Fetishism in photography of Helmut Newton

So this is essay for the course that I am doing. Fashion photography on London College of Fashion. I hope you find it interesting and I really would not mind some comments since I see lost of people reads this essay every day… Good? Shit? Interesting?

Fetishism in photography of Helmut Newton

I have always loved photos of Helmut Newton. There was some sort of energy and attraction that made me keep looking at his books and attending his exhibitions over and over again. I did not know for sure till the recent lectures about commodifying desire what was so different and interesting about him. It was all this concealed fetish symbolism, power and sexuality. In this essay I am going to explore what fetishism is, what are the things that makes it so inadmissible to some and so attractive to others.

Photos of Helmut Newton attract millions of viewers every day all around the globe. His images of nude bodies, fancy locations, high heels, uniforms, stocking and prestige are full of eroticism, fetishism, voyeurism, and people named all this – (porno) chic. His photos were called porno chick because he was first who shot sado-masochistic, fetishist and other explicit motifs and put them in the most influential fashion magazines that didn’t publish anything similar before. Deviant sexual practices and naked bodies came from underground to the high street and became part of fashion world, and now they are not called porno chick any more, but simply chick. His photos are a reflection of sexual revolution of 60s and 70s. This was the era which came with the advent of the birth-control pill, the women of Helmut Newton’s world are women who know and get what they want; they are far removed from the weak, compliant sex-object dominated by the misogynist macho. And this is one of the main reasons why Newton’s work has been found so shocking and different from previous images of passive women. Some people accuse him of being extremely degrading and demeaning to women but when you take a closer look of his photos you can see that it is rather in contrary to that. Newton’s photos are full of fetishist and dominating symbols that represent power of women over spectator – a man. In his photos woman never appears as an object of masculine power but is self aware of sexuality and authority.

There are couple theories about fetishism that we could apply to Newton’s photography starting with the primal theory defining what fetish is. ˝The original discourse on fetishism was religious and anthropological. Missionary tracts like Fetichism and Fetich Worshippers denounced the ˝barbarous˝ religions of people who worshipped idols of wood or clay. By the early nineteenth century, the term “fetish” had been extended to refer to anything that was irrationally worshipped (Steele, 1996). Helmut Newton worshiped various objects. His personal fetishes are hotel rooms, mirrors, cars, high heels and we could say also women themselves. He is highly attracted by his fetishes so it is impossible to find his photo without at least one of them. The other theory that is also highly associated with Newton’s photography is Freudian theory of the phallic woman. In Freud’s interpretation object becomes a fetish when it becomes a focus of (usually men’s) desire. The male child develops unconscious fear of castration at sight of a woman’s body, and fetishism in one means of allying this anxiety: the fetishist knows but suppresses his knowledge of her lack of a penis and idealises objects associated with a woman, for example shoes (Stelle, 1996). Steel also writes in her book: “The fetish may be a part of the sexual partner’s body or even the sexual partner herself. For example, just as a high heeled leather boot may represent a female with a penis the so called phallic woman so a woman, with or without boots, may be endowed with phallic properties by her fetishist lover and thus become for him at least, a fetish.”

It is same with fetish as it is with all other things. It is acceptable as long as you do not go to big extremes or break the law. One of the early sexologists Krafft Ebbing (1916) regarded people with unusual sexual interests as a bunch of blood- drinking shit- eating, corpse -mutilating perverts. He also claimed that fetishists are more likely to commit crime, especially a crime of theft or sexual molestation.

There are also some more contemporary opposes of fetishism. Some feminists claimed that the fetish is a symptom both of capitalism and patriarchy, in its double aspects of glorifying objects and objectifying women: a perspective which means yet again, that the fetishist is always male, while a woman becomes the fetish itself, the perfect object (Steele, 1996). There are also disagreements of the religion to the fetish practice but this is beyond this topic since that topic is brought enough for the essay of its own. If we want to fully understand and deconstruct Newton’s photos, we have to understand what it is exactly that fetishist in his works and that answer also leads to the answer why his photos changed the perception about erotic-fetishist photography nowadays. Therefore I am going to deconstruct three photos of Helmut Newton in detail.



This photo was as many others taken in one of the hotel rooms. Newton found hotel rooms very erotic and voyeuristic. People in hotels change every day but the walls and furniture stay the same and see everything happening there. The woman on the photos is kneeling on the floor and is tighten with a dog leash to the bed wearing only high heeled leather booths. Although we could say she is in degrading and demeaning position she is not showing that. It looks like it is her choice that she is staying in that position, and we could even say that she is not interested in ˝the game˝. Her high heeled leather boots are an important signifier of her dominance and power. The shoe can function as a symbolic substitute for the penis, and also for vagina into which the phallic foot in inserted (Stelle, 1996). Leather boots were always closely related with masculinity and power. The soldiers wear boots in the battles, the horseback riders wear them, bikers wear them, etc. The whole idea of a female wearing high heel is to emphasize her naturally dominant and aggressive personality (Arnold, 2001).

Dominance and rank-related aggression seem to be characteristics of human males, not only because men compete to gain access to a woman but because women who preferred to pair with high status males would on whole be more successful in raising and protecting children.

