Helmut Newton is a photography most broadly known for his provocative and erotically charged black and white photographs. Only a short amount of time spent researching will show you Newton’s view of women, or the kind of woman he liked to portray in his imagery. Very often they are in sexual situations with provocative insinuations, dressed in very little or nothing at all, and in some they are being grabbed, held or dominated by men. Speaking of Lisa Taylor, a woman Newton was staging for a photo shoot, editor Polly Allen Mellen recalled that she was one of “the two women who most turned Helmut on,” going on to say that “you had to turn Helmut on, or you wouldn’t get what you wanted.”. However, many would argue that aside from his erotic themed work, Newton was capturing an era and a social change that was emerging at the time of his work. Through many of his images, Newton portrays a strong woman, relating to the uprise of feminism and the strong, working woman in the seventies. Arguably, Newton showed the diversity and complexity of character of a woman, often portraying them as sexual beings and also strong controllers of their own lives. While some would say that Newton’s work is sexist and derogatory to women, it could be argued that his photos were taken of women, for women, portraying their sexual ownership of their own bodies.
With this knowledge in mind, the below image is called “Woman Examining Man”, and shows a complete gender role reversal to much of Newton’s previous work. It was taken in 1975 in St Tropez and portrays a woman sat comfortably on a sofa, tentatively watching a half dressed man. She is sat in a classically masculine pose; legs spread open, hand on hip and arms spread across the sofa, taking up a lot of room. She is wearing loose fitting clothes and seems relaxed, yet extremely powerful and effortlessly intimidating. This contrasts some others of Newton images of woman who, whilst looking strong and powerful, are often in provocative outfits or nothing at all.
This image conveys the change in society that was emerging at the time. It was revolutionary in portraying a woman in the place so commonly given to a man and putting a man in the uncomfortable position of being a thing to be looked at. The image was featured in Vogue 1975, a magazine who’s target audience is primarily women. This photograph was taken in a time of transition, the beginning of change, and was positioned to empower women and bring awareness to the sexism that is so regularly mistaken for normality in the media.
For me, this work is important in understanding the role of women, which is whichever role they want to have, just as a man would be able to choose his role in society. I think it is important to portray sexuality as a positive thing, but not to objectify women and dehumanise them into simply objects for sexual pleasure. I do personally believe that some of Helmut Newton’s work promotes sexual ownership and body confidence for women, despite some risqué comments about the models he was working with, and some photos produced for the likes of playboy and other sexual and fetishistic subtexts. I believe that “Woman Examining Man” is an eye opening and engaging photograph, as it exposes the normality that has become of men staring longingly at women as the flaunt their nude bodies in front of a fully dressed audience. This should not be accepted as normality. Helmut Newton seemed to recognise this then, and it is important to recognise it now.