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September 19, 2011 – 9:45 pm | No Comment

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Newton nudes are huge

Submitted by MBergeron on July 19, 2011 – 4:07 pmNo Comment
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The cult of celebrity looms large in the exhibit Helmut Newton: White Women, Sleepless Nights, Big Nudes. The photos range in size from what you might conceivably frame and put on your wall to photographs that are larger than the walls in people’s houses.

All the Helmut Newton photos are chromogenic prints made from original materials and also purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, giving it the unique position of being the only museum in the world to have such a collection. The exhibit, currently on display, runs until September 25. Each room of the exhibit contains all the photos of the respective titular books.

White Women started Newton’s collection of photographs of naked women in provocative poses, mostly looking straight at the lens.

Sleepless Nights continues with a bondage twist. Some of the neck and back braces worn by women in these pictures are a spin of the Erich von Stroheim character in La Grande Illusion who himself, a waning aristocrat, wears a stiff neck brace throughout that classic film.

Big Nudes contains before and after images featuring the same models in the same poses with the caveat of being sans clothes in one version. Look closely as many of the photos are deceiving. Some of the models are mannequins. One print gave my eyes a double-take as it was obvious on a second glance that one of the figures was a store mannequin dressed up, and that her hand was detached from her body and being held in a pose by another figure in the photo. Some of the people you instantly recognize like actress Charlotte Rampling in a ravishing pose taken at a time when she was playing female leads in movies like Zardoz and The Night Porter. This series could alternatively be called famous naked people.

In spite of the nudity it’s hard to describe the entire series as erotic for two reasons, one being the fact that other museum hoppers are next to you staring at the same photo but thinking different thoughts. Another reason would be that the enormous size of the images takes away the mystery of Venus even while making nipples and pubic hair so large as to make them abstract.

Most revealing is a 30-minute film that plays in an accompanying gallery. Helmut by June is a 30-minutes documentary shot by Newton’s wife and collaborator in the mid-90s and released on television in 2007. As one approaches the video viewing area you pass by a photo that shows Newton shooting a nude model, the two of them reflected in a mirror, with his wife sitting idly by watching. While Newton’s photos are artfully directed there’s usually only one plane of reality being depicted as opposed to say photos by Joel-Peter Witkin.

Helmut by June contains what looks like home movie style footage of Newton at work in exotic places (with exotic faces). But the footage also shows the process, the exactitude and the style with which Newton conducts his photo sessions. Cindy Crawford appears as one of the models in a ballroom scene with blindfolded musicians, and another European expat Billy Wilder warmly welcomes Newton in his Oscar lined office. Watching this film after seeing the exhibit merely confirms that Helmut and June ran a cool mom and pop operation that just happened to be producing cutting edge exotica. Newton died in 2004 but his legacy continues to influence art and photography.

- Michael Bergeron

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