Born into a fading aristocratic dynasty in Cork, Ireland, Bob Carlos Clarke was frequently referred to as ‘Britain’s answer to Helmut Newton’ (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) for his provocative nude portraits which often featured the subjects wearing rubber and latex and involved in scenes suggestive of sado-masochistic ritual. Along with Newton he is the best exemplifier of what was known disparagingly as ‘porno-chic’.
After an unhappy childhood spent in boarding school in England Clarke had a hard time re-adjusting to 60’s Ireland, as he wryly noted in the introduction to his book Shooting Sex (2002), “The first decade was OK, but later it was no place for a libidinous adolescent, particularly a withdrawn Protestant boy in a land where all the hot talent was Roman Catholic and strictly off-limits” and he moved to England in 1970 where he became a photographer quite by chance. When he discovered that the girl at college whom he had an unbearable crush on was a model he brought a camera so that she could pose for him. It worked and he would later marry the model Sue Frame, however the union didn’t survive Clarke’s constant infidelities.
He would later marry for a second time to another one of his models, Lindsay, with who he had a daughter Scarlett. As well as his overtly sexual photographs Clarke also took extraordinary and voyeuristic documentary style photographs of drunken debutantes balls and images of found objects discovered on the banks of the river Thames.
In 2006 at the age of 56, Clarke, depressed with growing older in a world where the models remained forever 21 and by the emergence of digital photography of which he said made everyone think they were the next Cartier-Bresson (Dreams of Desire 50 (The Decisive Moment) threw himself beneath an oncoming train.
Known as the ‘King of Kink’ and the ’35mm Marquis De Sade’ , Helmut Newton was the most influential fashion photographer of the twentieth century. Famous for his highly stylised black and white photographs of beautiful statuesque women in perverse narrative scenarios, Newton has alternatively been hailed as a true original or vilified as a fetishist who presents the ultimate in the objectification of women.
Born Helmut Neustadter to a wealthy German-Jewish family in Berlin, Newton was an apprentice to the fashion and advertising photographer Yva (see my previous post Yva) from the ages of 16 and 18. Fleeing the worsening situation in 1938 Newton went first to Singapore where he led a playboy lifestyle, before moving to Australia where he served in the Australian Army for 5 years. It was in Australia that he met his wife of 55 years, June, who was also a photographer known as ‘Alice Springs’.
Newton rose to fame in the 1960’s where his photographs frequently appeared in the French Edition of Vogue. The startling fetishtic glamour shots of the seventies are charged with eroticism and a ritualistic, sado-masochist atmosphere. During the 1980’s and 90’s Newton was one of the most in-demand celebrity photographers, anyone who was anyone during that time had a portrait taken by Newton. As Newton was obsessed by glamour, celebrity and decadence (after all he grew up in the Weimar Republic) it was a perfect fit and his photographs define that image conscious era.
Newton died in a car crash after leaving Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, which served as his winter residence for many years, at the age of 83. It was, as Karl Lagerfeld noted, ‘his last picture, taken by himself.’
The German photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke concentrated almost entirely on montage techniques. Influenced by the great Dada and Surrealist innovators of the 1920’s and 30’s he experimented with solarisation and camera-less photographs. During WWII he turned to photographing small animals for scientific publications. The 1950’s however saw Hajek-Halke returning to experimental photography; he joined the fotoform group and participated in two of the groups subjektive fotografie exhibitions, becoming one of the few photographers to be involved in the avant-garde of different generations.
In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful, daring young widow Judith (feminine form of Judah), distressed by her fellow Jews lack of faith in God to deliver them from the Assyrian conquerors, ingratiates herself with the General Holofernes. Having gained his trust she is admitted into his tent where he is lying in a drunken stupor. With the help of her loyal maid she proceeds to decapitate Holofernes and shows the severed head to an awe-struck crowd of her fellow-countrymen. The Assyrians demoralised by the loss of their leader retreat and Israel is liberated from the foreign threat.
The story of Judith was a popular source of art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. The Symbolists interpenetration brought the perverse and sadistic elements to the forefront. The great Austrian Symbolist painter and Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt’s (The Succubus) JudithI of 1901 was the cause of considerable scandal when first exhibited. The focus of the painting is Judith, only a part of the decapitated head of Holofernes is shown and even that is regulated to the bottom right-hand corner, beneath the exposed breast of Holofernes. With an expression of rapt depravity Judith caresses the head, all set against a ornately gilded, Art Nouveau decorative background.
An interesting comparison with Klimt’s Judith is with two masterpieces from the Baroque period on the same subject, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes circa 1599 and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620. Here the paintings are concerned with the act of murder itself. Caravaggio who led a tumultuous life and would die on the run after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, manages to convey with his trademark chiaroscuro all the tension and ambivalence Judith must have felt as she saws through the neck of Holofernes, while Gentileschi’s Judith surpasses Caravaggio (she was the most famous of the Caravaggisti, followers of Caravaggio) in showing the bloodiness and sheer physicality of the scene. It has been interpenetrated as a vivid rape revenge fantasy.
