Helmut Newton: White Women, Sleepless Nights Big Nudes


Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer described as the “foremost photographer of the 20th century”, produced works with “inimitable” fashion and nudes that are now the subject of an exhibition at the Palazzo dei Esposizioni in Rome.  Curated by Dr. Matthias Harder, the exhibition focuses on Newtons three well-known books: White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1979) and Big Nudes (1981).White Women was awarded the Kodak Photo Award in 1976, and had an immense impact in fashion photography as it opened the idea of visual eroticization of fashion photography. His work with nudes peaked with his book Big Nudes in 1981, where he used the eccentric idea of having models both dressed in the fashion, then posed nude. His series of nude and clothed diptychs can be compared to those in history and bring to mind Goya’s Maja which is also portrayed clothed and nude, always shown together. Matthias Harder’s goal for this exhibition was to show how Helmut Newton became known as a revolutionary in fashion photography and a key precursor to edgy photography. The exhibition aims to outline Helmut Newton’s photography focusing more on the female body, rather than the fashion, along with his continuous style of sophisticated photography through his works.

This theme of women’s bodies and sophisticated photography is revealed throughout the exhibition; however, it does seem to diminish and lose focus in the room “Sleepless Nights”.  The exhibition as a whole displays a mess of themes and minor photo-shoots. The photos chosen are random and share little similarities other than the book they are originally published in. Yet there is no explanation for why Newton originally chose them to be published together.

Upon reading a short introduction, placed in a small completely white room, the visitor walks to the doorway leading to a room sectioned off into smaller areas. The walls are bright purple; straight ahead is the first title in large silver letters: “White Women”. There is no clear central photograph, and the walls are sectioned so that pieces appear to the visitor immediately–and in fact it may appear slightly overwhelming. The first section begins with his black and white photographs of sophisticated women, exposing themselves subtlety.

The Rue Abriot , the photograph which has stood out as this exhibitions’ head campaign photo, stands as one of the largest photos in this set against the wall facing the entrance: it immediately calls the viewer in. It is a woman in an Yves Saint Laurent suit, smoking, on the Parisian streets. It holds a high level of elegance, typical for Newton’s photography; they show luxury in the woman and fashion, yet simplicity in the background. His photos then continue to show this subtle nudity, by placing a nude in a photo of a clothed women, or occasionally having them where no under or top clothing.

It is pointed out, in a small plaque introducing this section of the exhibition that women’s fashion is always meant to seduce, yet Newton was the first to take it a step further and to use nudity, either full or just the slight exposing of one breast. This was revolutionary for the time, and these photos greatly show where modern fashion photography found its birth. Newton was always fanatic about the luxurious hotel rooms with the seductive dark lighting and slight hint at a female nude. These photos reflect the growth and strength of women in society at the time.

The first three sections of the room are mainly sophisticated and elegant works. Women are portrayed in luxury and powerful status showing that sophisticated photography uses nudity as a subtle fashion power, yet the last section is very odd and does not fit with the rest.

 It begins with small and few crime scenes, three photos of women shown murdering a man, but his main crime scene pieces are seen later, so it makes more sense for them to be shown together. While the curator designed the pieces to be organized by book, it would have made more logical sense to organize them by subtheme, in order to keep the viewers’ attention. 

Then there are a few key pieces which particularly show the focus on the female body rather than the fashion. These pieces are “Jean-Louis David cuts Eva M’s Hair”, and two separate pieces titled “Beauty Treatments”.  These photos have little to do with fashion, as all are nude, yet they seem to comment on the role of women and what they do for beauty. The rest of the photos are then very commercial and of the 1970’s period they are a series of pool pictures.

The second installment, “Sleepless Nights”, is in a room painted with a dark blue wall contrasting wonderfully with the black and white photographs but also with his color ones which accentuate green, red and orange. Though the colors of the walls indicate change, the title is off to the side, which the viewer might miss, and the introduction is hidden on the side of the wall, where it may be easily overlooked.

Included in this section is Newton’s work with crime scenes, mannequins, saddles and back braces. These represent his more extreme and controversial works. Though they all share his radical breakthrough in fashion photography, they are placed in a disorganized manner and it is chaotic for the viewer to comprehend. The mannequin series are separated and placed in different sections, the crime scenes hold little interest, the saddles and back brace photos are mixed and then there is a completely random wall that takes away from the theme. There is a small wall with his photo of a butcher shop, a statue of the Virgin Mary and Andy Warhol. These three photos have nothing to do with his breakthrough in fashion photography and pull away from the central theme of the exhibition. 

Finally the viewer comes to “Big Nudes” where the walls are painted teal (a horrible color that conflicts with the sets of black and white photos). Again, the title is off to the side and the viewer may miss it. Here, an introduction explains how Newton gained his inspiration for this piece from the old German who wanted photos of the RAF. They are a series of photos of women, all portrayed life size as he wished. Here is where the theme of the woman’s body comes in strongest. It shows the exposes of the inner model and the woman who fill the space. The Big Nudes are simply naked women on a white backdrop; they are all posed differently along with different facial expressions. The photos reveal to us who the model is and what her personality is like. Newton is known for saying he had no interest in the inner life of his sitters, no interest in their mind whatsoever. Yet his photographs give the viewer a different idea, they seem to unveil a short clip of a larger mystery which the sitter holds. Especially in thisseries it is clear it is all about the model, rather than Newton.

The show concludes with Newton’s famous Diptychs, showing Models clothed, then in the same position nude. These are a perfect conclusion to the exhibit seeming to say “it is not the fashion that makes the woman”. These fully tie the exhibits theme together, showing Newton’s radical use of nudity and his focus on women’s bodies rather than the fashion. These are placed in a circular room, with white walls, separated far enough apart that each diptych receives its own full attention.

Overall, the exhibition is a very interesting look into Newton’s work and truly illustrates how he became so famous in the fashion world. They show us his revolutionary nudity along with the sophisticated influence of the 1920s luxurious style. Event though the photos were a bit disorganized such as the second installment, Sleepless Nights, they are some of his most famous pieces that broke the curators theme and was distracting from his other pieces. Newton’s photographs would have better been organized by subthemes, rather than books. Anyone who owns or knows the books has little purpose in visiting this exhibition, since it is simply laid out the same as the book. Though there was some information on his inspiration, it was very little and there should be more for each set of photos, also the photos simply have a title place and year, leaving the meaning, and photo-shoot theme up to the viewer’s interpretation

Helmut Newton was known to say “Some people say photography is an art. Mine is not. I’m a gun for hire.”So it is intriguing that his work is now prized and displayed. He did not himself define the photographs as art but through George Dickies “institutional theory of art”, it became art. His works met the criteria, by being changed when he set up the photograph and by being shown on exhibition, his commissioned photographs became true art.  By this exhibition, Newton becomes an artist, through a postmodernist theory, and all his art is left in a chaotic display, with the meaning left to the viewers, further contributing to the postmodernity of White Women, Sleepless Nights, Big Nudes.




  1. Lovely — the current issue of Vogue (May 2013) has one of Newton’s mid-1970’s photo of a woman in a pantsuit, and I remember that photo when it was new and how incredibly sexy and cool I thought a tailored pantsuit was, thanks to that picture. The emotion of that picture stuck with me, and some years later, in high school, I designed and sewed a chestnut-colored wide-wale corduroy pantsuit with my grandmother’s help, that was totally different from anything my friends were wearing but I just loved it and remember how I felt very sophisticated when I wore it. But those early Helmut Newton fashion pics had a huge influence on my image of fashion and of women.


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