The term ‘iconic’ is used easily and often, but Sylvia Gobbel has taken part in the creation of truly groundbreaking, genre-defining, iconic images. Not just the muse of Helmut Newton–whose shots of her were instrumental in helping to establish fashion photography as a legitimate art form–over the span of her 40-year career Sylvia has worked with numerous legendary photographers. Here she takes us through five of her most memorable moments on film.
Vogue Paris, Haute Couture 1981/1982
Photographed by Helmut Newton.
I just arrived in Paris in 1981 when my agency sent me to a casting for French Vogue with Helmut Newton. My Agency was Marilyn Gauthier Management and my booker Ulla Caramella. I wasn’t the model who had the look which was in fashion at the beginning of the eighties. Everybody thought I was too sophisticated. At that time they preferred natural, sporty, no makeup models from Sweden or the US. So when Helmut Newton was searching for a new face, Ulla, my booker, said, “That’s for you! You’re a Helmut Newton model.” And she was right.
Helmut booked me immediately for the Haute Couture “Sie kommen” shoot, the dyptique of 4 girls dressed and naked. It was the first time that French Vogue had accepted nudes in their magazine and it was a big challenge. The success was immediately there. It was very controversial with people shocked about the nudity, but there was also enthusiasm from a lot of people in the art and fashion world. The photoshoot was also a challenge; as you know, at that time we only had film photography and the only way to control the position of the models was with Polaroids.
Maybe you ask yourself why would I create such a photograph? Well, for me, the answer is: it shows strong women feeling strong in Haute Couture as well as naked. If you look at the photo carefully, you will notice that the models never look into the eye of the camera, but above or to the side. There is no erotic seduction in that picture but only strength. That might be disturbing for some expect the erotic in nudes.
Anyway, the 2 photos have real value on the art market now. The dyptique has been sold for $1.8m at Philips NY.
“Nude in front of the mirror”
Vogue Hommes, 1981
Photographed by Helmut Newton.
Another anecdote I remember is the nude in front of the mirror with Helmut standing at my back and June, his wife, sitting beside the mirror. That photo was for French Vogue Hommes. Helmut was supposed to shoot trench coats for men with male models but he didn’t like to shoot men. He decided to wear the trench coat himself and have me stand in front of a mirror. He would be a kind of “voyeur” watching a naked woman posing in front of her mirror. As it was time for lunch, his wife June arrived at the studio. She always had lunch with Helmut and very often was present during a photoshoot. Helmut always took her opinion, they were a team for life and for work. Helmut wasn’t ready yet for lunch, so he asked his assistant Philippe to get a chair for June. Also, he asked to open the door of the Vogue studio–which was located behind the French “Assemblée Nationale” in Paris (Place du Palais Bourbon)–because it was a very hot summer day in July. That’s the reason we have a great outside perspective on this photo. So June sat down and watched the photoshoot and didn’t know that she was a part of it. She discovered it after the print was ready.
For me, that photo is forever my favorite pic that Helmut took of me. What a fabulous souvenir to have a photo with Helmut and June, exposed in the biggest museums in the world. That photo sold for €650,000 at Christie’s.
A big thought also goes to the hairdresser Bruno (Jacques Dessange) and makeup artist José Luis (YSL), who both disappeared a few years later, dying of AIDS. Both worked very often with Helmut Newton, including this famous photo.
Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony
Photographed by Helmut Newton.
AMICA magazine asked Helmut Newton to shoot a new campaign to renovate the image of the magazine in 1982. Helmut gave them the choice between Ornella Muti, a very famous actress in Italy in the 80s, or me as the model. I was so lucky to be chosen and to express myself on seven different portraits for the seven deadly sins.
This photo represents ‘Gluttony’. Helmut made them buy one kilo of caviar for me, which he asked me, in his great humor, not to eat it all and keep some for him.
