“Some people’s photography is an art. Mine is not. If they happen to be exhibited in a gallery or a museum, that’s fine. But that’s not why I do them. I’m a gun for hire.”
I’ve been to Paris twice in the month of June and both times I went to see the Helmut Newton retrospective held at the Grand Palais. Supposedly ending on June 17th, the exhibition has been extended onto July 31st which gave me the chance to see it twice. Curated by Helmut’s wife June, the exhibition is a rather small but spot-on summary of Helmut’s entire body of work through the decades.
I’ve been a great fan of Newton’s work since I was a teenager and it was hard for me to leave his photography books back home in Lisbon when it was time to move; it was an almost magical experience for me to see so many of his works on display and printed in such a large scale, beyond the A4 pages I was used to. There’s something about black and white photography – good black and white photography – that draws you into the details and I’ve always preferred it to colour. I don’t think it’s a cult of retro but you see so much more in an image and you tend to look at it longer and search for more meaning than you would in a picture full of bright pinks and oranges. For those of you who share my opinion, this exhibition is a breath of fresh air, as Newton did work majorly with black and white photography (in fact his best works are in black and white).
Although Newton worked extensively with the theme of S&M, this exhibition goes beyond that. It gathers photographs from all decades, separating them into “periods” of work (i.e. the Stern years, that time he was fired from Vogue and worked for Queen…). A glass table holds a large amount of Newton’s polaroid photographs and another table showcases a few magazine covers shot by him through the years and around the world. There is a little bit of everything and just enough to satisfy and not saturate all tastes. There are colour campaigns for Vogue from the 1960s as well as a room gathering portrais of celebrities ranging from high-profile political personalities to royalty and famous designers like a very youngYves Saint Laurent and an even younger Karl Lagerfeld (as well as a decaying Salvador Dali).
This was an amazing exhibition and more than fulfilled its role as a retrospective of someone as accomplished and known as Helmut Newton. The self-entitled “gun for hire” of photography, while not considering himself an artist in the least, ends up shoving most ‘artistic photographers’ into a corner and maybe this is why I’ve always admired him so much. There is a humility to the man and the photographer that refuses to consider his work as art. But the beauty in his shots is overwhelming, picture after picture, and while he probably wouldn’t care to have his work on display in a gallery in the Grand Palais, it was a great privilege for me to get to see it, especially twice. It’s an amazing exhibition (what else to expect from Helmut’s wife?) that manages to show every side of Helmut Newton’s work with carefully selected and organized pieces.
So if you happen to be in Paris before August, even if just for a day, hop over to the Grand Palais. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
I bought the exhibition catalog and an amazing Alice Springs book at the gift shop. It was completely worth it.