Eyes of Laura Mars, the 1978 thriller starring Faye Dunaway as a fashion photographer plagued from a serial killer targeting models, was my first introduction to Helmut Newton. Although young, naive and easily enamored by the fact that the film’s heroine had both my dream job and my gender, I felt a disconnection between Dunaway’s sultry and vulnerable portrayal of Laura Mars and the character’s supposed portfolio. The imagery was subversive yet cheeky in its sexual perversion. Although not impossible, I had a hard time believing Laura Mars, or any woman fresh from the height of liberation, would ever think to characterize another in that particular way. After learning the images were either Newton originals or done in his likeness, things finally began to add up. Thus, began a life long obsession with the Newton, a man who saddled controversy to give an unabashedly honest and sometimes humorous portrayal of woman by a man.
On display now through September 8th at the Annenberg Space for Photography is Helmut Newton: White Women, Sleepless Nights and Big Nudes. The exhibition is comprised of photographs featured in the first three published books by Newton bearing the same name. Interestingly enough, the publication dates of the first two, White Women (1976) and Sleepless Nights (1978), bookend the theatrical debut of Eyes of Laura Mars. The photographs presented from this period exemplify Newton’s ability to resist the constraints of propriety by idealizing the nude female form and turning gender roles on their ear. And he did so with luxury and opulence in mind. The exhibition shows Newton prowess as a photographer. He dances brilliantly from personal portraiture to fashion and advertising work, all the while maintaining a point of view that celebrates sexuality as currency and power.
The Annenberg exhibition offers a complete look into Newton through a series of lectures and films. They consist of the men and women influenced by his work by being behind and in front of his camera. Most insightful is the 2007 documentary Helmut by June. The film is a love letter of recommendation to anyone seeking to understand Newton and is directed by the woman who knew him best, his wife of 56 years, June Newton.