As two giants of the industry, Helmut Newton and Mario Testino changed the world of fashion photography forever by upending traditional notions of sexuality, eroticism and nudity. Newton was preoccupied with depicting powerful women, with sculptural bodies and aggressive posturing. Throughout his career he shot for French, German and Italian Vogue, Playboy, Pirelli and countless commercial campaigns, but is perhaps best known for his genre-defying Big Nudes. In this series from the 1980s he used a minimal, black-and-white set-up to present full-length shots of naked women asserting their own dominance in the space and staring right down the camera lens.
Testino has cited the photographer’s sizeable influence on his own practice, so it comes as no surprise that he has been invited to exhibit at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. The show explores “the physical notion of undressing” in a manner as much about exploring the boundaries of sexuality and eroticism as it is about selling clothes. As he states in his accompanying book: “I’ve always said I was more interested by the model than the dress. I love the dress, but it has to work on the woman; it’s no use if it just looks great on the hanger.”
This desire to capture a human connection is one both photographers share. Newton was known for always shooting his models at eye-level, in order to forge a visceral connection with the viewer. He also played with scale, thus projecting his images beyond the pages of magazines and into a higher form of art. In this exhibition Testino has taken this cue, blowing up his photographs to enormous proportions and pasting them directly on to the gallery’s walls. His black-and-white shots of laughing, nude young men are seen in dialogue with an abstracted torso, a runway still, or a pair of disembodied, muscular legs.
In the same way that Newton pushed the frontiers of fetishism and provocative sensuality in his images of women, Testino considers an overarching, fluid sexuality that blurs gender boundaries and definitions of sexiness. His aesthetic darts between intimate snapshots of young lovers, to flagrant displays of genitals revealed from under designer garments. He has shot young men in high heels and lipstick, women in full body stockings and a surprising amount of strategically placed tattoos. Through this powerful desire to provoke, imbued with an ongoing determination to have fun, Testino positions himself as one of the greatest fashion photographers of this age, alongside the work of his hero.