HELMUT NEWTON (Germany, 1920 - USA, 2004)
Margeret Thatcher, 1991
Collection National Portrait Gallery, London
Helmut Newton is known as one of the photographers who made the history not only of photography, but also of female imagery in the contemporary world.
His celebrated portraits are characterized by refined and elegant eroticism: female bodies whose beauty he brings out, and which establish an ambiguous power relation with the viewer. Is it the women here who are being dominated by the male gaze of the photographer, or is it they who dominate us through their perturbing beauty?
A perfect example of Newton's relation with the female universe is his portrait of Margaret Thatcher, the first and to this day only woman to have served as Prime Minister in Great Britain. As Newton himself stated, "Margaret Thatcher has been the top: is there anything more sensual than power?" The former Prime Minister embodies the essence of the powerful super-woman who is never dominated: "I'm always looking for a woman who's superior, not an object I can push around". The origins of the portrait lie in a 1991 meeting between the two in California.
This was only a few months after she had been forced to resign, "betrayed" by her closest party allies. Famous for his often provocative photographs of sculpturesque naked young women, Newton here executed a full frontal and monumental portrait of a mature and completely dressed lady. He succeeded in bringing out the character of a woman who has gone down in history as a radical conservative unwilling to strike any compromise, whether with the terrorists of the IRA or with trade union protest movements, and who was given the nickname TINA: "There Is No Alternative". Newton avoided a three-quarter pose and captured Mrs Thatcher's visage in a frontal position. He emphasized the strength of his subject but also made her completely exposed to the viewer, with the light here in no way concealing the wrinkles and imperfection of the skin. When Newton asked Mrs Thatcher to pose with an austere and serious air, she replied: "Oh, but one looks so disagreeable when one does not smile". Margaret Thatcher faces the public as all politicians attempt to do, by seeking consensus: here she shows herself with a reassuring smile, soberly displaying a pearl necklace and elegant suit.
The work did not meet Mrs Thatcher's taste. At the time the picture was taken, Mrs Thatcher's influence had already declined and Newton seems to be providing a sort of final statement of power on the part of a woman who had described herself as the "Iron Lady". In showing this woman still proud of her image of strength despite its being in decline, Newton grasped the essence of the relation between public figure and photographic lens: a strategy of affirming one's power through the language of images.