The fashion of Helmut Newton and Bettina Rheims

While a generation apart, the photography of Helmut Newton (1920–2004) and that of Bettina Rheims (1952–) has proved pivotal to the trajectory of fashion imagery from the late 20th into the 21st century. Each has charted new ground in the representation and understanding of gender, sex and fashion.

Newton’s Private property portfolios often present an idea of high society, automatically generating associations with fashion. He creates a voyeuristic window through which we can admire and desire, but he also asks us to question the authenticity of these ostentatious spaces and the eroticised beings that exist within them. Newton exposes the role fashion plays by constructing ideals of glamour and beauty, and the way photographers can operate within this paradigm.

In contrast, Rheims’ Modern Lovers series offers images divested of the trappings of elaborate sets; the low-contrast greys and neutral backgrounds emphasising the translucency and androgyny of her subjects. Extracting from the models the ‘fleeting moment when they appeared to become man and woman’ became an obsession for Rheims. Her models are projected beyond their own self-image pointing to the way photography and fashion can function to reveal emergent tendencies both aesthetically and socially.

Helmut Newton

Born in Berlin, Germany, Helmut Newton emigrated to Australia in 1940. He married actor June Browne with whom he returned to Europe in the late 1950s. By the 1970s, Newton had gained a reputation with his high-contrast photographs of erotically charged Amazonian models. His oeuvre is regarded as one of the most important in photographic history for his representation of women not as passive objects but as persuasive subjects. He said in 1987 that much of his work would never have been made were it not for his wife’s encouragement: ‘When [June] was really sick, I truly didn’t think I would take another picture… She got me back into it… Women are much stronger than men – in every possible way. I truly believe that.’

Bettina Rheims

French artist Bettina Rheims was a model and journalist in the 1970s before working as a portrait photographer from 1978. She became known for her images of women which, in their expression of female desire, offered an alternative in the male-dominated world of photography. Initially she conveyed a more conventional image of women, however Modern Lovers marked an important shift. These photographs heralded a moment in fashion photography where an androgynous, natural and understated aesthetic came to prominence. In the selection and poses of her sitters, Rheims reveals, as she described in 1990, the unreal beauty of ‘beings who were in the process of being formed’.