top of page

Helmut Newton.

 

31 October 1920, Berlin, Germany - 23 January 2004.

 

Helmut Newton, born Helmut Neustader, 31 October 1920. Born in Berlin to a German-Jewish button factory owner and an American mother. He attended the city's American school and the Heinrich-von-Treitschke-Real gymnasium. He was a delicate child prone to fainting. When he was 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", ones that wore thigh boots and carried a whip. Helmut recalls, "My eyes were popping out of my head". This was all new to the young Helmut Newton, as his family lived at the other end of the social scale, vacationing at spas and posh European hotels. He was a bad student and was expelled when his fascination with photography overshadowed his coursework. This interest in photography was sparked by the purchase of his first camera, which he had saved up for and bought at a five-and-dime store. The first roll of film he shot was at a subway. All the images came back black except for the one image which he had shot above ground."

 

In 1936, I arranged to have myself thrown out of school as a hopeless pupil", says Helmut. After this, his mother arranged for Helmut to begin an apprenticeship with top photographer Elsie Netherlander Simon, a female fashion and portrait photographer who operated a studio under the name Yva. His father's response to his chosen career path was, "My boy, you'll end up in the gutter" This was a job which he held until he was forced to flee after the start of Adolf Hitler's vicious programs against the German Jews two years later. Yva was forced to close her studio and later died in a concentration camp. The increasingly oppressive restrictions placed on the Jews by the Nuremberg laws meant that his father lost control of the button factory. His father was briefly interned in a concentration camp, "Kristallnacht" on 9 November 1938. This compelled the family to leave Germany, and they fled to Chile.

 

After flirting with death by consorting with Aryan girls, his parents issued him a passport just after turning 18. He left Germany in December 1938. At Trieste, he boarded the "Conto Rosso" with others escaping the Nazis. Intending to go to China, but after arriving in Singapore, he decided to remain and get a job at the Straits Times newspaper and worked as a portrait photographer. A job he held for just two weeks. The next few years had little to do with photography; I was busy keeping my head above water and trying to avoid starvation. recalls Helmut."

 

Soon I realized how far I was from the goal I set myself of becoming a Vogue photographer," he told the New Yorker some years later.

 

He was interned by the British authorities while in Singapore and was sent to Australia on board the "Queen Mary", arriving in Sydney on 27 September 1940. Under armed guard, all interns travelled to the camp of Tatura Victoria. Released from internment in 1942. He worked briefly as a fruit picker in northern Victoria. In April 1942, he enlisted in the Australian Army and worked as a truck driver. In 1945 just after the war, he became an Australian Citizen and changed his name to Newton in 1946. In 1948, he married actress June Browne, who performed under the stage-name "June Brunell". She later became a successful photographer under the ironic pseudonym "Alice Springs" (after Alice Springs, the central Australian town)

 

He would take any job that he could get, doing wedding photos, baby books and mail-order catalogue assignments. In 1946, Helmut Newton set up a studio in fashionable Flinders Lane and worked primarily on fashion photography in the affluent post years. He went into partnership with Henry Talbot, a fellow German Jew who had also been interned at Tatura and his association with the studio continued even after 1957 when he left Australia for London. The studio was renamed "Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot".

 

His reputation as a fashion photographer was rewarded when he secured a commission to illustrate fashion in a special Australian supplement for Vogue magazine, published in January 1956. In February 1957, he won a twelve-month contract with British Vogue and left for London, leaving Talbot to manage the business. "My years in Australia were wonderful. I met June, and we married, but photographically, much as I loved this country and its people, it did not form me as a photographer nor did my work there amount to anything". London would be "equally sterile and unproductive". He left the magazine before the end of his contract and went to Paris, where he worked for French and German magazines. In the late 1950s, he found work at "Jardinee des Modes" and in 1961 began a long-running and fruitful association with French Vogue which would last until 1983. During this period he also work for Elle, Marie Claire, Queen, Nova, Playboy, Stern, US and Italian Vogue.

