03/23/2012 05:04 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

France holds provocative retrospective of fashion photographer Helmut Newton

PARIS - Yves Saint Laurent empowered women and the same could be said of his contemporary, iconic fashion photographer Helmut Newton, the subject of a retrospective at Paris' Grand Palais that is not for the prudish.

Several portraits of Saint Laurent, who gave women the male tuxedo, are included in the show, paying tribute to the designer whose empowering, masculine vision of women so influenced Newton.

"He was avant garde. The woman in Helmut Newton's work is powerful and dominant— the master in a world without men," said co-curator Jerome Neutres.

The show is a dizzying array of 250 pictures, most provocative photos of models in erotically charged poses, images that for five decades until his death in 2004 graced slick fashion magazines the world over.

The retrospective begins in Paris, where Berlin-born Newton lived in the 1960s working for French Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. The photos shown here established a particular style marked by stylized scenes, such as models in outer-space, often with fetishistic subtexts. But the women and the men were still clothed.

It was in the mid-1970s that he first became obsessed by the nude — especially dominatrix representations of women.

His work was defined by stark juxtapositions: models photographed in classically romantic settings, such as Paris' Ile-Saint-Louis — standing naked and in traditionally male or dominating positions.

"It was the 1960s when Helmut started working — at the beginning of the fight for women," said Neutres.

The inclusion, among the naked flesh, of a strictly clothed Margaret Thatcher from 1991 shows how this feminist streak carried through Newton's career. She was Britain's first female prime minister, and is widely considered among the most important women of the last century.

From 1980, Newton entered the phase of his "Big Nudes" — a theme he pursued intermittently until 1993.

Two-metre-high photos of naked women, standing powerfully in stilettos, tower imposingly over the exhibit's main room, forcing spectators to stretch their necks upward. It provoked chuckles from visitors. Surprisingly, and with hallmark unpredictability, Newton said this phase was inspired by police identity photos of German terrorists.

The retrospective is an important milestone for the photographer in France — a country where, after all, he did the lion's share of his work — especially for Vogue Paris.

France officially recognized Newton's artistic impact when Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand made the photographer's wife June an officer in the Order of Arts and Letters in a ceremony Thursday.

But the exhibit also reveals another side of Newton that's rarely written about: humour.

"Ah yes, he was so funny, that's what I miss most," said his window who organized the exhibit. She recalled one set of photos featured here.

"We were in a bar and Helmut was taking pictures," June Newton recalled. "Then he paid the barman to turn his back while he cheekily took a picture of a model when she pulled her top down!"

Newton directed a short film about her late husband that is part of the exhibit.

"People ask me if I am jealous," she says in a voiceover on the 11-minute video extract. "But no, for me it is just to make a living."

True enough, June Newton can be seen in a 1981 photograph fully clothed and distinctly bored — with a nude lady in the background.

"The only time when I really did start getting worried," she adds humorously, "was when he started photographing flowers, dead flowers."

Though his widow conceded her husband would empower women, she let slip that the man — born in 1920 before women had the vote — might ultimately have had the values of his age.

"When he came home he'd ring a little bell saying: "Junie, I'm here." And that, of course, meant I had to make the dinner."

"Helmut Newton 1920-2004" runs from March 24 to June 17.