Foreword to the original edition of SUMO. By Helmut Newton
One day in 1932, when I was 12 years old, I went into a kind of 5 + 10-cent-store in Berlin and bought myself a camera with my pocket money. It was a Zeiss Box Tengor and it cost 3.50 Marks, a roll of film included. What made me do it, I don’t know. I went into the next “Untergrund” station, bought a ticket and started taking pictures in the station and the carriage. At Witzleben Station I got out of the train with one frame left on the film, and I was confronted with Berlin’s “Funkturm”, a construction which had greatly impressed me as a child (in Berlin). Many years later in Paris, the Eiffel Tower had the same effect on me. It drew me like a magnet and I could never stop photographing it. Back to 1932 and Berlin: Once the drugstore on the corner returned my developed film there was only one image visible: the “Funkturm”. I had angled my subject in the fashion of the day, leaning diagonally into the frame, and I was pleased with myself. That there were 7 blanks on the film from my trip in the “Untergrund” did not worry me. At that time I was surrounded by Nazi imagery, like everybody in Germany, and for a boy obsessed with photography it left an indelible impression on me. Later this influence was tempered by Brassaï and Erich Salomon. My love for photographing at night started with my early experience in the Berlin metro, but happily became more successful later. Even today I love photographing by the light of street lamps or in the hard glare of my flash.
4 years later, in 1936, I decided I must become a photographer and I saw myself as a “Rasender Reporter”, travelling the world, being famous and widely published. In that year I arranged to have myself thrown out of school as a hopeless pupil and through the good offices of my mother obtained an apprenticeship with the well-known Berlin woman photographer Yva. There followed two exciting years of apprenticeship in her studio at 45 Schlüterstraße.
Late in 1938 I landed in Singapore and was hired by the “Singapore Straits Times” as a society reporter. Two weeks later I was fired, as my reactions to the happenings I was supposed to record were too slow and I rarely gave the paper the kind of photos they were hoping for.
The next few years had little to do with photography. I was busy keeping my head above water and trying to avoid starvation.
My years in Australia were wonderful. I met June, we married, but photographically, as much as I loved the country and its people, it did not form me as a photographer nor did my work there amount to anything. Then came a year in London with a contract at English Vogue which proved equally sterile and unproductive. So I packed my bags (my two cameras) and my wife into my white Porsche and left for Paris. I still had no money, blowing most of it on one beautiful motorcar after another. The moment I hit Paris I knew this was it. For living and for taking photographs. The life was in the streets. People lived on the streets, in cafes, restaurants. Beautiful women seemed to be everywhere. I found work in the late fifties at the “Jardin des Modes” and in 1961 started my most prolific period as a fashion photographer at French Vogue. That would last until the late 1980s.
I had found out earlier that I did not function well in the studio, that my imagination needed the reality of the outdoors. I also realized that only as a fashion photographer I could create my kind of universe and make my models play the part of a certain type of woman. I set up my camera in the chicest places and in what the locals called “la zone”, which were working class districts, construction sites etc. Working for French Vogue at that time was exciting: who else would have published these nudes, who else the crazy and sexually charged fashion photographs which I would submit to the editor-in-chief ?
I kept my equipment down to a minimum: two cameras, each with three lenses, a flashlight that would clip onto the camera body, one assistant. I did not want to spend time thinking about hardware. I wanted that time to concentrate on the girl and her world around her.
It was not until 1980 that I photographed my first nude. In quick succession I executed the series “Big Nudes”, “Naked and Dressed” and later, in Los Angeles, “Domestic Nudes”. The fact that the models in these photographs were the same girls I used in my fashion work gave them a certain elegance and coolness that I was looking for in my work.
“The Big Nudes”
Inspired by German police photographs of the Baader-Meinhof gang which showed full-length identity shots of gang members, as displayed in the offices of the German Police “Fahndungs” Squad (Search Squad), the Big Nudes became an ongoing series ending in the year 1993. Also, this was one of the rare occasions on which I worked in a studio.
“The Naked and the Dressed”
was probably the most difficult series of pictures I ever produced.
Since the commercialization and banality of editorial magazine pages have made this work uninter - esting, advertising has become an increasingly important part of my work. It is interesting to compare European and American mores in regard to my work. Most of my European images have a stronger sexual content than those destined for American publication. The term “political correctness” has always appalled me, reminding me of Orwell’s Thought Police and fascist regimes.
Highly rewarding work, especially after I had abandoned photographing young Hollywood movie stars, invariably accompanied by their press agents who would act as censors during the actual sitting. To the question: “What people do you like to photograph?” my answer is: “Those I love, those I admire and those I hate”.
Helmut Newton, Monte Carlo, 1999