La Coruña (CNN) -- Helmut Newton, the post-war German fashion photographer who had a model pose on a Paris hotel bed with a saddle on her back, is the focus of a new retrospective in the port city of La Coruña in Galicia, Spain. Counterintuitively, this is a sophisticated display of female empowerment as much as erotic suggestion. Tights, suspenders, riding breeches and furs are worn without excuses.


Staged at the city's Marta Ortega Pérez Foundation (MOP), "Helmut Newton - Reality and Fiction" explores a career dedicated to photographing for magazines such as Vogue, Playboy and Harper's Bazaar from the 1950s to the early 2000s, as well as a mercurial character that fused the playful and the distressing.

A portrait of Newton can be many things at once: provocative, even exciting, but also funny and confusing. His iconic "Great Nudes" from 1980 are life-size and from the front. However, his nudes exude armor. His celebrity portraits frame actresses — from Raquel Welch to Charlotte Rampling — in defiant poses. And in the 1970s, photographing carte blanche for Vogue France, he invented a bold monochrome visual language: black lingerie, carefree countenance, power plays, and decadent interiors, which has been widely imitated in the years since.

This post-war fashion photographer has a complex and controversial legacy, not least in relation to the way he captured women. Credit: Mathieu Ridelle

The stark contrasts of his work were reflected in the reversal of his life's fortunes. Helmut Neustädter was born in 1920 in Berlin into a family of Jewish industrialists. He fled the Nazis in the late 1930s and went into exile first to Singapore and then to Australia. One of his first models, Australian actress June Browne, became his wife in 1948. Browne was the inspiration for his later striking and clever models, and, working under the Alice Springs name, had his own successful photographic career. They were married for more than half a century.

Newton's work in the 1960s emphasized his early inspirations, such as the noir imagery of Hungarian photographer Brassaï and the horror films of Alfred Hitchcock (a Newton shoot for Christian Dior is reminiscent of "Vertigo"). Soon he began celebrating the sculptural qualities of women's bodies and portraying men as foolish, subservient, or dead.

His erotic imagery earned him the nickname "King of Kink." Credit: Helmut Newton

In the mid-70s, Newton met Philippe Garner, then a young photography specialist at Sotheby's, who has now curated the Spanish exhibition alongside Matthias Harder, director of the Helmut Newton Foundation, and British art dealer Tim Jefferies. In Newton, Garner recalls a friend who "created a parallel universe but rooted in everything you know and recognize."

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It is curious that Newton's view of sexuality has not been in the crosshairs of "cancel culture". "The play has so many layers, so many contradictions, so many ambiguities, this strange hovering between fact and fiction," Garner says. "That makes it very difficult to confront her and condemn her outright." He adds: "Helmut was perfectly happy that people hated his photos."

Newton often contrasted intimate evening attire with harsh daylight, as demonstrated here with "Elsa Peretti as a Bunny," where the philanthropist and jewelry designer wears a Halston bunny costume on a New York rooftop, 1975. Credit: Helmut Newton

But could a modern-day photographer portray a woman as if she were a horse? "Every photographer starting out now should have the courage of their perspective," Garner says. "What Helmut's photos have is a kind of integrity."

In 1976, Newton photographed his infamous equestrian model at the Hôtel Lancaster on the Champs-Elysées. The session was for Hermès but, as with much of Newton's work, the product seems secondary to the composition. As Garner notes, he took "photos that stopped you in your tracks." It's fashion photography, but clothes play second fiddle.

Paris was not Newton's only metropolis. He had an eye for glamorous cities: he accepted commissions in Monte Carlo, Berlin, and Vienna, and worked in color under the bright light of California and southern France. A friend joked that "only rabid dogs and Helmut Newton come out in the noonday sun." Newton spent the winter in Los Angeles, where he died of a heart attack in 2004 at the wheel of his Cadillac.

He photographed several famous stars, such as Monica Bellucci in this 2001 "Monte Carlo" image. Credit: Helmut Newton

The photographer's fetish interests and elegant style are illustrated in the exhibition with the inclusion of some of his possessions: Barbie bondage dolls, cigarette mouthpieces, stiletto heels, a Louis Vuitton camera case with a travel monogram. And there are surprises among the works: a portrait of a subtly nervous Margaret Thatcher hints at a crack in the iron, while a series of melancholy landscapes offer a window into Newton's more pensive side.

The MOP Foundation is located in a complex of former warehouses and silos in the city's port. The galleries live up to their industrial heritage (elegant bunkers and salted metalwork) and are perfectly configured around the geometric Atlantic harbour. It's a dramatic setting to introduce Newton and, with great success, the curators display his smaller works, exquisite test Polaroids, in one of the vast silos. Visitors voyeuristically gaze at soft, palm-sized images of semi-dressed models lying on Parisian sofas, New York balconies and the decks of Mediterranean yachts.

Newton, who appears here in a self-portrait taken in 1993, is the subject of a new retrospective exhibition in Spain. Credit: Helmut Newton

Marta Ortega Pérez, whose foundation hosts the exhibition, is the president of Inditex, the Spanish multinational clothing company founded by her father. She said her foundation focuses on three things: fashion, photography and her hometown. "We want to bring our city to the world and bring the world to our city," he said, adding that it's a "really nice challenge."

A strong woman rethinking history? It could be the subject of a photograph by Helmut Newton.

The exhibition "Helmut Newton - Fact and Fiction" is available until May 1, 2024. Marta Ortega Pérez Foundation (MOP), La Coruña, Spain.