Summary of Helmut Newton
Dubbed the King of Kink, Helmut Newton, one of the great photographers of the twentieth century, radicalized fashion photography by redefining the way women were portrayed in advertising for haute couture. Newton paved the way for fashion photography to become more provocative, and more daring. Incorporating complex themes of sexuality and desire into his work, he showed that fashion photography did not have to be banal and safe, but had the scope to explore the human condition in all its depth.
- Newton took fashion photography out of the studio and into the vitality of the street, bringing to his work the immediacy and dynamism of the paparazzi. "A woman does not live in front of a white paper" he said, in reference to the studio, "she lives on the street, in a motor car, in a hotel room." By bringing a journalistic element into his photography, he infused his photographs with human interest.
- Newton expressed through photography the idea that women's sexuality could give them power. The women he portrays are independent, and in command. He encourages the viewer to question the sexual objectification of women by forcing them to confront their own voyeuristic gaze.
- Newton borrowed from cinema, erotica, journalism, and art, giving no credence to the distinction between high and low brow art forms, a theme shared by many modern artists. What makes Newton's contribution unique is bringing these influences to fashion advertising.
- Newton's admiration for the cinema, particularly Film Noir, is evident in his preference for black and white film, seductive women, and mysterious narrative elements. He utilises elaborate sets, highly posed scenes, and of course, glamorous attire, but at the heart of the photographs, these are always in service of conveying human emotion.
Important Art by Helmut Newton
Fashion shoot for Australian Wool Board, Melbourne, Australia
This photograph, taken for American vogue in the late 1950s, shows Australian super model Janice Wakely wearing a black top, matching checked woollen skirt and handbag, and goggles around her neck. She is standing, leaning out of an open top car, driving down a city street with an outstretched arm clutching her handbag. The model's face and posture are entirely calm and composed, in contrast to the busy street behind her. Her comfortable, yet stylish clothes, combined with her commanding pose, suggest freedom and independence, anticipating the sexual revolution and women's rights movements of the 1960s.
Part of his outdoor series depicting the 'modern woman', this image brings fashion photography out of the studio and onto the street, perfectly characterizing the irreverent style that would come to be Newton's signature.
Black and white photographic print - Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo, Australia
How to Make the Fur Fly, British Vogue, London
This photograph, taken for British Vogue in 1967, shows another super model, Willy Van Rooy, running down an aircraft runway towards the camera, with a shocked expression on her face, as a low flying plane follows close behind her. She wears white GoGo boots, a fur coat, black leather gloves and a woollen hat. Helmut had a keen eye for beautiful women, and this wasn't the first time he had worked with Willy Van Rooy, having previously shot her for French Elle and French Vogue.
The photograph was part of an eight-page spread in the magazine wearing Revillon Frères furs under the heading "How to Make the Fur Fly". Inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest (1959), Helmut Newton notes in his autobiography that his wife June came up with the idea as he was having creative block in the days leading up to the shoot, suggesting he "do a Hitchcock".
This is an important early example of the storytelling quality in his fashion photography, as well as his willingness to take risks. The shoot was dicey as not only did Newton have to find a pilot at short notice, the model had to run out in front of the plane at the last possible moment in order to capture both in the same shot. The phrase 'make the fur fly' meaning to 'create an uproar' suggests the affect of Newton's photography on the conservative and artificial world of fashion, figuratively making furs fly on the fashion runway as much as literally on the aircraft runway in this photograph.
Elsa Peretti in Halston Bunny Costume, New York
A cliché in any other hands, this iconic portrait shows Elsa Peretti, model and later jewellery designer, posing for French Vogue in a Halston bunny costume on the roof of her apartment building in New York.
Inspired by his Playboy experience, which allowed him to freely explore the eroticism and sensuality of the female body, this photograph takes a private night-time fantasy world and brings it into broad daylight. The backdrop of the metropolis with stacks of windows ascending high rise buildings, hints at the hidden voyeurism present in conservative city life.
Helmut Newton considered this to be a photograph that epitomised the 1970s; blending the two worlds of erotic and fashion photography, Newton represents the coming out into the open of his exploration of sexuality as the grip of traditional moral values loosened following the sexual liberation of the 1960s.
