Douglas Bergeron On Helmut Newton's 'Rue Aubriot'


© Estate of Helmut Newton

Last month we presented you the point of view of the above photo (Rue Aubriot) by Helmut Newton from the very model featured in the famous image: Vibeke Knudsen. Today, we bring you the perspective from Knuden's husband, Douglas Bergeron, who is a writer, art historian and art collector.

By Douglas Bergeron

Helmut Newton’s black & white photo, Rue Aubriot, represents the extension of a long artistic tradition dedicated to showing femmes fatales, erotic vampires and alluring denizens of the Paris night. Charles Baudelaire’s spirit curls around the German photographers tableau, where we see echoes of Nadar’s early monochrome photos of great poets & artists. However, it is Brassai’s photographic depictions of his venuses of the crossroads- pictures of Parisian street walkers taken in the early 1930s, which are most often mentioned as an influence on Newton’s work.

In Rue Aubriot, Vibeke Knudsen wears a pinstripped suit (Le Smoking) designed by Yves Saint Laurent. She holds a cigarette with her hair slicked back. The model recalls the androgynous music hall performers of the Weimer republic seen in Otto Dix’s paintings of the period. Newton’s famous photo has been reproduced so many times that it has become an icon in his oeuvre, & like many icons, the image has found a meaning of its own that is decoupled from the influences that may have inspired it.

Androgyny. Woman’s lib. The power of branding: Vibeke’s elegant YSL pant suit can be seen as a symbol of woman’s empowerment & her androgynous appearance illustrates the new norm of contemporary culture. Label:  Today’s heroines must follow a necessary ritual. They wrap themselves in designer names that amplify their power. These names are muttered like an open sesame, an incantation that gives them access to the red carpet.

Perhaps the power of Newton’s photo lies in its classical simplicity, which is highlighted by the subtle gradations of its black and white palette. The modern fashion photograph has become the repository of those classical traditions of posing spawned by early Greek sculpture, traditions that were repeated through the Renaissance and well into the 19th Century. It is on the pages of today’s fashion magazines that our ideals of beauty are preserved and promoted - frozen in poses as old as the Elgin marbles. The classical purity of Newton’s night composition, made on the Rue Aubriot, is etched with a clarity that makes his model much more than just a sophisticated hanger for a fine suit of clothes. Vibeke Knudsen’s still pose and sharp, frozen, silhouette takes her outside the moving processes of time. Rue Aubroit’s streetlamps crystallize Vibeke’s image, transforming her into a dark angel of light that somehow remains beyond our reach.

But Newton’s photo has also made his model part of a famous troop of artfully rendered beauties. Rue Aubroit now hangs amongst a time-honored collection of well-known portraits devoted to those alluring queens of seduction that have decorated the Parisian night.  Rue Aubriot both captures and transcends the spirit of a decade and has become one of the perfect instants of contemporary, post-modern visual mythology. Helmut Newton’s photo will linger in our collective memory for many generations to come.

See this image and over 100 others at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes.