman as a dangerous, intimidating force that dominates men. On the other hand Newton's use of mannequins and prosthetics ultimately imagines woman as an inanimate (and hence harmless) object of desire. I think this discussion is exactly what makes Helmut Newton’s work so interesting. It’s exactly this provocativeness that makes his work so challenging to look at. Knowing more about Newton as a person, I think he was most of all interested in visualising his individual fantasies and creating images with a narrative of their own. But he never offers us just one simple interpretation, his images are bold but also mysterious and very smart.
Newton’s work largely focuses on the female form. He is considered to have reinvented the 20th century woman by turning gender roles on their head. Many say his photography is empowering to women. Do you think this continues to be true today? Do you see the themes he tackles in his work still prevailing in 2016? How did Newton use fashion as a tool?
I think it’s important to see and understand Newton's work in the spirit of the seventies and eighties, the years of the second wave of emancipation. Within this period another, more powerful female image was manifested, also supported in fashion. Particularly the work of Yves Saint Laurent, with whom Newton often closely collaborated, demonstrates the emergence of a much more powerful, almost masculine female image. So Newton’s image of womanhood is not so much his sole invention, as it is a product of his time that he knew to capture very well and explore in extremes. In my opinion his themes and images remain relevant to this day, as female emancipation is still ongoing and there are very different opinions within feminism that keep up the discussion.
Catherine Deneuve Esquire Paris 1976 C Helmut Newton Estate.jpg
Catherine Deneuve, Esquire, Paris 1976 © Helmut Newton / Helmut Newton Estate
Why do you think Newton refused to define his work as art?
Helmut Newton often described himself as ‘a gun for hire’ – as someone at the service of fashion houses, magazines, jewellery designers and department stores. A look back at his oeuvre, however, shows that Newton paid hardly any attention to selling products. He concerned himself not so much with fashion but with the portrayal of his own fiction. It is just as unimportant to insist on designating fashion photography as art as it is to be forever pointing to its commercial nature. Newton was not concerned about either end of the spectrum. He just wanted his work to be widely seen and at first instance the commercial world of fashion magazines offered him that much more than museums and art galleries. I also think he liked to play with the framework of each assignment and he often used to shoot some autonomous work within a commissioned assignment (pictures of which he knew they would go too far for his clients), but this way he wouldn’t have to pay for a model, make-up artist and stylist again – he himself made little distinction between the two.
Alongside the exhibition of Newton’s work, Foam will also present the work of three young photographers. Do you think there’s anyone today who is pushing boundaries with respect to social and gender norms in the same way that Newton did? 
A lot of contemporary artists are involved with that subject matter, as is the world of fashion with the ongoing trend of androgyny. But at this point I cannot think of an artist who’s doing it as provocatively yet with as much style as Newton did. What is much more picked up by later artists, such as the three young photographers presented in Foam 3h –Carlijn Jacobs, Elizaveta Porodina and Philippe Vogelenzang– is to have a strong, daring individualistic visual language in both their commercial and their autonomous work. In their work certain influences of Helmut Newton can be detected in various senses. The importance of the setting as well as the model and with it the creation of an individual universe, as with Carlijn Jacobs. Elizaveta Porodina similarly applies a cinematic style in her series, suggesting a larger story. The recording of a person’s iconic qualities in a portrait is characteristic of both the work of Helmut Newton and that of Philippe Vogelenzang. But it is above all their working methods, specifically the uninhibited realisation of personal fantasies and concepts in a style entirely their own, that marks out these three talents in the contemporary world of fashion photography. Especially in the Netherlands, where fashion photography tends to be much more graphic in composition, the work of these three artists is outstanding in its playfulness and free character.
What do you hope spectators will take away from the exhibition?
It’s certainly true that women play a central, erotic role in Newton’s work. But I think his work is often all too quickly perceived as simply dishonouring of women, while it holds a fascinating mysterious complexity that points to reflections on the upper class of western society, notions of power, definitions of womanhood and its relation to men, as well as the cinematic qualities of the scenes he created. I hope the exhibition will show that his work can be enjoyed from a plurality of perspectives and that it’s in fact very multi-layered.
Helmut Newton – A Retrospective runs until 4th September 2016 at Foam.
Arena New York Times Miami 1978 Swimming Pool Colour C Helmut Newton Estate  Maconochie Photography.jpg
Arena New York Times, Miami 1978 © Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography
Self Portrait With Wife and Models Paris 1981 C Helmut Newton Estate.jpg
Self Portrait with Wife and Models, Vogue Studio, Paris 1981 © Helmut Newton / Helmut Newton Estate