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.
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.
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.
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
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
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)