Helmut Newton was already a well-established fashion photographer with a certain reputation for provocation when he suffered a heart attack on the street in New York in the autumn of 1971. This proved a pivotal event, crystallising a determination to invest more of his own history in his work and of his voyeuristic fascinations with the erotic. Newton’s subject matter had always extended beyond fashion per se to reflect a profound curiosity about the way a certain class of women lived. After his heart attack he raised his game, drawing on the unique resource of his own experience, his perversity and incisive observation finely tempered with dark humour. He became the Helmut Newton we know today, hailed as one of the most original and influential imagemakers of his era. Newton would henceforth constantly push the limits of provocation for his editorial and other commercial work, bringing multiple layers of narrative and implication to his picture-making. His images were always inspired by things he had seen – places, situations, gestures. His imagination, however seemingly outlandish, was always rooted in realities. Newton’s pictures combine premeditation and artifice with an opportunistic reportage sensibility, and are all the more persuasive for situating his sophisticated figures in authentic contexts.
Charlotte Rampling, whose film roles had so far been relatively lightweight, was cast by Luchino Visconti for his sombre, shocking 1969 film The Damned, the story of a powerful German family facing the nightmare rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, a story highly pertinent to Newton, the son of prosperous Berlin Jewish parents and forced, traumatically, to flee his homeland in 1938 at the age of eighteen.
Visconti had recognised untapped potential in Rampling, an enigmatic, still, intense quality – he called it 'The Look' – that also struck a chord with Newton. The present image, from a shoot undertaken for Photo magazine, is the most celebrated of a number of powerful portraits he made of her, portraits that, at the time and ever since, have significantly reinforced her image as one of the most stylish, complex, and mysteriously alluring of stars. Photo suggests that the shoot ‘seems to resituate her in the ambivalent world of her recent cinematic success, in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter’, another film whose subject was the trauma of Nazi power and abuse. Rampling affirms of the Newton shoot: ‘I recognise myself entirely. I love nudes that are sophisticated, elegant, uncluttered yet ambiguous... I love these pictures, which are my first photographic nudes. They are also my last. They are all I need.' This powerful portrait of Rampling perfectly distils Newton’s canny ability to use available light in an authentic atmospheric setting to give to a carefully constructed image the persuasive feel of a photo-journalistic document. We are reminded of his considerable, avowed admiration for the nocturnal images of Brassaï, and of his regard for the 1930s photojournalistic work of Dr. Erich Salomon, who caught the power-brokers of Germany in unguarded moments in grand, dimly-lit rooms.
Newton included this image in his first solo exhibition, in Paris in the spring of 1975, and told its story in that same year: 'This photo of Charlotte Rampling was taken in an old hotel at Arles [the Nord Pinus]. It is famous for the bullfighters who stay there during the season. [It was] taken in the best room of the hotel on the night of 19th of October 1973. It has been widely published... It was exhibited at the Nikon Gallery, Paris, March-April 1975.' Newton included this study of Charlotte Rampling in his first anthology, White Women, published in 1976 – it very quickly, and deservedly, joined the canon of his most emblematic images.