German photographer Hani Hape reinterprets the images of Helmut Newton in a masculine version! Our correspondent in Germany Noémie de Bellaigue met her.
The German photographer Hani Hape has tried her hand at a tricky exercise: parodying the star portraitist’s stagings by inverting the paradigms. Her project underlines the heteronormative male perspective on women, and allows to take stock of the masculin paradox.
Until very recently, there was a unilateral representation of the female body, especially in art and fashion, and the way we look at the works that nurtured the objectification of women to the detriment of diversity remains a dividing question. For Hani Hape, it’s not a matter of putting down any erotic vision of women, rather of putting the light on this one-sided interpretation of nudity for which women are victims on two levels.
On the one hand, it is because there has always been a blatant and assumed divergence when representing women in a hyper-sexualized way, with tools that became the instruments of patriarchal domination in the last century. “There’s no artifice. Just a woman standing there, wearing nothing but heels. It’s almost like a passport photo, but naked.” said Newton about his portraits.
On the other hand, and maybe it’s the most problematic, it’s this single-minded representation of women, or rather of their bodies, which is obviously far from reality, but in keeping with Newton’s world.
High heels have been turned into boots, jartelle holders into knee-high socks, jewelry into tattoos : Hani Hape reproduces the very famous nude images to the exact pose and detail, swapping women with men, while maintaining the same dynamics between the two sexes and between the photographer and the models.
If reversing the roles isn’t enough to illustrate the weight of the male gaze on women and its consequences in our society, Hape takes a disruptive visual approach to a major social topic. All, with a fine and spicy sense of humor. An exchange.
NB : What approach do you think should be taken towards works that have participated in the objectification of women in our society?
HH : I believe that eroticism is part of being human, just like eating or sleeping. Therefore, it’s entirely normal for us to create an image of an erotic counterpart, regardless of our sexual orientation. However, in my view, it’s important that this happens consensually for all parties involved and that no abuse of power occurs.
How did this project come about? How did you come up with the idea of reinterpreting Helmut Newton, especially?
HH : Erotic charged female depictions run like a common thread through cultural history. From the earliest scribbles on cave walls to ancient statues and paintings by the old masters, all the way to works in the recent present: the world of art is replete with female nudity.
My biography has repeatedly confronted me with the creation of intentionally designed images in media and public perception: in fashion design, during modeling jobs, but also in styling for red carpet appearances in the film industry. Here, the theme of the ‘gender gaze’ was evident – and yet consistently restrictive in surprising ways. Dealing with it almost inevitably leads to Helmut Newton’s iconic images of women and their reception – and then to the pleasurable idea of reversing these roles.
I imagine that this reversal of paradigm gave rise to certain difficulties. In particular, finding men willing to take part in the project. You said it’s hard to find a guy who’s willing to take off his pants… What were your main obstacles and how did you overcome them?
HH : It was at least much more difficult than I had thought: evidently, men are more cautious about literally dropping their pants and showing what everyone knows, compared to women, whose nudity seems to be more common. The woman as an object of desire, of male longing – actually a stereotype, but apparently societal normality. Reversing gender roles, on the other hand, is not very common at all: the man as a photographic subject, an object of desire? Only a few are willing to go along with that. But I approached them and managed to get them engaged, to bring their personality and their own fantasies into it. You can see that in the pictures. No templates, no roles, much more of themselves.
What did you learn most from this project? Did your initial intention evolve?
HH : I was fascinated by the self-determined sensuality of the strong women in Newton’s images. However, the conception and production of my motifs have revealed how important the dynamics on the set are, in collaboration with my models: with me, very consensual or inviting, so that we could collectively approach the sensitive themes and poses, with my models contributing a lot.
Considering that Helmut Newton’s motifs were often printed in leading media of his time, such as campaigns, my pictures must also be seen much more naturally by many more people. The initial reactions – we’ve just launched the project, and there haven’t been so many recipients yet – are promisingly controversial and enthusiastic, especially with a high level of virality; many are infecting others with their enthusiasm. And my men like being seen this way for a change. I think that’s fantastic.
I’ve also learned how many explicitly expressed resistance, as well as unspoken sensitivities, trigger in themselves entirely harmless and familiar images in their usual traditional representation. Even in the otherwise open-minded and kinky Berlin of the 2020s, that surprised me a lot.
Hani Hape has turned this work into a book called SAKURA, a nod to Helmut Newton’s SUMO.
In 1999, Taschen published Helmut Newton’s most emblematic photo book, SUMO – wrestling in Japanese: 464 pages, 34.80 kg and 50 x 70 cm in size. This titanic book was sold with a stand designed by Philippe Starck and is known as the most expensive book of the 20th century, with the record-breaking price of $430,000 at a charity auction.
In contrast, Hani Hape’s photo book created in the context of the series’ launch, SAKURA – cherry blossom in Japanese, embodies the contradictory aspects of male nudity in a delicate way, like a distorting mirror of Helmut Newton’s controversial depictions of women.
Encased in a sturdy metal shell, the images from Hape’s project are presented on ultra-thin paper, some with transparency to subtly reveal the fragility of the male subject.
Noémie de Bellaigue