The Helmut Newton Exhibit: A Question of Authenticity

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hosting an exhibition of Helmut Newton photography until September 25, 2011. The MFAH is showing very large reproductions of images from Newton’s first three books: White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1978), and Big Nudes (1981). Newton was a world renowned photographer, specializing in fashion and nude photography. His work has always been controversial. This show concentrates on his personal work which, in turn, reflects his fashion work, at least in style.

This show raises a number of questions: Is this really a worth-while show? Just because you can print images that large, should you? Is Newton really an artist? Does he really have something to say about feminism? Society? Fashion? Is his work merely black and white pornography? Where is his place in the photographic canon? And now here is another: are the works presented authentic?

Why would I question the authenticity these images? Since this project began in 2007, three years after Newton’s death, and the images on display “were made specifically for the exhibition,” it stands to reason that Newton could not possibly have printed, approved of, or signed these prints, any of which actions might be taken to be proof of authenticity.

There is no question the subject matter is his; Newton’s work is unique to the point of being iconic; anyone who has studied photography will recognize it. There is no question the negatives or original prints, whichever were used as sources for the digital files, were his. But since he was not involved in the printing process, mustn’t one say they are reproductions, not prints?

Perhaps this is too fine a line for some people, but it speaks to the issue of what constitutes a “real” or “original” work of art. This is not such a difficult question for those who sculpt or paint: the original is the one the artist made; everything else is a reproduction. This is not necessarily the case with printmakers, and certainly not the case with photographers.

So the question becomes, when is a photographic print “real?” Is it an image that the photographer physically made him/herself? Is it a print perhaps made by an assistant that the photographer approved? Is it a print made by an assistant according to instructions of the photographer? Is it a print that is signed by the photographer? The Ansel Adams Gallery takes great care to distinguish between original photographs and other types of prints and reproductions. Should we expect less from museums?

The size of these images brings up another question: Are they a true representation of Newton’s art? We must remember that Newton shot originally for print. That is, his fashion work was for magazine publication, and his personal work, at least initially, was for book publication. This is a far cry from the size of pictures on exhibit at the MFAH, “some reaching nearly 8 x 8 feet.” Although the images are presented unframed and unglazed “in order to show how Newton’s work appeared in magazines,” the difference in size makes that impossible.

And another more general question arises: is the art in the concept or the execution? As noted above, these are certainly Newton’s concepts, but not his execution. Still everyone says that this is a show of Newton’s images. And I suppose they are his images, just not his prints.

So perhaps the MFAH is not misleading the public. Maybe this is not so much an exhibition of Newton’s work as it is an overpowering display of Newton’s concepts, of Newton’s subject matter, of Newton’s style, and, by extension, of Newton’s influence. Maybe the art is in the mind and eye of the artist, not in the creation of artifacts. This is indeed an idea worthy of thought, but a curious position to take for any museum that prides itself on showing only authentic, original work.





Date: Monday, 29. August 2011 0:02
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Photography, Presentation

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  1. 1

    There’s some very interesting questions here; questions I’ve never thought about before. When you ask is the art in the concept or the execution, my gut immediately answers, “both.” That’s true in that they are both art, however, it seems that there are two separate works of art here; one understood as original and the other derived from the first. The original concept and execution should be attributed to Newton, and distinguished from the concept and execution of the altered (enlarged) images which should be credited to whoever was responsible for them. I’d have to say that they’re each a separate work.I think it’s safe to assume that Newton’s original pictures were completely realized as he published them. If his intent had been to do something else with them he would have done it. The images on display are “taken from” Newton’s work but, in this altered form are not his.

