Yva and Helmut Newton: Haptic Seeing

Last week, I watched Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful. This candid biopic explores Newton’s complex legacy as a photographer through a series of his most provocative images and interviews with the women who featured in them. Amongst Newton’s iconic shots of Claudia Schiffer, Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Faithful, I found myself struck by a grainy black and white photograph hanging on the wall of his New York apartment. A cropped shot of a woman’s legs in stockings, dramatically illuminated against a dark background, it is an evocative rendering of the female form. Whilst it possesses the same sensual quality as Newton’s photographs, it is not his work. It was taken by Else Neulander Neuman, otherwise known as Yva, the Weimar photographer who had mentored Newton in the early days of his career.

From Gero von Boehm’s Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful, 2020

Yva was a leading photographer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Inspired by the creative atmosphere of the Bauhaus, Objectivism and German Expressionism movements, she used theatrical lighting and clean geometric lines, to create a sophisticated and refined image of glamour. In the male-dominated sphere of fashion photography which often propagated a sexualised model of femininity, her elegant and allusive photographs of women provided a refreshing outlook on female beauty.

Woman in Dress, 1933, Accessed via: Instagram: @noirmelanie

Two women in Coats, 1935, Accessed via: Instagram @documenting_fashion

Yva’s most iconic images were her stocking advertisements. Using close-cropped shots and theatrical lighting, she put the focus on the texture of the garment and immersed the female viewer in an act of ‘haptic seeing’. The photograph which Newton had hung on his wall was from an advertisement she shot for UHU in 1929 titled Schöne Beine in schönen Strümpfen (Beautiful Legs in Beautiful Stockings). The dramatic lighting of the woman’s legs against the nebulous dark background serves not only to highlight the form of the woman’s knees, shins and ankles, but also to emphasise the contrast between the grainy texture of the mass-produced stockings and the soft satin of her shoes. In its rich and sensuous depiction of the different textures, it encourages the women to imagine themselves wearing the stockings, with the visual focus not solely on the leg, nor solely on the stocking, but rather on the relationship between the item of clothing and the body. Yva’s photographs for magazines such as Die Dame and Elegante Welt provided a feminine perspective of products, engaging with female consumers’ sense of sight as well as touch.

Schöne Beine in schönen Strümpfen’, Yva, for UHU Magazine, 1929 Accessed via: Instagram @documenting_fashion

Shoe, Monte Carlo, 1983, Helmut Newton, Accessed via: Instagram @noirmelanie

Looking at Yva’s work, I have come to understand Newton’s photography in a different way. As shown by the stocking advertisement he had hung in his flat, he drew inspiration from her use of ‘haptic seeing’ to immerse the women in a multi-sensory experience of the latest fashions. Although he was not a woman, having understood the world through Yva’s eyes and indeed lens, he created photographs which spoke directly to the female consumer and her needs and desires.

By Violet Caldecott

 

Sources:

Belting, Hans, ‘The Transparency of the Medium: The Photographic Image,’ in An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011)

Hatton, Hayley, Yva: shattered vision, The tragic hidden legacy of one of history’s most visionary photographers, Dazed and Confused, July 2008

https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/20704/1/yva-shattered-vision

Ganeva, Mila, Fashion Photography and Women’s Modernity in Weimar Germany: The Case of Yva, NWSA Journal, 2003-10-01, Vol.15 (3) (Baltimore: Indiana University Press: 2003)

Van Deren Coke, Avant Garde Photography in Germany, 1918-1939 (Pantheon Books: New York, 1982)

Shoes: Pain and Pleasure Review

Heels by HM Rayne

Heels by HM Rayne

Adidas sneakers collection

Adidas sneakers collection

As the title  – Shoes: Pleasure & Pain – indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit.  This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes.  This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality.  It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.

Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes.  If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach.  The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years – as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.

As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.