This is our truth, tell us yours
Jem has said, with characteristic clarity, much of what I would say about fetishes, and language. A small point needs to be added though. Sometime in my youth, in a Sunday colour supplement, I found a set of pics that were, apparently, examples of Helmut Newton’s fetishistic style.
What that meant, I didn’t know. They were stark, monochrome images of women with stick thin bodies in heels and lingerie; the style was minimalistic, and over-lit, so that the humanity was bleached out of them. I knew little about photography, but from similar magazines I knew about Eve Arnold and Cartier-Bresson, and I had, by then, consumed hundreds if not thousands of conventional soft porn images.
When I went looking for fetish magazines, to try and make sense of what a fetish was, or wasn’t, I found very specific material, about gasmasks, bondage, corsetry and costume. None of it resembled Helmut Newton’s stark visual vocabulary – most of it wasn’t photographed with such technical precision either.
That inquiring approach of mine to sex, and arousal, has stayed with me throughout my adult life, as as the attempt to map the boundaries between fetishes and paraphilias, and the normative process by which paraphilias might be legitimized or delegitimized by the discourses within our society.
In the process I’ve learned one thing. When the mainstream describes something as fetishistic it almost certainly means that there is little of the genuine fetish about it. Fetishes exist in the head, in language and in motives, not in photographs. It’s the power of the thought, the motive and the desire that enables the fetishist to transform a picture with no fetishistic or paraphiic intention, like an advert in the Marshall Ward catalogue, into an object or expression of desire.
I still don’t know if Helmut Newton is a fetishist. I know that my responses to his work aren’t fetishistic. I think that much of his work is intensely political, and sexualized, but sexual images are not, in and of themselves, fetishistic. Labelling sexualized, political images as fetishistic is not about fetishes; it’s about othering those images, putting them outside of conventional discourse.
I’m not sure Helmut Newton likes women in the way I like women, as friends, as political activists, as equals and as humans. That debate is not a debate about fetish; it’s a debate about politics and art, and Newton’s choice of a palette and vocabulary that dehumanizes his models, and what that says about him and his world view.