    This sets me to analyzing what happens with the writing and development of a script. I’ve discovered right off that the analogy doesn’t hold true, yet there are some similarities, and I’m already on an expedition here, so I’ll follow it through. A script is recognized as the work of the playwright when it’s on the page and on the stage. Yet each production is attributed to a specific director who is himself an artist, but one who is using as his medium another artist’s work. Regardless of who directs the play, the script is still the work of the writer. Even though one production will differ vastly from another, no production would have been possible without the play itself. The director’s work and influence on the original art (the play) is readily understood and appreciated, hence, the directorial credit. Of course a play is written to be staged, so it might be pointed out that the director is completing the piece, not altering it. The strength of this line of reasoning (if there is any) is that when any artist, by idea or creation, affects a work, that artist deserves credit for his contribution and one artist’s touch on that work should not be assigned to another. After mulling all this over, I’d question, as it sounds like you do, whether or not the museum should claim to be displaying Newton’s work without also crediting whoever conceived the enlargement of the images, as well as whoever did the physical work. Only seems right to me. Besides denying one artist credit, there’s the possibility that Newton might be horrified at what’s been done with his work and with having it advertised as his. The MFAH might even be flirting with violation of copyright. Very valid considerations on your part. Maybe you should present them to the powers that be.

  2. 2

    There is little likelihood that the Newton show has any rights difficulties since the show was Newton’s wife’s idea and was put together by a very close friend of Newton. That story is here. The museum is very forthcoming with this information, and I believe that the printer is credited as well. I did not mean to suggest otherwise.

    And I agree with you that there is no direct analogy in the world of theatre, at least none that I could think of. I think that for a valid analogy to exist, the artist has to generate artifacts.
    And yes there are questions, and the more I think about it, the more questions there are. To my mind, Newton’s name certainly needs to be attached to the work, for the concepts (and originals) are undeniably his. But they are clearly not his prints. Does the work represent his wishes? I have no idea, and wouldn’t it be nice if we did? For all I know, he sat around and talked to people about how he would like to see his images blown up to be the size of a wall—or not. Perhaps his wife and friend do know and thus the show came about, but it would be really wonderful to have that information.

    I also think that you and I are in full agreement on the issue of art being both in concept and execution, but the execution of a copy, particularly without the blessing of the creator on the artifacts made seems to me to be pushing the question. If that’s the case are those posters of Vincent Van Gogh’s work art, or are they pictures of art? Much the same question arises about giclée prints of paintings, even those sanctioned by the artist. Admittedly, the images hanging in the MFAH are more than several cuts above posters in terms of quality and probably in terms of representation of the originator, but are they more than that? Are they really art or just big pictures of art? If Newton had been a sculptor, this would never be a question, but the unique nature of photography makes it a real consideration. Certainly worth thinking about, I think.

  3. 3

    It seems to be a very fine line, and I’m certainly not educated on the subject enough to make a call – but my opinion is that if it’s not the actual piece, or artifact, then it’s not the artist’s work. Unless, of course, it was sanctioned by the artist, then the piece taken from the original piece is also his concept. In either case, however, because the concept is the artist’s original creation, he is forever tied to even any copy or reproduction. Example: my Sistine chapel tee-shirt. 🙂 Interesting thoughts.

  4. 4

    A Sistine Chapel tee-shirt? Really?

  5. 5

    Yep. Not from there. From Wal-Mart, I think. But it features details of various figures from the chapel walls and ceiling, the central one being Moses. Only there’s no stone tablets – there’s a guitar.

  6. 6

    The print is the final step in photography. It is the physical evidence of the photographer’s vision, and it is necessary that the photographer should be alive, in order to clam that the prints could be fully attributed to the man or woman who clicked the shutter.
    I will bring it even further by saying that prints that have not been printed by the photographer even when alive, should carry the names of both the photographer and the printer. It is a myth that even the best master printer will execute a print and match exactly what the photographer intended to show in the particular photograph. A printer, being an artist in his/her own rights will inevitably put his/her own personal vision. The reason why photographers approve a work done by a master printer is because they are in awe of how beautiful they are, like it happened to me many years ago. That particular order pushed me to improve my darkroom printing skills, because I felt that if I kept using another person to print my work I was going to be dishonest with my clients.

  7. 7

    Sadly, your view is becoming that of the minority. A great number of artists employ “assistants,” which often means those who actually produce the work of art and receive no credit. While I can see the need for assistants for some tasks, I cannot support the “factory” approach to making works of art.

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