Silver gelatin print - ArtLife Gallery, Miami, Florida
Yves Saint Laurent, Rue Aubriot, French Vogue
This photograph, taken for Vogue in 1975, shows a woman standing alone in a dimly lit street holding a cigarette, her hair slicked back in the style of a gigolo. The tuxedo, known as "Le Smoking", was designed by Yves Saint Laurent and first shown as part of his "Pop Art" collection in 1966, almost a decade before this iconic photograph was taken. The suit sparked controversy at the time as people were still not used to seeing women in trousers.
Using the street where he once lived in Paris as the backdrop, Helmut Newton emphasises the model's androgyny with her masculine stance, cigarette and no make up. The eroticism of the image comes from this play on expectations, rather than the display of flesh.
It is an important example of Newton's subversive celebration of independent women; women who have the choice and freedom to live their lives on their own terms. Le Smoking went on to be worn by icons of style from the 1960s onwards, including Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minelli, Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger. As art critic Lindsay Baker put it, "Together, Newton and Saint Laurent created a moment in fashion history."
Silver gelatin print
Saddle I, Hermes, Adam
Helmut Newton took this photograph at the height of second wave feminism for Hermes fashion house and a men's magazine called Adam, published by Vogue. It shows a woman on all fours on a bed wearing a bra, jodhpurs, and riding boots, with a leather saddle on her back. The lighting is reminiscent of the black and white film noir genre, popular in Berlin in the 1930s. This image, perhaps more than any other, is an example of the blend of sexual subversion and high fashion that Newton was confidently bringing to his photography throughout the 1970s.
Having spent an afternoon in Hermes selecting whips and saddles, Helmut took a series of photographs including one with a woman riding another woman, and a woman with a whip in her mouth, as well as the one shown above.
This photograph with the model wearing a saddle is probably the most infamous of the series. Mr. Hermes is said to have been horrified when he saw what Helmut had done. But then, as Helmut observed, "A lot of advertisers have fits when they see what I do with their products."
Mr. Hermes was not the only one to be upset by the image, feminists criticized the image for being pornographic and misogynistic. Yet the image dares the viewer to question their own reaction. As one critic observed, "Is she servile or being served?"
The reminder that it is advertising, challenges us to consider broader questions about the fashion industry and the way luxury commodities are sold. On the one hand, this photograph can be read as objectifying women, on the other, he is simply doing more blatantly what fashion does to women anyway. It could therefore be read as a critique of fashion magazines that turn the women into passive commodities just like the clothes they are wearing.
Although not his intention, it is clear why some feminists have taken exception to this "playful subversion", but overall, fashion photography in our modern world has come to mimic his decadent and voyeuristic celebration of sexuality. Whether modern fashion photography draws on his style, or whether he anticipated future trends, the exploitation of sexuality to sell commodities has only grown in the time that has passed. However, what is clear and special is that the shock that is still felt viewing this photograph today does not allow us to simply passively consume the image, but forces us to have a more critical reading.
Two pairs of legs in black stockings, Paris
This photograph is from Newton's Private Property Suites, a portfolio of three suites containing 45 photographs taken between 1972 and 1983, published in 1984. Continuing his exploration of the limits of media acceptance at a time when the feminist movement had already had a decade to ferment, Helmut draws us back into the uncertainty of sexual power. Two women in stockings, underwear, and black patent heels stand in front of a man in a suit, looking back at them.
In this photograph the "male gaze" is turned back on itself, as we see the face of the man looking, but we only see the backs of the legs of the women being gazed upon.
Described as an example of porno-chic, Helmut succeeds in capturing a scene, sordid in its immediacy, with erotic glamour. The use of black and white photography with its devotion to highlighting contrasts is used to enhance the unattainable fantasy of the scene, and the upward tilted angle heightens the sense of power exercised by the female models.
Silver gelatin print - The Getty, Los Angeles, California
David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini
As his fame grew Newton began taking portraits of people who fascinated him among the rich and famous. In this double portrait of David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini (Ingrid Bergman's daughter and star of Lynch's film Blue Velvet), we see Newton's mastery in encapsulating the intense sexual energy between the two sitters.