The German born photographer and artist Raoul Ubac settled in Paris in the early 1930’s and under the influence of Man Ray promptly embraced Surrealism and its techniques, particularly solarisation and collage. During the course of the 1930’s Ubac explored the boundaries of experimental photography with his bold and radical innovations. In The Battle of the Amazons and The Triumph of Sterility (featured below) Ubac took a solitary female nude figure and created a photo-montage before subjecting the print to the technique of virage (toning: where different chemicals are substituted for the silver salts during the development) to achieve startlingly different results from a single source image, some verging on the edge of abstraction and in the process subverting the notion of photography’s unquestioned realism.
Erwin Blumenfeld was one of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the 20th Century, renowned for his vivid and innovative colour photography that graced the cover of Vogue more times than any other photographer before or since. He was also a member of the German avant-garde, a close friend of the savage Berlin Dadaist Georg Grosz (see Eclipse of the Sun) whose techniques of photo-montage and collage he used throughout his career. His discovery of Man Ray shaped his earlier black and white nude photography leading Blumenfeld to experiment with solarisation and double exposure.
With Hitler’s rise to power, Blumenfeld, a Jew, moved to Paris in 1936 where he was discovered by Cecil Beaton who got him a job at French Vogue, however he was soon on the move again with the Nazi invasion of France, this time to America. In the United States he continued his connection with Vogue which allowed him to pursue his lifelong obsession with photographing beautiful women away from the genocidal horror of a war-torn Europe. It has been remarked that Blumenfeld found shame thrilling and he certainly instilled that sense of illicit eroticism into his images.
The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was another giant of the field who, although not an official member of the Surrealism movement, socialized with the Surrealists and fruitfully applied their ideas in his own work.
This can be seen clearly in his important and influential theory of ‘the decisive moment’, which further develops Andre Breton’s doctrine of ‘objective chance’. Cartier-Bresson argued that, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”, and for the photographer to be truly creative they have to recognise that moment; because once you miss it, the moment is gone forever.
A striking example of the decisive moment can be found in his 1934 photograph, The Spider of Love, Mexico City. While attending a party in that city, he felt a little worse for wear and went upstairs to the bathroom. Passing by a bedroom he heard a noise and upon opening the door he discovered two women making love. He later described the event as a miracle of sensuality, which could never be duplicated by posed models.
Quite by chance (regulars readers will know how highly I regard thar particular concept, after all a throw of the dice will never abolish chance) I came upon this beautiful work by Leon Ferrari, a photograph embossed in Braille with one of my favourite poems, Andre Breton’s magnificent Free Union (click link to view English translation). The photograph with the mirror reflecting is reminiscent of Man Ray ( Dreams of Desire 25 (Return to Reason), Brassai (Dreams of Desire 47 (Brassai) and the many photographers who engaged with Golden Age Surrealism: at once sensual, elusive and utterly mysterious.
On the 9th of March 1960, Yves Klein, one of the founders of the Nouveaux Realistes art movement and creator of the paint shade IKB (International Klein Blue) which he had used in a number of large-scale monochrome paintings, staged a unique event. At the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in Paris, before an audience consisting of the cream of the Parisian art world all decked in evening wear and an orchestra of nine musicians playing his own piece, The Monotone Symphony (which consisted of a single chord played for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of silence) Klein painted three nudes models in IKB, and using them as living paintbrushes precededto give instructions as to where to place their bodies on the canvases that lined the floor and walls. The models positioned themselves, rolled around and dragged each other producing the paintings above and below, which Klein entitled Anthropometries. As this was first and foremost a work of Performance Art, photographs were taken of the show, also shown below.
Personally I love IKB which is deeply suggestive of eternity: unsettling and yet serenely blissful. To do it justice however it has to be seen it up close at a gallery, no computer screen can fully capture its vivid intensity.
One of the greatest of 20th century photographers, Brassai’s reputation rests largely on the iconic images of Parisian street and night life he captured in his 1933 book Paris de nuit (Paris by night), which with its noir, atmospheric depiction of fog bound streets, bustling cafes and brothel scenes populated by lovers, prostitutes, pimps and other coldly calculating seekers of pleasure, forever sealed in the popular imagination the myth of Paris as the quintessential bohemian city. Considering the milieu he portrayed it is maybe no surprise that Brassai was also a master of the nude study. Many of his more abstract and experimental nudes of the 1930’s were featured in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure.
Born Gyula Halasz in Brasov, Transylvania, at the time part of Hungary, later Romania, in 1899, Brassai studied in Budapest and Berlin before moving to Paris in 1924, where he would live for the rest of his life. Here he adopted his pseudonym Brassai, taken from the name of his home town. He took up photography initially only to supplement his income, however he soon realised that it was the perfect medium to capture the nocturnal essence of Paris. He was a friend to many of the artists and writers of the period, including Henry Miller, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.
I have including below a mixture of his experimental and documentary studies of the female form.