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Brutality in Sexuality: The Newtonization of Fashion Photography in the 1970s

Brutality in Sexuality: The Newtonization of Fashion Photography in the 1970s

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
Brutality in Sexuality: The Newtonization of Fashion Photography in the 1970s
Tina Butler,
May 9, 2005

The fashion photography of the 1970s marked the dawn of a new era for the form. Drawing on the sexual revolutions and emergent counter-cultures of the late 60s, these influences came into their own with a new breed of woman and standard of femininity crafted by some of the most infamous image-makers in the history of fashion photography. Sexual connotations became the focal point in the majority of advertising and especially in fashion photography; some scholars, including Atkinson, in his essay, “Advertising and Fashion Photography: A Short Survey,” hypothesize this trend was due to the increasing availability of soft and hard pornography (315). This new blatant presentation of sexuality served to shock, to make people stop and look. Newton relied heavily on eroticism for the appeal of his 1970s photography, but he included an element of brutality in the images as well.

Sex and violence and their disturbing marriage in the fashion photograph came to dominate the aesthetic of this period. The ‘Age of Brutality’ was a marked shift in the presentation of beautiful women in expensive clothes. What was merely hinted at in 1960s photography came crashing through in the 1970s. A noted photographer of the time, Cecil Beaton, captures the essence of this new aesthetic of roughness and disillusionment in this statement from 1979.

I want to make photographs of very elegant women taking the lipstick off their teeth. Behaving like human beings in other words…It would be gorgeous, instead of illustrating a woman in a sports suit in the studio, to take the same woman in the same suit in a motor accident, with gore all over everything and bits of the car here and there. (Smedley 143)

The classically feminine, yet sexualized body was no longer enough to hold attention. The body was now brutalized. [Fig. 9] Women became more aggressive, confrontational and to some degree, more empowered in fashion images. Traditional notions of the gaze were reconfigured, and power dynamics questioned. At the same time however, much of the conventional positioning of women as eroticized yet submissive objects were retained. The 1970s were years of experimentation and hyper-contradiction in fashion photography.

Epitomizing this era of disorder, opposition and violent sexuality in a single body was Helmut Newton. He was and remains one of the most well known and notorious names in fashion photography, as he continues to work today. Newton, like many of his colleagues, has raised his own fair share of controversies in the content and organization of his images. The contradictions in his scope of work are remarkable. He has been accused of conceiving and producing photographs that are pornographic, “that reduce women to sexually attractive bodies” (Barnard 140). At the same time, as some have claimed, Newton’s work is not about objectifying his typically female subjects by presenting them in a sexualized manner, but rather that he is attempting to contest or at least unsettle “dominant structures of the gaze or of visual pleasure” (Ibid.). Much of his work has been written off as being of the former category, and yet one of Newton’s signature photographs depicts a woman reclined on a couch, conspicuously observing and appraising a man as he walks past her. [Fig. 10] The image is not about him; it is about her looking at him and his reduction to an object. Here, Newton is switching the traditional giver and receiver of the gaze, shifting old power structures and pre-defined gender roles. This image is no perfect or complete reversal of the gaze and its subsequent constructed power structures however. The model’s legs are spread wide open, assuming tellingly sexual posturing and creating the impression that she is offering herself to the man walking past her. It is not about her dominance after all; it is about his. Without even really participating, the male model still asserts his control and superiority. This specific photograph has long since been borrowed, appropriated and imitated, especially in advertising. Such commercial examples include Levi’s, Anne Klein and Principles. [Fig. 11] Where the photograph for the advertisement is almost a copy of Newton’s image, such as the one for Principles, interestingly the female model is given much more power through adjustments of her posture. Spectatorship has been reconfigured.

Despite its limitations, this reversal was revolutionary for its time. As we have seen, further testing of the established norms of the gaze would occur later in the work of Bruce Weber, among others. Berger remarks upon the more traditional imagery using the more formal and historical form of oil painting. He examines the notion of the gaze and traces its development over time and the construct’s easy transition into the more modern medium of advertising and fashion photography. Barnard writes specifically on the topic of the gaze and photographers’ attempt at instigating its reversal or at least playing with the typical construction of observer and observed in the 1970s and the progression of this trend in the 1980s. Newton can be credited as one of the pioneers in this form, however the majority of his work serves more to subvert female integrity and independence rather than promote it. His now famous 1975 image from a Saint- Tropez shoot for Vogue is a seemingly remarkable deviation, although the shortcomings of the photograph are now known. [Fig. 10] In more recent fashion history however, photographers have appropriated aspects of this new kind of imagery, and been more successful at questioning and confronting modes of representation and observation. In earlier days, the following statement would have been more commonplace and correct. “So, women’s clothes display the woman’s sexual attractiveness and men’s clothes display the man’s social status” (Barnard 54). While this is still largely the case, with the work of more contemporary photographers like Bruce Weber, men are also being presented as sexual and fetishized objects.

At the same time that their work has been so widely criticized, “The photography of [Newton] and Guy Bourdin radiates a knowing self awareness of fashion photography and its falsities. These photographers convey the sense of an impenetrable veneer, resistant to the very movement of stereotypes” (Brookes 23). And yet, with the creation of their own conventions, such as the persona of the cold, detached model, an entirely new set of stereotypes specific to their work is formulated. Newton’s use of violent or simply odd settings and set-ups for his shoots are often interpreted as being representative of the ‘real world’ (Ibid. 19). [Figs. 12] This reading seems inaccurate due to the pronounced degree of self-consciousness possessed by Newton’s images. His photographs convey a sense of profound artificiality and reflexivity and the schemes that are conceived and created are far from realistic.

[It] is because scenes of rape and death are commonplace in film and television that they can be treated with such distance in fashion photography. The aura of a particular kind of image, not the aura of the streets, is utilized. The artificiality is emphasized. It is the deathly aura of meditation which encases everything in gloss. Newton’s harsh colors, particularly his use of red and blue, make an association with poor quality reproduction, and thus invoke the limitations of the medium. (Ibid.)

Newton takes the very real actualities of death and violence and represents them in a way that highlights and mediates on the hyper-experiential aspects of the spectacle-like quality of violent death. By exaggerating the scenes of his compositions, he at once acknowledges and ignores ‘reality’ by embellishing and falsifying it.