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The beauty of an imperfect body – Helmut Newton’s powerful women

Posted in fashion, Style & Travel, and Women's issues

From the Rue Abroit series for Yves St Laurent

But, if I were to look for a moment at the pore-less faces, the sculpted legs, the absence of lines or of any imperfections, it wouldn’t be hard to see why young girls today feel so inadequate and work so hard to attain the impossible. The subject has been dissected in many a forum by more eloquent voices than mine so I won’t debate it any further here. Thirty years ago, though, I don’t remember ever measuring myself against the likes of Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell, and I am fairly confident none of my girlfriends lost any sleep over the matter either – so, what has changed? 

What has changed dawned on me today, as I wandered around the galleries of the Annenberg Space for Photography, where an exhibition of Helmut Newton nudes is currently on display.

big_nude_iii384130707_uploadLove him or hate him, whether you believed Newton objectified the female body or not, his vision of a naked woman is intensely personal, beautiful and even empowering.

EPSON scanner imageMost of his subjects were professional models, hence beautiful girls at the top of their game in the mid-70’s/80’s. Some of the photos are truly iconic and all of them have one thing in common – the women look real. Less than perfect knees on mile-long legs, breasts with a hint of a sag, wobbly butts and dare I say it?, even a mild display of cellulite. The horror! All the women also sport a crop of hair on their vaginas (more about this here) and, while by no means overweight, they don’t look undernourished either. In short, despite their extraordinary beauty, these women are relatable, they don’t project an image of unattainable perfection.

They might be beautiful but they are also human.

The changes in how photos are retouched, airbrushed and cropped have been subtle enough over the years that I didn’t even notice until I was confronted with extra-sized black and white prints hanging in a museum. I have always found beauty in imperfection and it seemed like the fashion world did too, at some point. Certainly, Mr. Newton did not mind. But, then again, he was a master, probably more interested in portraying his idealized woman within the confines of reality: strong, sexually independent and proud of her imperfections.

All photos copyright of Helmut Newton Estate 

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  1. Love this post! While this is always a big discussion topic, I love your take. Thanks so much for sharing.

    August 15, 2013
    • Thank you. I always appreciate when readers take the time to comment

      August 15, 2013
  2. I saw this exhibit in Rome and I too was struck by how different the women looked in the 70s and 80s.

    Powerful, strong, agency, human, were some of the words that popped into my head.

    August 13, 2013

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