Photographic Art: Landscape in the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, California in black and white, moon rising



There is no such thing as pure history. It is always the history told by someone and he always appears in the picture. This is a history of artists working for fashion, written by a photographer. In this text I focus on the three dominating artists that also worked for fashion: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Richard Avedon.

One thing stands out with these three peaks of fashion photography: that fashion is not the core of these photos. The photography of these three artists is personal and that is the key point. The fashion comes in for the ride and gets its energy from the personal approach of Newton, Bourdin and Avedon.

If this personal approach is not there, fashion photography becomes bland commercial photography.

Fashion photography is not about fashion. This statement seems to contradict itself. But if you stand this on its head and say: no matter how many years have passed since these photos were taken, the fashion still seems fresh and valid in these images. Compare it to regular fashion photography, the commercial section, and you find that everything looks all outdated as there is no personal approach but just the conventions of the time. There is nothing that ages faster than conventions. What is cool today is stale tomorrow but what always stays fresh is the personal approach.

And this is why the best fashion photography is not about the fashion but about the personal approach - and the fashion in the picture gets a touch of timelessness and even immortality.

Helmut Newton - Artist, not "Fashion Photographer"

Wenn still called Helmut Neustädter he fled Germany literally at the last moment in December 1938 and over Trieste where his family tried to get to China but only came as far as Singapore.

After being briefly interned by the British in Singapore he was sent to Australia on the Queen Mary where he met and married his life-long love and wive June.

The headlines below are all by Helmut Newton.

“My job as a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse and entertain.”

In the sixties Helmut Newton lived and worked in Paris. Ernest Hemingway said that if you had the chance to live in Paris in your youth it would be a treasure for the rest of your life. I have lived in Paris in my early days and can confirm that.

Paris in the 1060’s in dramatic black and white. Newton caught the  cooling of emotions, the deep freeze of feelings that increased with the technicality of the world and the de-individualisiation that came with it.

The world was cold and inhuman and it was increasingly populated by strong people with almost robotic strength. For Newton, these people were always female. Helmut Newton was misunderstood in the way he created these characters. He created in response to what he saw in the world - it was not his ideal, that cold woman without feelings and a body that felt it was made of synthetic material, life-sized animated dolls that had ditched their hearts in order to survive and dominate the weak men that fell for them.

“The term "political correctness" has always appalled me, reminding me of Orwell's "Thought Police" and fascist regimes.”

Newton had felt what was going to happen fifty years before it happened. But he always looked at it with one serious and one laughing eye. His sense of humor escaped almost everybody and the high numbers of copycats who took everything Helmut Newton did were  promoting the cold and heartless woman as chic and ideal, not deploring it, as Newton did.

One of his pictures that shows this very well is a perfectly shaped model with a cold face at an X-Ray machine reads “I wanted to know what is underneath that perfect skin. Could there be a heart?”

My first encounter with Helmut Newton was when a friend gave me a book of his portraits for my birthday when I was still a teenager. My love for Helmut Newton’s work has never ceased.

“It’s that I don’t like white paper backgrounds. A woman does not live in front of white paper. She lives on the street, in a motor car, in a hotel room.”

One outstanding book that is a must-have is Pola Women. In film days you could not preview a shot on a camera screen. You used a polaroid instant camera which is one of the most amazing things in photography: you took the picture, the motor threw out the exposed paper and before your eyes it would develop in wonderful direct colors and sharp detail.

Thousands of those polaroids were in boxes and his wive would create table cards out of them until she one days said it was too bad to cut up these beautiful pictures. And Pola Woman was born, the sketches of many of the famous final photographs and they show the raw energy of creation, sometimes not as perfect as the final image but always endowed with that immediate energy.

This book is my favorite among Newton’s many books. There is a vivid energy in this pre-photographs that the perfect final photograph sometimes does not have. It is looking over the shoulder of Helmut Newton as he works on his images.

Newton was a big planner and filled notebooks with ideas. He was not a shoot from the hip photographer. He had to go in with a plan, a story and you see that in many of his images you can tell what comes before the image and what may happen after it.

World Without Men  is the revealing title of one of his other books. The world is without men because they became weak and faded in the background. Newton saw himself as weak and easily scared. Maybe that gave him to look at the developing crisis of masculinity that has reached its peak today with people seriously claiming men can get pregnant and have abortions.

