Born in Berlin in 1920 to a wealthy Jewish family, Helmut Newton was a delicate child prone to fainting. When he was around 8 years old his brother began showing him the ‘gutter’ of Berlin, a red light district which was inhabited by prostitutes like the ‘Red Erna’, who wore thigh boots and carried a whip. Helmut remembers, “my eyes were poppin’ out of my head.” But the Newtons lived at the other end of the social scale, vacationing at posh European spas and hotels that would later become his backdrops. At 12 he saved his money to purchase his first camera at a five-and-dime. The first roll of film he shot was at an underground subway. The whole role came back black except for the one image he shot above ground. A few years later he decided to travel abroad and become a famous photo reporter. “In 1936 I arranged to have myself thrown out of school as a hopeless pupil,” says Helmut. With the help of his mother Helmut began working as an apprentice for Else Simon, a female fashion-and-portrait photographer who operated a studio under the name of Yva. His father’s prophetic response to the chosen path was, “My boy, you’ll end up on the gutter.”
His first job as an assistant lasted for two years and was abruptly ended in 1938 when the Nazis stepped up their attack on the Jews. Yva was forced to close her studio, and later died in a concentration camp. Helmut fled Germany to Singapore and worked as a photojournalist for the ‘Singapore Strait Times’. “The next few years had little to do with photography; I was busy keeping my head above water and trying to avoid starvation. I rarely gave the paper the kind of photos they were hoping for,” he recalls.
In the early 1940’s Helmut moved to Australia, where he enlisted in the Australian Army and served for five years. He then moved to Melbourne, opened a studio and was determined to make a living as a photographer. Meanwhile, his family had fled to South America. Helmut would meet an Australian actress named June Browne, whom he’d marry. He would take any job that he could get doing wedding photos, baby books, and mail-order catalog assignments. In 1952 he began working for Australian Vogue, which led to a short-term move to London in 1957. “My years in Australia were wonderful. I met June, we married, but photographically, much as I loved this country and it’s people, it did not form me as a photographer nor did my work there amount to anything.” London would be “equally sterile and unproductive. The moment I hit Paris I knew this was it for living and taking photographs. The life was in the streets, in cafes, restaurants. Beautiful women seemed to be everywhere.”
In the late 1950’s he found work at ‘Jardin des Modes’ and in 1961 began a long-running and fruitful association with French Vogue which would last until 1983. During this period he would also work for Elle, Marie Claire, Queen, Nova, Playboy, Stern,US and Italian Vogue.
In 1971 while in New York for a Vogue assignment, Helmut suffered a major heart-attack which would change his life and transform his photography. With the encouragement from his wife June, Helmut pursued overtly sexual themes in his photos, deriving elements from his own history to instill a menacing edge to his works. This edge brought him to the forefront of fashion photography and possibly made him the most influential figure in his field during the 1970’s. Women were pictured bolder and more aggressive, usually in disquieting situations, photographed in a a realistic reportage style. While the bulk of his models were depicted as members of the social elite, they would be ‘caught’ in seedy environments exploring kinky fantasies with prostitutes and cross-dressers. And then alternating this juxtaposition showing members from the margins of society engaged in fetish driven meetings with the social elite, surrounded by sumptuous hotels and ancient midnight streets, all of them saturated with decadence, luxury, and privilege. While American Vogue would only published distilled version of this period, his most risqué photos were accepted by European magazines. “The term ‘political correctness’ has always appalled me, reminding me of Orwell’s ‘thought police’ and fascist regimes,” he comments on censorship in America.
Helmut published his first book ‘White Women’ in 1976, which featured the most radical selections from this period. Despite negative American reviews it sold some 1500 copies in a week there. ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ was a Hollywood film inspired by the photos by Helmut Newton. Ironically the photos he contributed to the film were not satisfactory. The director wanted scenes of blood and corpses which were of no interest to Helmut. He defended his fashion photos as erotic rather than violent.
Since 1976, he’s received a number of awards, including the Tokyo Art Directors’ Club Prize; American Institute of Graphic Arts awards; and Germany’s Kodak Award for photographic books. In 1989 he was named ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ by the French Minister of Culture, and in 1992 he was awarded the ‘Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz’ by the Federal Republic of Germany and the ‘Chevalier des Arts, Lettres et Science’ by Monaco. Life magazine gave him the ‘Life Legend Award for Lifetime Achievement in Magazine Photography’ in 1999. Recently Taschen publishing and designer Philippe Starck teamed together to create 20×28 inch, 66-pound, 480-page monolith of Helmut’s work entitled ‘Sumo’. Currently offered at $1,500, the collection is issued in a limited edition of 10,000 copies worldwide, numbered, signed by Newton, and is accompanied with it’s own specially designed table.
Since 1981 Helmut and his wife June has resided in Monte Carlo. At the age of 79, he continues working for advertising clients and publications, including Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Countless essays have attempted to deconstruct the elaborate and heavily coded world depicted in his photographs. His photos are tough, polished, aggressive, cold, and disconcerting. They reflect an internal world that generates a sense of unease. He achieves a delicate and difficult balance between flattery and caricature. There’s a lot going on in his narrative photos. “What I find interesting is working in a society with certain taboos – and fashion photography is about that kind of society”, says Newton. “To have taboos, then to get around them – that’s interesting.” The ironic thing is that he’s made taboos more acceptable, at least to some segments of the population.
In many ways Helmut mocks the fashion industry as he strengthens it. He blatantly exposes a side of it that is difficult to detect or absent in other fashion photography. Take for example one of his better known works ‘Sie kommen!’ (‘Here They Come!’), which copies are sold for more than $55,000. It is a two part image, one image depicts the models clothed and the other they are in the exact same position, but nude. In a strange way the nude depiction lacks much of the sexuality you’d expect, due to aggressive posturing. Their nudity has become dress, they are in essence fashion warriors. They say, ‘Look, but don’t touch. Look, we are coming… but not for you.’ They send the message, as with fashion, ‘Look and die with desire.’ While this may not be the desire of the beholder, it is definitely that of the fashion wearer.
As with many of his photos,Helmut exposes the discomfort women endure to be alluring. The dark side of fashion, depicted in ‘Pension Dorian’, shows model Jenny Kapitan in a leg cast and neck brace. “That was a real cast! I had twisted my knee dancing rock-and-roll and when I appeared, abashed, before Helmut for the shooting, he said: ‘That fits me perfectly, I’ve been doing all these pictures with braces.'” He was attracted to her injury, her deficiency. The two casts, the cane by means of which she stands – they are signifiers of her pain. But notice how straight she stands, how she thrusts her hips forward and holds her head aloft. It is a poignant image, delivered in the codes of sexuality, but also that of the cure. She is in a vulnerable state, which triggers a basic male instinct to respond. The cast and brace are worn as sexual fashion accessories; sex, the cure for death. Another side of this image reads, ‘Style robs you of life, it is violent – even to others.’