The sensuality and underlying eroticism present in the photograph make one feel uncomfortably close, forcing the viewer to become aware of their position as voyeur. The lighting is once again reminiscent of film noir, an important trope in Newton's work, and the suspense in the photograph is also evocative of the genre.
The ambiguity in the sitter's postures holds us in anticipation, as a myriad of different narratives come to mind. Lynch's gaze is at once admiring and possessive, his hand clutching her neck gentle, yet suggestive of power, while Isabella's head is tilted backwards in an ecstatic and trance-like state of pleasure. As she said, "what ultimately makes a great photograph is the emotion that comes across."
Bromide print - National Portrait Gallery, London, England
Margaret Thatcher, Vanity Fair
"Only one woman scared me," said Helmut Newton, speaking of his portrait of the "Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher. She refused to pose for a photograph without a smile to avoid the risk of looking disagreeable. This portrait, which is part of the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London, is one which Margaret Thatcher is said to have told Newton she hated.
Helmut had wanted to photograph Margaret Thatcher for a number of years. The blend of power, domination, and female sexuality is a key element in much of Newton's work, therefore Thatcher was a natural choice for a subject. He finally got a sitting with her in Los Angeles, for a Vanity Fair commission, during her first lecture tour after leaving office. Apparently, the wilted roses Helmut bought for her did nothing to endear him to her.
Despite his fame as a world-renowned photographer, she only gave him a few minutes for the sitting, but within that short time Helmut was able to capture both her indomitable power and determination, and the exquisite femininity of a woman who had been one of the most powerful leaders in the world. Of Margaret Thatcher, he said, "As she became more successful and more powerful, she seemed to me to become even sexy."
Silver gelatin print
X-Ray, Van Cleef & Arpels, French Vogue
An example of his continuing ability to shock the world of fashion, Helmut Newton produced a series of "X-Ray" images, commissioned by Anna Wintour for the "High and Mighty" spread in Vogue's issue of February 1995. Although they were criticized for being offensive, she recalls his work as being "synonymous with Vogue at its most glamorous and mythic."
The X-Ray photograph shows a foot in a high heeled shoe by Karl Lagerfeld and a Cartier bracelet. It was photographed in Monte Carlo, where the Newtons were living at the time.
Newton loved high heels, he said of his fetish, "When I see a woman, I always immediately look at her shoes and hope they're high - because high heels make a woman look sexy and dangerous."
Considered witty, Helmut claimed the images were not intended to amuse. Rather, he took the models wearing expensive jewellery to a radiologist in order to see what was going on beneath the flesh. Despite upsetting designers, so much so that Bulgari threatened to cancel its advertising contract with French Vogue after seeing one of the hands wearing Bulgari jewellery, it accords with Newton's belief that "the perfect fashion photograph is a photograph that does not look like a fashion photograph."
Jean-Marie Le Pen with Dobermans, New Yorker
This infamous portrait of Jean-Marie Le Pen, former president of fascist political organisation The National Front in France, shows Le Pen at home with his Dobermans. The composition is reminiscent of a portrait of Adolf Hitler with his German Sheperd taken by his official photographer Heinrich Hoffman. Whether this was intentional, Newton never revealed. Le Pen doesn't see the connection and, of allegations that the portrait ridiculed him, Le Pen said, "If he had ridiculed me, he should have been ashamed, not me."
Taken in Le Pen's residence in Saint-Cloud, Paris, it is debated whether Le Pen liked the picture, although Le Pen had fond memories of the visit; Helmut and Le Pen apparently got on famously. Helmut would later on recall, "I like photographing the people I love, the people I admire, the famous, and especially the infamous."
Le Pen was not the first notorious fascist figure Newton photographed, he had previously made portraits of Leni Riefenstahl - Hitler's official film maker - and the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldenheim, who was involved in Nazi atrocities. This photograph reveals the ambivalence with which he views the personality of his sitters. Defending his decision to photograph Le Pen, he said that he considered himself "only a witness not a judge".
