Picks and Pans Review: Portraits

updated 11/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Helmut Newton

Newton's erotically charged photographs and the impish candor of the interview by Carol Squiers that accompanies them suggest a paradox: that he is not afraid of what he is most curious about, and that he is most curious about what he is afraid of. In both cases that thing is sex, or rather, sexuality—its presence, power, allure, ambiguity and illicitness. He is not afraid to look, but the elegant, impeccably controlled and luxurious way he looks suggests the complexity of his emotions. Newton seems particularly fascinated with masculinity and femininity as extreme, if mutable, states of being. His work occupies a fertile middle ground between the poles of isolation and ardor represented by the two other leading "sexy" photographers of the day, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber. Weber, whose ads for Calvin Klein made him almost as famous as the designer, has a grainier, hotter, more spontaneous style; his book O Rio de Janeiro abandons itself to pleasure, desire and the physical perfection of youth. In Newton's Portraits not everyone is young and physically perfect, though many are and the rest are physically compelling by dint of spirit. In place of lust Newton imbues his pictures with an investigative intimacy that is as powerful as lust. Yet these are flesh-and-blood men and women. Even when Newton invites you to admire them as objects—and he has been reviled in the past as a misogynist for such sexual-fantasy books as White Women—they are humans first. This separates him from Mapplethorpe, an equally fastidious craftsman who loves the same palette of crisp grays and inky blacks. Mapplethorpe, though, turns people into sculptures, breathtaking but impassive monuments viewed against a blank background. Even in his kinkier books Newton is interested in surroundings and relationships, in tracing the invisible lines of sexual assertion and surrender. Portraits seems less literal-minded than his White Women or Sleepless Nights, but it is still a very erotic book. The difference may be that in these photographs, shot between 1934 and 1986, Newton is looking not just at the surface but beneath it. (Pantheon, $39.95)

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