A Visit to the Helmut Newton Museum

In Berlin, I visit the Helmut Newton museum. There’s a wide staircase, carpeted in lipstick red, to the second floor. Five nudes hang suspended there above the steps, forcing your gaze. You walk underneath the challenge of their cavernous navels and knife-length stilettos.

 Images courtesy the Helmut Newton Museum for Photography

Images courtesy the Helmut Newton Museum for Photography

It is the day I am leaving Germany. I spent the previous day working, interviewing the stars and director of a new movie filmed in Berlin; it’s why I’m here in the first place. While we waited for cameras to roll, the director and I made small talk about the city. I’ve never been. He asks what I plan to do. I say see the Berlin Wall, the Helmut Newton Museum. Helmut Newton? He tells me he’s a great fan, and that, funny enough, Newton crashed into his fence on the night he died, right next to the Chateau Marmont in LA. I’m astounded by the weirdness of the coincidence: two Angelenos in Berlin, and he comes up in conversation, and this story happens to be there. Really? I ask, and immediately feel a blazing self-consciousness at my interest, worry that my eagerness is macabre.  

On the main floor of the museum, they’ve recreated Newton’s office with all his things in it, like trying to summon a ghost. Like a room could be a séance.

His clothes, a wool suit from a different time, hang in a display case.

A wall features framed letters his wife, June, received after his death. They come from famous people like Richard Gere and Anna Wintour and Charlotte Rampling, who writes in the effusive poetry of creative people of a certain status.

I think about his death and wonder what it might feel like to suddenly be without a body, when you are a person obsessed with the body; with capturing it on film for posterity, with exploring its shapes and possibilities, with building a life out of all these other bodies.

 Charlotte Rampling, Paris, 1977 by Helmut Newton

Charlotte Rampling, Paris, 1977 by Helmut Newton

On the way out, I buy some postcards of his photographs. Rampling, a perfect composure of shadows and cheekbones, nestled in a nest of fur and her own fluffy hair. David Bowie, transparent with youth, in a white robe in a Berlin hotel room. An elegant hand of ferocious, red fingernails captured against a backdrop of hard stone. In the paper bag the gift shop girl hands me, a handful of pictures, making bodies immortal as memory.