Au Revoir Helmut

June NewtonOn the afternoon of Saturday, 24th of January, 2004, I drove West on the 101 towards Hollywood. I began my journey under leaden clouds. Dark and low, Berlin skies? He would like this light. Then the sun came out and I remembered all the fantastic photographs taken in the sun. Hard light in girl eyes in Los Angeles, South Beach, Miami, Monte Carlo.

The journey from Silverlake to the Chateau Marmont took me about half an hour. What about Helmut’s ride down the driveway at the hotel, in his beloved Cadillac, into that ivy covered wall? Maybe 5 seconds. His journey from 20’s Weimar Berlin to Singapore to Melbourne to London to Paris to New York to Monte Carlo to the Chateau Marmont took 83 years. In that time, most particularly since he turned fifty and had a heart attack in New York City, he would create something black, white and indelible as an ink stain. Say what you like. I say I’ve never recovered from seeing those photographs for the first time. I can’t look at white, full breasts in hard light, at a surgeon’s steel instruments, at a massively thighed amazon, at an attractive woman in uniform without thinking of him. His name is in the pantheon and describes something very particularly his: erotic, cold, powerful, forbidden. Newtonesque.

Why did I go there? Surely it is in bad taste to rush with your heart in your throat to see where someone you deeply admired had a heart attack, crashed into a wall, went to hospital in an ambulance and promptly died. Yet I felt oddly compelled. I told myself it seemed perfect: the notorious hotel where before him rock stars had lived, John Belushi had overdosed and died. The Cadillac, that outdated American chariot because he loved flashy, fleshy American displays of opulence. Like a scene from one of his photographs. And it was.

I parked across the street and walked across Sunset. There was the wall. At the foot of the wall, bouquets of flowers from friends and colleagues already piled up. But what’s this? A group of people stood before the wall as a man took their picture. Bad taste, even by Helmut’s standards? But that would be hard for the man who famously declared “Good taste is a dirty word”. Who took the last photographs of Salvador Dali, a tube of oxygen running up his nose, shot fashion editorials of women in prosthetic devices, artificial limbs, saddled up on hands and knees. I’m not the type to carry my camera everywhere, but I’d brought it along. I wouldn’t take a great photograph but rather there would be something on a contact sheet to remind me I’d been there. Some tenuous connection to a man who was a great artist but claimed he despised that word. With it’s attendant preciousness and odour of pretension he’d protest; ‘I’m just a photographer.”

I moved closer to this group in a sort of shock. They were an ordinary, mismatched group. Who? Tourist? Hotel guests? And then in their midst I saw her. She was small and I had that sense we have when we see someone famous. They look like themselves, only not quite. Smaller, less radiant. Then I realised: I’ve never seen this woman in life before. Only from his photographs. And he was one of the greatest photographers that ever lived. She stood in their midst. Calm and clear eyed because the Newtons looked straight ahead, where you or I might look away. This woman who’d quietly collaborated with Helmut Newton for fifty six years. One of his favourite subjects. She’d edited his work, which is dedicated to her. Junie to his Helmie.

Then I heard her voice, traces of an Australian accent. “Let me take one.” She disengaged from the group and crossed Marmont Lane and fumbled, as any seventy something woman might with a digital camera. “What do I press?” Twelve feet away I raised my camera and began to take photographs of her taking photographs of a group of people standing in front of the wall where her husband of fifty six years began his end. It was at the same time completely, horribly disrespectful and entirely the right thing to do. Then she had it. The man who owned the camera rushed to her and said “ I’ll send you prints, how many do you want?”

Her words were unforgettable: “Oh, two I suppose, one for me and one for him”. At that moment I had the clearest sense Helmut would come out of the hotel and take June back inside. It was all too perfectly choreographed. But he didn’t come and I knew then he was dead. The man who had mixed that fantastically intoxicating cocktail of Eros and Thanatos was really gone. She said her good byes and was escorted back into the hotel on the arms of good looking young men in black suits.

Andrew Southam and June NewtonI wondered where Helmut was now, just 24 hours gone. Paradoxically he was surely in a location he would have certainly considered shooting in, the morgue at Cedars Sinai. As a self admitted hypochondriac the thought would’ve terrified him. But as a fearless artist he would’ve asked for a peek.

I don’t feel sorry for him because he’d done it all. The exhibitions, the largest book ever printed, the thousand cancelled subscriptions to Vogue, who never wavered in their commitment to him. He’d written his own life story. Even more he’d lived it. I feel sad for us. No more new Newtons. No more the thrill of opening a new issue of a magazine and laughing out loud at his fantastic gallows humour. The sly references to the photographers he’d admired; Salomon, Brassai. The beauty of the work. Though we never met, I’ll miss him very much.

Everything he did was with the same fantastic style, grace, artful artlessness. Now they call it Porno Chic, the bad impersonators are legion. But to do something first requires real vision, talent, toughness and courage. We photographers want so badly to be loved by our editors. Without them we whither and die. Helmut was somehow above, apart from that. He went his own way.