Over the course of his decades-long career, Helmut Newton has been called a lot of things: self-involved, perverted, sexist, visionary. But the argument over his lasting influence on high-fashion photography ended a long time ago. A contributor to Vogue magazine, 82-year-old Newton pioneered that aloof expression of calculated disinterest that supermodels wear on the catwalk and in fashion shoots. But his contributions to pop culture go much further. His photos exude a sensuality that seems to empower his beautiful subjects no matter how tawdry the context. It was Newton, one might argue, who prepared the world for the raw, aggressive sexuality of Madonna and Britney Spears.
But where did he get his ideas? Newton offers some answers in a new autobiography, aptly titled "Autobiography." In it he recounts a life that reads like a movie script: his privileged childhood as a Jew in Berlin, his escape from Germany, his exile in Singapore and his entry into the Paris fashion world. And the curious will soon be able to view his work at the newly established Helmut Newton Foundation in the heart of Berlin. In the meantime, NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin spoke with the King of Kink from his home in Monte Carlo. Excerpts:
Gostin: Which photographers influenced you?
Newton: Brassai. Dr. Erich Salomon, a German photographer who was very famous in the '20s and '30s and who was probably the first paparazzo. And Erich von Stroheim. They were the three big influences. Brassai inspired me with his pictures of Paris by night. I thought those pictures were incredibly beautiful. I started doing a lot of fashion pictures at night in Paris, and since I've been in Monte Carlo I've been doing the same here. I think night gives a very mysterious quality to a woman in the street. I love that.
How did Nazi iconography influence you?
The Nazis came to power when I was 13. We got a lot of magazines in our family home. Fashion magazines, illustrated reportage, there was the Berliner Illustrierte [Zeitung], which was my Bible. Once they came into power that's all you saw on the newsreels, on the big screens, in the magazines. Nazi images. Of course, a kid who's fascinated with photography must be touched by this.
Tell me your memories of Kristallnacht.
I was sitting on the top deck of a bus going down the Kurfurstendamm. I was on my way to some photography lecture, and I saw the big synagogue in flames. You know, we had the Night of the Long Knives and years later we had the Night of Broken Glass. These Germans had a wonderful way of describing things.
What do you say to critics who say your work is misogynistic?
They are silly! First of all, why would I spend my life with women, whether they are dressed or undressed, if I didn't like women? Another thing is that in all the photographs, the women are triumphant and the men are just toys. They are just accessories and always servile to the women.
Why do you dislike photographing in a studio?
A woman doesn't live in front of a white-paper background. She lives in a car, in a house, in a street, whatever. I think a fashion photograph is almost a social document that will take you back. The older it gets, the more interesting it is. It shows you how people lived. In my pictures, anyway.
What makes a woman sexy?
Ah! I think it's nothing to do with beauty. It's nothing to do with if she has big boobs, little boobs or no boobs. I think it all goes through the head. It's intellect. I think that what goes on in the head of a woman is much more important than whether she's blonde or brunette or whatever.
Tell me about your relationship with [Nazi propaganda filmmaker] Leni Riefenstahl.
I admired her greatly. She was a liar concerning her political past, a big liar, this we all know. But she was the most revolutionary cineaste of her time. I mean, the subject matter of "Triumph of the Will" is horrible, but it was a breakthrough in film.
I photographed her in 2000 for Vanity Fair, and she sat me down and held my hand in her iron grip and said, "Never, ever again call me an old Nazi, or I won't pose for you anymore." I swore on my mother's grave. I would have promised to marry her at that moment to get the picture.
Why did you bequeath your work to Germany, the country that you were forced to flee?
When the Germans offered me a very high order, something called the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, [my wife] June said, "Don't take it." Then I rang [Austrian-born Hollywood film director] Billy Wilder and he said, "You must take it." There is much more anti-Semitism going on now in other countries. In France, wildly so, and don't tell me America is not. The Germans have been terribly supportive; they've given me this beautiful building in the best part of Berlin. It makes me feel very good.
Are you a leg or breast man?