Helmut Newton's photograph of "Le Smoking" by Yves Saint Laurent

HISTORY OF AN ICON - May 21st 2015

“A good fashion photograph should look like anything but a fashion photograph. A portrait, a souvenir photo, a paparazzi shot.” This is how Helmut Newton turned “Le Smoking” by Yves Saint Laurent into an icon; an unusual photograph for Helmut, and yet it’s one of the designer’s favorite shots.

Helmut Newton's photograph of

In 1975, Helmut Newton was contacted by Vogue Paris; the artist was to oversee one of the season’s fashion spreads. The shoot took place in a narrow little Paris street: rue Aubriot in the Marais, where the photographer had been living for 14 years. The photo session was attended by an intimate group of just 5 people: Helmut, then-chief editor Francine Crescent, a hair stylist, and two models. Newton asked Vikebe, a model who he regularly collaborated with, to incarnate a familiar figure in 19th century French art: the dandy, who “has no profession other than elegance,” according to Baudelaire. The idea behind the image is simple: a masculine woman, androgynous, in a Parisian street by night. “Le smoking” gives her power; her body language accentuates an impression of inaccessibility. A confident posture, the way she holds her cigarette, is front and center... Everything comes together to give her a man’s expression, and yet, in total contrast, it’s femininity to the max that’s printed on this glossy paper.

The photograph had to be taken at night, so as not to deprive the clients of their precious pieces. This didn’t bother Helmut Newton one bit; on the contrary, the artist liked to work at night. He took the photo with no flash, using only the light from the street lamps. This is without a doubt what makes the photo so poignant and realistic. And this was the goal: even though elaborate, the image had to represent a scene that had actually taken place. Newton took on the role of a paparazzi taking a detour in this little street, capturing this instant with the greatest discretion. And yet this photo was very out of the ordinary for Helmut’s style, since the woman on it was entirely clothed. Yes, Newton didn’t adapt, neither to conventions nor couturiers. That’s why he took a second photo. Almost identical to the one ordered by Vogue, he added a nude model wearing high heels, sensually caressing her more virile counterpart. A glacial scene that is now iconic.

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