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20 Years of SUMO: From Book to Exhibition

By Matthias Harder, Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin

Twenty years ago, in 1999, TASCHEN published its first monumental art book: Helmut Newton’s SUMO. It had the exceptionally large format of 70 x 50 cm (28 x 20 in) and was published as a limited edition of 10,000 copies, all signed by the photographer himself. The book came with a bespoke metal stand designed by Philippe Starck. Since then, the SUMO has rested on that stand in the spacious homes of private collectors, where from time to time one of its poster-sized pages is turned. A copy of the SUMO was presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, signed by most of Newton’s world-renowned subjects. Shortly after, it was sold at a charity auction in Berlin for 620,000 DM, thus becoming the most expensive book of the 20th century—another superlative.

Ten years ago, in 2009, the Helmut Newton Foundation organised an unconventional yet appropriate exhibition dedicated to this legendary publication. All 464 pages of the book were framed and hung on the wall, arranged in three rows, one above the other. In contrast to browsing page-by-page through the book, exhibition visitors could stand in the midst of more than 400 photographs and see everything all at once. This format made it possible to view Newton’s many iconic pictures individually and in the context of his main genres of fashion, portrait and the nude, and periods of their creation, from the 1960s to the 1990s. On the occasion of that exhibition, TASCHEN published a smaller version of SUMO, which is still available on the book market today.

Now, another ten years later, SUMO is being presented again by the Helmut Newton Foundation. As before, the book’s pages will be arranged above and next to each other, in the order of their appearance in the book. In this publication and the exhibition in Berlin we encounter a broad range of Newton’s work: from his Big Nudes and Sie kommen series to numerous fashion photographs for diverse issues of Vogue, Queen, Nova, Elle, Stern and Vanity Fair, as well as portraits of well-known actors, actresses and artists, from Liz Taylor and Jodie Foster to Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. This means that Newton’s work unfolds in an unconventional manner throughout this exhibition. Yet even this generous selection of images is only a small excerpt from his gigantic oeuvre, full of timeless elegance and subtle seduction.

This trail-blazing publication of SUMO comes with an autobiographic text by Helmut Newton in English as an introduction. This text also hangs on the exhibition walls alongside the other framed pages of the book. It takes us on a journey through time with the photographer, starting with his training as an assistant to Yva in Berlin from 1936 to 1938. He takes us to Singapore and Australia in the 1940s after he had fled the Nazis and then on to Paris in the early 1960s, especially to the French edition of Vogue, where his incomparable career began. Newton explains that he was inspired by the photographic work of Erich Salomon and Brassaï, whose daring photographs of prostitutes in night-time Paris in the 1930s he reinterpreted four decades later, transposing them into unique fashion editorials for French Vogue. Newton also worked mainly in the streets of Paris, which he skilfully exploited as a stage for his lascivious models, with their air of self-assurance and as a showcase for the fashion products he photographed. He was often ahead of his time with his innovative fashion arrangements and willingness to transgress boundaries. Leaving a traditional narrative behind, Newton’s fashion photography celebrates luxurious elegance and a hint of seductive power, featuring art-historical visual quotations and a surprising sense of humour. In this manner he again and again created the apt picture for many revolutionary fashion designs.

From 1980 Newton began to take nude shots and soon started his numerous portraits of the “famous and notorious.” One favoured location was Hollywood, where Helmut and June Newton always spent the first months of the year in the hotel Chateau Marmont. Benedikt Taschen and the Newtons met there several times to discuss preparations for SUMO—and it was there that the photographer died in January 2004, shortly after he had inaugurated the foundation named after him in Berlin, his city of origin. Since then, the foundation has looked after his photographic works, archived them and organised presentations.

When looking at Newton’s fashion pictures we identify not only that typical slightly modified and always contemporary idiom of the photographer, but, above all, the radically changing role of women in Western society since the 1950s. The extensive work that Newton has passed on to us is an artistic document of the times, thoroughly multi-faceted in content, sophisticated, challenging and trendsetting— also for the next generation. Helmut Newton was perhaps the most published and most talked about photographer ever. Up until his death he was booked by the most prestigious magazines and famous designers; his work fascinated and polarised and is still doing so today. All of this is reflected in the incomparable SUMO and the regularly varying exhibitions organised by the Helmut Newton Foundation. And through his work, presented in international exhibitions and publications, Newton lives on.