ART feature - Byron Newman

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BYRON NEWMAN ON THE OPENNESS OF THE PARISIAN PROSTITUTION INDUSTRY AND HIS LATEST EXHIBITION ‘ULTIMATE ANGELS’

Spanning twenty-five years as a Glamour photographer, Byron Newman newly dips into celebrating the transgender community in his latest exhibition ‘Ultimate Angels’

Ex Playboy USA photographer and founder of fashion magazine Deluxe began his creative journey when his writer/broadcaster father gave him his first camera at the age of six years old. As a result, Byron started to capture landscapes and cows, telling us he “distinctly remembers the excitement of waiting for the film to arrive back from the chemist”. Following on, the artist developed his skills whilst he studied at the London College of Printing, specialising in Graphic Design and Photography, and later finding his way to Paris where he landed work at Mode International and staff photographer position at LUI Magazine. A lot of Byron’s inspiration stems from the desire to capture the narrative of others and present the “untouched”. 

In tune with the opening of Ultimate Angels, we speak to Byron about his time at Playboy and where he derived his inspiration for capturing transgender beauty.

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You've been fortunate to photograph for Playboy magazine in past years, can you tell us what the energy was like on set?

Byron: As a result of my working for LUI, in 1984 I was offered a contract with Playboy USAwhich lasted for almost 30 years. The only restriction was that I could not shoot for any competing magazines in the United States. I was one of only four or five contracted photographers at Playboy and I think that I brought a different vision to the pages being the only non-American - I added a more European slant. I was sent on assignments around the world, with almost limitless budgets - a photographer’s dream. Often shooting without editorial direction, a level of trust in my abilities and taste was established here.

“I felt, at the time, that I was documenting something untouched, covered up, shocking and indecent to most people. They, my subjects, wanted me to show the world their story as well.”

We've seen your latest works ‘Ultimate Angels’ with painter Aphrodite Papadatou, can you tell us why it was important for you to dedicate an exhibition around celebrating the trans community?

Byron: The photographs were taken over a two month period in 1981 where the attitude to transgendered sex workers in Paris was akin to a freak show. 

During the previous three years, the Bois de Boulogne and the streets of Pigalle in Paris - two of the traditional areas of Parisian prostitution - had been infiltrated by transvestites and transsexuals. Official figures at the time showed that one-tenth of the prostitutes working in greater Paris were transvestites or transsexuals. Their success was spectacular through hormone treatments, silicone implants and injections, and cosmetic surgery. They attained the attributes of 'superwomen' of the type that exists only in the fantasies of men.

I was drawn to this as a subject because no one had done it before. Inspired by the work of Brassai in the 1930s, I thought it was a subject so different to my normal work and it challenged me in many ways. Visually the glamour hid a harsh reality that I tried to capture with honesty and integrity. I did not impose any of my fantasies and let them explore their own. I felt, at the time, that I was documenting something untouched, covered up, shocking and indecent to most people. They, my subjects, wanted me to show the world their story as well.

What is it that draws you to glamour photography?

Byron: I met a French actress called Brigitte Ariel who had starred as Edith Piaf in a French film, and three years later we were married. She lived in the Pigalle and pointed out to me that many of the girls working on the streets of Paris where things were not quite what they seemed to be. This area had been the red light district for a very long time. Unlike London, prostitution in Paris is very open and on many street corners. No one at that time had photographed these ‘glamazons’ of the night - so we decided then to commence a photographic project. It would take us both out of our comfort zones and challenge us in many different ways. My photographic work at that time was mainly studio-based, safe and secure, and this project would be anything but. Without Brigitte and her collaboration, this book of photographs published in 1984 by Hutchinson (which is what it turned out to be), would have been impossible.

What makes your work unique to other Glamour photography?

Byron: I think my strengths as a glamour photographer were linked with my technical ability to light in a very sophisticated way, using cinema and theatre lights as opposed to flash, for most of my career. And doing this helped me to achieve a recognisable style. I did not try to impose my ideas or fantasies but merely recorded what I saw and let them be themselves.

Can you tell us why glamour photography is still a thriving industry? Has it changed over the years?

Byron: For many decades Playboy looked very much the same and had a strong house style. Changing that has proved difficult and unsuccessful. As to the future of glamour photography I think that publications like LUI have created a new dynamic and energy which should sustain interest for the foreseeable future. The still exists to this day and has become an iconic publication that features nudity with the top models all wishing to appear on its pages.

“I did not try to impose my ideas or fantasies but merely recorded what I saw and let them be themselves.”

Words / JESSIE PINK

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