Helmut Newton Legacy - surely not a feminist one

Helmut Newton Legacy - surely not a feminist one

Women’s bodies are more sexualised than ever: from social media to print campaigns and online marketing - sex sells. So we constantly have to ask ourselves which role portrayals of women in the past in advertising have lead to the status quo where female nipples are still censored on social media but stereotypes of the image of a half or fully naked woman are used to sell tractors. A status quo, where idealised body types have done so much harm and even the concept of strong femininity and what it should look like was taken from us and invented by men instead. Therefore, ...

...we should not make Helmut Newton anything more than what he was - a fashion photographer with a vision. 

Why were his photos so scandalous? Because he empowered 50% of the worlds population? I doubt it. Most women were and still are not top models in Yves Saint Laurent clothes at the Côte d’Azur. I think his photos were eye catchers because they made sex sells socially acceptable. And we all can admit to know in who’s interest that was. 

Working for Vogue and other high class magazines almost his entire life, he made his view on women in nothing but heels, in lace and leather, wrapped in rope or holding a whip fit for salon. Testimonials of his legacy show nothing but white top models, 90-60-90 representative of his surroundings: Monacco, Hollywood, Paris. Not even the picture of Parisian Haute Volee Women in the 80ies was well taken, but even more so his male gaze on them. He himself said:

I am a professional voyeur.

Helmut Newton



Taking a quick dive into arts history, hundreds of MALE artists over the centuries have imitated Manets Olympia over the years - from the front and from the back. It was their attempt to repaint the image of Venus on the basis that they - as men - have the right to determine how the naked woman is most attractive. And so did Helmut. So why should I be lead to believe that while looking at this or any other of his photos, that it was his intention to empower of women? Why should I believe him claiming to be a feminist when he was expressing his thoughts loud and clear:

Under every fully dressed woman is a more (or less) well-formed body.

When I look at a woman, I first look at her shoes and hope that she’s wearing high heels. It makes a woman very sexy – and makes her a little threatening.

Helmut Newton

Looking at his legacy must be about questioning what these images provoke. Do they provoke other men to question their power positions because they see active women in strong poses or are they just provoking mens sexual desire in the hetero binary world of the 80ies until today? I would like to pay my respect to Newton and his work for breaking norms and bringing the kink to every household owning a vogue magazine. But now - 40 years later - we should be allowed to know better and have learned that there are negative sides too. Which has absolutely nothing to do with interfering with freedom of art on that note. 

I am not saying cancel him. I am saying Gen Z is tired of honeycoating the past for what it isn't. Helmut Newton was a visionary photographer - it was his profession. He himself denied being an artist. I would hang his pictures in my living room for their unique perspective and aesthetic value of a women in heels - an image me too i grew up with admiring and not gonna lie still do. But let’s at least be aware of it. He was arguably the best of his kind - but let me draw your attention to his wife June (a photographer herself) and all the other female photographers who did not get a chance, but invested in their husbands career instead. 

On January, 12th, at Kunstforum Wien, I was invited to speak on behalf of Gen Z in an open discussion across generations and with feminists from diverse backgrounds. I am glad we had this talk and came together as one - fighting norms, fighting idealized gender roles, simply put: fighting patriarchy. It united us and the audience, thanks to an innovative open discussion inviting everyone to participate.



"I do have a muse and it's June - and why? Because she is so honest that it often hurts but at least when she praises I know she is for real - We've talked photography for 48 yrs."
- Helmut Newton

A big thank you to the organizers:

Talia Radford & Vidya Giridharan | Creative Human Rights Practice

Another huge thank you, especially for the inspiration to my fellow panelists:

J G DansoVerein hint.wien

Kristin Lerch | Kiki House of Dive

Marijana GranditsGlobal Campus of Human Rights

Ruby Nyaoro | Lawyer and human rights activist




Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.