The Erotic Double
Helmut Newton is widely regarded as one of the most sexually provocative fashion photographers of the 20th century, imbuing his work with an eroticism that has seen the charges of misogyny and fetishism leveled at him. Whilst there is no doubt that Newton’s relationship with the female form is problematic, often reduced to erotic fixation, there is an elegant poise to the three photographs displayed; an equilibrium, in which the dualism turns at once from harmony to conflict. These three images all come from his long relationship with Vogue magazine and display the full breadth not only of his vision of social interaction but also his own tortured association with women.
Finding work in the post-war period in Austria, Newton sprang to prominence in 1957 when he secured a twelve-month contract with British Vogue. Working mainly for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Newton continued to photograph in various private and commercial capacities until his death in 2004. Whilst much of his photography has been accused of being sexist and degrading towards the female, this is a wild misinterpretation of his project. Indeed, as will be seen in an analysis of three of his photographs, Newton displays an incredible capacity to empower his subject, taking them out of a position of erotic submission into a role of dominant self-authors.
Newton’s choice of poses across these three photographs marks a significant sense of power. Throughout his photographic career, we see his female models repeatedly imbued with such authority. The charges of misogyny are, indeed, superficial readings of his images; what we see time and again is a sense of self-determination and idiosyncrasy in his subjects. The ‘dancers’ photograph rests on the cusp of this transformation; the women are both vulnerable in the wasteland of their surroundings but also empowered by their dream-like rejection of reality. They dance for themselves and for each other; we are neither seen nor heard above the music of the record. The gender roles, as with the ‘cigarettes’ photograph, are confusingly divided and reunited. The woman on the left appears to be the submissive of the two, as her partner leans into her; and yet, we notice that each of them have taken the waist-hold (a distinctly male trope) with powerful arms thrust out. The women undo their feminine identity in an adoption of masculine body-language; and yet, at the same time their silken clothes fold sensually, highlighting their femininity.
It is for this reason also that the ‘cigarettes’ image is unsettling. The figures buckle, both in union and in conflict; the touching cigarettes find consummation where the outstretched hand repels. Once again, we have the male figure leaning in, displaying a superficial dominance; however, we quickly realise that it is the female figure who dictates their proximity. The bared leg and neck of the femme-fatal luring in the androgynous companion in feigned submission. Compositionally, Newton mirrors the empty space between the male’s legs with a corresponding shape below the female; however, where on the male it is the absence of being, for the female, the light-shaft is her very being, the long, seductive leg.
The antagonistic concepts of conflict and union are most clearly explored in the ‘fencers’ photograph. The two women hold one another together, the latter’s right leg literally penetrating between the legs of the former as she makes her advance. The muscled back is back is strong, the pose is inelegant and once again, we get the sense that these are dominant not submissive characters. As with the ‘dancers’, the setting for this image is ethereal: their conflict unending. The gauze dresses float seductively below them revealing and concealing the flesh beneath.
In each of these photographs we see an alienated self, the figures mirroring some aspect of themselves in a divided duality which constantly collides and then breaks off. Whilst some would see these images as overly-eroticized (although by Newton’s standards they are Victorian) the images are not for the idle amusement of the observing male but, instead, demonstrate the powerful independence of the female.
W. J. Humphries