“There are two dirty words in photography, one is art, the other is good taste”

When you see someone who claims to create “art” you know he is creating kitsch. The artists has to do the opposite. He has to downplay the art dimension to avoid the kitsch that ravages the so-called “fine art”

Newton was always adamant in saying he was not creating art. It was the perfect self-defense against the taste police as it told them that they had no jurisdiction over Newton. And Newton could continue to create his artwork in disguise of commercial photography and was left alone by the critics.

“…what I try to do is a good bad picture. I work it out very carefully, and then I do something that looks as if it went wrong”

I take this Newton quote as an aphorism. An aphorism doesn’t have to be true’, said Karl Kraus,’but it has to outshine truth. It has to get beyond truth in one sentence’. The moment you try to do a good picture you think of what other people call a good picture. You are now corrupted and what you will produce is kitsch or commercialism.

When Helmut Newton says that he tries to do something that looks wrong he means that he lets the chaos of the world the unintended, the unforeseen come in. That’s a true moment and creating these real moments is what he does best. There is a peak of reality in his pictures.

He gives up full control and invites chance into the planned shoot to create something that is happening just now, a moment of reality. Photography is a performance art and if there is no real performance then the photograph is stale.

Rehearsing helps but the performance itself has to be freer from planning than at the theater. The realism of a photograph demands a higher dose of reality.

“Genius and taste don’t go together”

Taste in this context is the general taste - other people’s taste. It is the mainstream, the trend, the hype, the fashion and what is considered cool. And it means nothing. Artists who follow it become deadwood drifting in the current of the trend.

Newton displayed the strong sense of independence that allowed him to keep his independence in a profession that has a high pressure to descend into mainstream commercialism.

It is always risky to stand one’s ground. In Newton’s case it worked out and in many other cases as well. But for each artist who makes it, ten fall get pulled under by the mainstream.

True artists have always been irreverent, may it be creators of Chaos like Dali, anti-art painters like H.R. Giger or painters of the fantastic like Magritte.

Newton repeatedly referred to taboos (and taste) as something you had to get around. That is different from many a mainstream “artist” who targets taboos to create hype. Newton did it to be able to keep creating work that was interesting to him. “I either shoot for money or pleasure”, he said, and I think he often managed to do both. When you look at the well-known Villeroy and Bosch ad where models carry toilet equipment into a house you can feel Newton laugh.

Guy Bourdin - Art, but not "Fashion Photography"

Guy Bourdin photographed a woman jumping head-first into a trash can. Only the legs stick out. On the legs: Jimmy Choo shoes.

The image was about the idea. The shoes profited from the idea. That’s the way a great fashion campaign is shot. The Jimmy Choo brand rose not only because their shoes were good. Many a good brand died. It succeeded because of Guy Bourdin and because they had the generosity to let Guy Bourdin do his spiel and not micromanage him into a boring shoe ad.

It is a theme in fashion photography that the more commercial it is the less its commercial effect becomes. Nothing more boring than the typical half-dead models standing around without an artistic vision enlivening them.

Thank god for Guy Bourdin who had the right sense of irreverence and independence to create his iconic work.

I am still waiting for publishers like Taschen to finally bring out a book with Guy Bourdin’s work. Why has this artist been so much forgotten? I have collected whatever I could, pulling it from the web all over the world to have my own, personal Guy Bourdin gallery.

He loved to create formal partitions of the image space by lamp posts as in more shoe photographs he has done, or even by a model’s arms and body as in a Swimwear campaign he shot.

(work in progress)

Richard Avedon - The Sensitive Eye

When Richard Avedon came out with his iconic “In The American West” it was not seen as iconic at once. The people portrayed in the book complained that they didn’t like the way he had photographed them. Mainstream censorship by algorithms in creative death spell apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the other junk media would today prevent this book from rising as it does not have that mix of easy consumption and flashy composition that the one-second look imagery that the mass market junk media prefer. Tasteless by algorithm: todays mass market junk media would outright overlook Avedon.

You need partience

Avedon was another artist who did his own spiel and had the luck to work with someone as generous as Diane Vreeland - try to find an editor of her sophistication in today’s fashion magazines. That Vogue fired her for overspending on photoshoots marked the beginning of the end of the great fashion magazines.

(work in progress)