 

He settled in Paris in 1961 and worked as a fashion photographer. "The moment I hit Paris, I knew this was it for living and taking photographs. The life in the streets, in cafés, restaurants. The beautiful woman seemed to be everywhere." His work appeared in magazines such as French Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. He had now established a particular style marked by erotic, stylized scenes, often with sadomasochistic and fetishistic subtexts, his stark and provocative style setting a new industry standard.

 

While in New York in 1971 for a Vogue assignment, Helmut suffered a major heart attack. This would change his life and transform his photography. His wife June encouraged him to pursue overtly sexual themes in his photos, deriving elements from his history to instil a menacing edge to his images. It was this edge that brought him to the forefront of fashion photography. He depicted women as bolder and more aggressive, usually in disquieting situations but photographed in a realistic reportage style. The models were depicted as members of the social elite, they would be caught in "seedy" environments exploring kinky fantasies with prostitutes and cross-dressers. He would then alternate this juxtaposition by showing members from the margins of society engaged in fetish-driven meetings with the social elite, surrounded by ancient midnight streets, and luxurious hotels, saturated by decadence and privilege.

 

His studies of nude women became his signature and self-obsessed, and his often distant poses of the models caused polemic in the art world. He won the sobriquets "King of Kink" and "Prince of Porn" in 1976 after the publication of his erotic photo book "White Woman."

 

"The term political correctness has always appalled me, reminding me of Orwell's "thought police" and "fascist regimes," he comments on censorship in America. This was a result of American Vogue, who would only publish sanitized versions of his work.

 

An Australian citizen who lived in Monte Carlo in the summer and at Hollywood's Château Marmont hotel in the winter, Newton defied convention and set tongues wagging to the end.

 

How do we then deconstruct, an analysis of his work? To appreciate and understand the man and his work. How do we explain the coded world depicted in his photographs? Images that depict a world of unease, tough, disconcerting, aggressive and cold. He can achieve a balance between flattery and caricature. Understanding the depths of his narrative photos. Newton said, "What he finds interesting is working in a society with certain taboos, and fashion photography is all about that kind of society." "To have taboos, then to get around them - this is what is interesting." It is ironic, however, that he has made taboos more acceptable, at least to some sectors of our population. He mocks the fashion industry whilst strengthening its cause. In his work "Sie kommen" (Here they come). A two-part image depicts the models clothed and the other in which they are in the same position but nude. The nude lacks substance and sexuality as you would expect. This is due to the aggressive nature of the model's posture. The 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." This is the desire of the fashion wearer and not that of the beholder. It is through his images, that Helmut exposes the discomfort women endure to be alluring. "Style robs you of life. It is violent -even to others.

 

"Helmut Newton lived his later years in Monte Carlo and Los Angeles. The acclaimed photographer was killed in a car crash on Friday 23, 2004 in Hollywood. He was 83. He lost control of his Cadillac while leaving the Château Marmot Hotel and crashed into a wall across the street, a police spokeswoman said. Newton was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but died a short time later. It has been speculated that Newton suffered a heart attack in the moments before the collision.

 

Robert Sobieszek, photo Dept. chief at the L.A. County Museum of Art, noted to the L.A. Times: "His work was never dirty. But he stretched the boundaries of what fashion magazines looked like." Helmut Newton is survived by his wife of 55 years, actress June Browne (aka photographer Alice Springs). The couple had spent there the winter months at the hotel for the past 25 years.

 

His funeral took place on the 1st of June in his home city of Berlin, more than four months after his death.

 

His ashes are buried next to Marlene Dietrich at the Stadtischer Friedhof III in Berlin.

 

Guest at the funeral included former James Bond actor Roger Moore and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

         Helmut Newton

 

             By Eugene Struthers

Frames from the edge - Helmut Newton

Helmut by June

bottom of page