Jacques Clémente was the famous makeup artist who worked for Chanel at that time. He also was the makeup artist for a lot of French movie stars. He had to change my makeup for every portrait. For the ‘Sloth’ photo, Helmut asked me not to shave under my arms for a few days. And I didn’t, though it was very difficult because I had a photoshoot every single day. How do you explain to the other crews that you didn’t shave? Still, I respected Helmut’s wish, as it was important for the photo–remember at that time there was no photoshop. The pictures showed reality, there was no cheating.
For the photo expressing ‘Lust’, Helmut asked me to bring my boyfriend and asked him to kiss me before shooting the photo so my lipstick would look all messy like we had spent a hot afternoon in bed.
For ‘Pride’ Helmut asked me to look proud to be a woman. My first reflex was looking at my breast, squeezing them together, and smiling. Proud to be a woman, yes. Proud to be able to give birth to a child and breastfeed a baby.
For ‘Envy’ I was made up to look like a man. Hair pulled back and small lips, harsh expression. Envy of a man not to have the power of a woman? That’s how I felt it. Strong women are stronger than men. That’s also what Helmut said all the time.
Vogue Italia, December 1982
Photographed by Gian Paolo Barbieri. Hair and makeup by Nando Chiesa.
Gian Paolo Barbieri is also a photographer who was very important for me. We did a lot of photoshoots for Italian Vogue together.
The one I remember the best was a photoshoot in Naples in the middle of the eighties. At that time Naples almost hadn’t changed since the Second World War. Buildings were still damaged and just held together by some wooden poles. People lived still poorly. The black market of cigarettes and alcohol was a flourishing business and you could buy them at each corner. When we arrived with the Italian Vogue crew in Naples we had a “protector”, who was a big boss of the black market cigarette business. He accompanied us everywhere, so we wouldn’t have the same problem as another photoshoot crew, 6 months earlier, who got shot and two persons got injured. Our hotel was Hotel Vesuvio, right on the front shore of Naples.
Gian Paolo is a very kind, refined and cultivated person. He created a photoshoot going back to the forties during the war. I’m dressed with of course fine designer clothes of the eighties, but matching with the theme of the forties.
I loved that photoshoot because you almost felt like 40 years back. There was something nostalgic and romantic hanging in Naples at that time. A special thought to Nando Chiesa, who was Gian Paolo’s favorite make up artist in the eighties and also did the makeup for that series for Vogue Italie. He disappeared a few months ago.
After 17 years of a different life, an agent contacted me to come back into the model business, as “senior models” were getting fashionable. I was 46 years old and ready for a new challenge and to make my “comeback”. Times had changed in the business. Hardly anybody remembered me and I had to construct everything from the beginning. My two daughters were teenagers now and didn’t need me so much anymore and I was free for work. In 2012 I was lucky that the great exposition of Helmut Newton’s photos in Paris at the museum “Grand Palais” was shown. I have been contacted by the organizer [from the museum] to participate in the press conference with Helmut Newton’s widow June. They had a big opening in the evening, where I was invited with the “Happy Few”.
That brought me back into the limelight a bit. So French Vogue organized a beauty photoshoot with models of all ages, shot by David Sims in his studio in London. Famous models from 17 to 70 years old and myself somewhere in between. The beauty editor at French Vogue was and still is Frédérique Verley. A very smart and beautiful French lady.
I arrived in David Sims’ enormous studio in London. Here I was able to compare how everything changed in all those years. With Helmut Newton, there was just one assistant, one hairdresser, one makeup artist and one editor on set. Here with David Sims, everything was tripled, the size of the studio, the crew, the food for lunch. He was working of course with a digital camera, photos are shot very quickly, almost too fast for an “old fashioned” model like me. David Sims saw that on my face. He was very nice and he reassured me that everything is going to be fine and easy. Still, it took me some time to find the right expression in that rush. But the photo was a success and that’s the most important thing, the result is great.
That was the beginning of my second career.