The mirror is one of the symbols that are used often in his photography; it is a representation of the recumbent figure.

He is voyeur. He is not interested in people that he photographs. He is not interested in their personality but in their appearance. Body of the woman that he photographs is not nude but is naked and normally set in a constraint, robotic pose. This person although it is wearing clothes has elements of intense attraction and worships the cult of libido.

1998 / MUGLER / Monaco


As on most of the Newton photos the model gazes away from the viewer and does not express any feelings. She is blood cold and she looks like she is incapable of establishing any intimate relationship, only a perverse one. She is wearing black corset, black stockings and black gloves. Besides the high-heeled shoes and black stockings, the corset is one of the first items to be treated as a fetish. The meaning of corset is contextual and constructed. Stelle (2001) says that the dominatrix wears her corset as armour, its extreme and rigid curvature the ultimate sexual taunt at the slave who may look but not touch.

Corset emphasises the shape of a woman’s body. Big breasts and big bottom were at all times symbols of fertility and were displayed and praised in arts starting in 23.000BC.

The legs are the pathway to the genitals. Stockings lead the viewer’s eyes up the legs and for many men’s is the effect like arrows pointing to the Promised Land. Black stockings, in particular, graphically isolate part of the leg, and stop a few inches below genitals. The black stockings symbolises a branded, sinful woman. Not only the colour but also material carry erotic connotation since the nylon represents the most refined essence of imaginable second skin. Black stockings also represent the armour of those beautiful but untouchable creatures whom submissive love to worship (Ash, Wilson, 1992).

As well as putting up the stocking or the gloves reminisce to the penetration of penis into vagina.

The woman on this photo represents femme fatale and man on the photograph is a victim of her fatality. The femme fatale is the simulation of the mother, that is, a woman who is a younger mother in appearance but who lacks a mother’s warmth and empathy. Virtually every one of Newton’s women is incapable of empathy, inwardly as cold as death (Kuspit, 2001).

Men are rarely seen in his photos and represent the contra punt of women. They appear in subordinate position mainly as observers, drivers, butlers or victims. Some have interpreted the strange, unusual settings in the work of Helmut (accidents and suicides) as the intrusion of real world into fashion photography. We could also say that artificiality of the image is emphasized with that.

Venus in furs 2002


This photograph looks particularly theatrical. The marble table and orange background looks like a part of a drama play in a theatre. One woman is predominantly staying above the lying woman that looks like she is on a scarifying altar. Despite that she looks confident and gazes into dominatrix face. Dominant woman wears fur covering. Freud believed that fur symbolized the pubic hair, in the middle of which according to the male child’s fantasy he should have seen a penis. According to the Leopold Von Sacher Mascoh is a woman both cold as death and warm as fur. A woman in fur coat was like a great cat, a powerful electric battery. The sensation of fur against skin is peculiar and prickling, charged with static energy (Stelle, 1996).

All Newton’s photos are about dominance and submission, woman’s dominance and the spectator’s submission. And the reason that woman is dominant is that she has this mystery in the middle of her being, this entrance to the underworld of confusing feeling. We do not dare touch Newton’s women, however close we may get to their bodies; however much they may flaunts their bodies, waving their crotches in our face like a red flag. What adds to their provocativeness is that they are not interested in physical pleasure, only power over the mind of the spectator. They are cryogenically hygienic, preserved forever in cynical perfection (Kuspit, 2001).

As we could see in Newton’s photos are all his women powerful, confident, robotic that they despite they are nude loose all sex appeal. It is fact that we are seduced by their body but we do not dare to come too close to is. Simply because of this it is hard to accuse Newton of being sexist or degrading. He and Guy Boudin were the most famous photographers of 70s since they changed fashion photography forever thanks to the sexual revolution. Passive women that were merely an object of male gaze not only that became dominant figure in the photos, but they also throw off clothes and still manage to retain same emancipation and respectful admiration.


Arnold, R. 2001. Fashion, desire and anxiety: image and morality in the 20th century, London : Tauris

Ash, J., Wilson E. 2001, Chic thrills : a fashion reader. London : Pandora

Krafft, E.1916. Psychopathia Sexualis. Philadelphia: The F.A. Davis Company

Kuspit, D. 2001. The Unempathic Eye. Availabe on internet on 7.12. – http://www.artnet.com/magazine/FEATURES/kuspit/kuspit10-19-01.asp

Stelle, V. 2001. The corset : a cultural history. London : Yale University Press

Stelle, V. 1996. Fetish : fashion, sex and power. Oxford : Oxford University Press

~ by matjazz on December 15, 2008.

5 Responses to “Fetishism in photography of Helmut Newton”

  1. zanimivo branje… fajn 🙂
    samo ena napakica: zadnji trije odstavki se na koncu še enkrat ponovijo…

  2. Jou Matjaž! Hvala za info! Sem pobrisal!.. Me veseli, da je vsaj enemu od par stotih, ki so ga prebrali zanimivo…

  3. […] of all time (according to statistics)  are actually essays that I posted last year… Abouth Fetishism in photography of Helmut Newton and about Male voyeuristic gaze in film still fashion photography. Even when I was doing a research […]

  4. по моему мнению: прелестно.

  5. спасибо!

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