Though Newton's heritage is Jewish, his family, like many German-Jewish families at the time, were largely secular and did not observe Jewish holidays or rituals (of course, this didn't stop many from going to the Nazi death chambers). Other than these portraits he never seemed to reflect much on his Jewish origins, choosing instead to move on, saying, "I find this kind of living in the past useless and unproductive."
Biography of Helmut Newton
Helmut Newton was born Helmut Neustädter in Berlin on October 31, 1920 to Max Neustädter, a wealthy button manufacturer, and mother Klara (nee Marquis). Klara was a widow with a son, Hans, when she married Max, a soldier from Silesia who took over the running of the button factory left behind by her late husband.
His mother doted on him, dressing him up in patent leather shoes and velvet suits, teaching him never to touch bannisters, and making sure he was always chauffeured to school. She famously fired a maid for dressing too well on her day off. Although a Jewish family by descent, they celebrated Christmas rather than Hanukkah and neither Helmut nor his half-brother Hans had a Bar Mitzvah.
A rebel at the age of fourteen, encouraged by the confidence of family wealth and the decadence of Berlin society of the 1930's, Helmut Newton dangerously flaunted the Nuremberg racial laws of 1934, and fell in love with an Aryan girl. Newton later said, "I was pretty much awake to it but didn't give a shit one way or the other."
He attended the Heinrich von Treitschke Real Gymnasium and later the American School in Berlin where he was a frequent truant, already more interested in photography than academic learning. A keen swimmer, he got a Death Skull Certificate at the Berlin Schwimm Club, which he recalls with affection, in particularly the preponderance of girls in swim suits, which, in his words, "stayed wet for a long time." We see this adolescent fantasy carried over into his work in later life with his photographs of girls and swimming pools.
In 1936, at the age of 16, he managed to persuade his father to allow him to pursue a career in photography, and secured an apprenticeship with the popular portrait and fashion photographer, Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon, known professionally as Yva.
German-Jewish Yva had a reputation for innovation and was a regular exhibitor at international photography exhibitions, including, daringly for a woman at the time, the International Salon of nude photography in Paris. She also participated in "The Modern Spirit in Photography" exhibition at the Royal Photography Society in London in 1933. She experimented with a multiple exposure technique, creating surreal, dream-like effects current with the German avant-garde, and paving the way for the emergence of a new vision of femininity. Helmut was clearly in good company. An important influence during his formative years as a photographer, he remained with her for two years. Unfortunately, hoping things would change in Germany, she decided against leaving as the Nazi's took power. She ended up being deprived of her studio and was killed in the Majdanek concentration camp in December 1944.
Early Training and Work
In 1938, no longer able to ignore the change of political climate in Germany following the seizure of his father's factory, and Helmut's brief internment in a concentration camp on Kristallnacht, the family emigrated to South America.
Helmut was given a train ticket to Trieste from where he was meant to have gone by boat to China. Instead, he got off in Singapore where he joined the Strait Times as a local photographer, but he only managed to last two weeks. Wondering what to do next, he wiled away his time with numerous sexual encounters, which he remembers with juvenile relish; "I realised how far I was from the goal I'd set myself of becoming a Vogue photographer. Instead I'd become a trained fucker."
His Singapore adventure came to an end when he was interred by the British in 1940 as a 'friendly enemy alien,' and sent to Australia. Arriving in Sydney in September 1940 he was taken to a camp in Tatura, Victoria, where he remained until 1942. After his release, following a few weeks of casual work as a fruit picker, he enlisted as a truck driver in the Australian army. He lasted the war without seeing any action. After the end of the war he became a British subject, changing his name to Newton.
In 1946 he returned to photography, setting up a studio working in fashion. It was during this time he met the actress June Browne, whom he married in 1948. June would later become an accomplished photographer in her own right, working under the pseudonym Alice Springs.
In 1956 he went into partnership with fellow German refugee, Henry Talbot, setting up a studio in Melbourne, specialising in fashion and advertising photography. Newton had been working on assignments for Australian Vogue, when in 1957 he received a 12-month contract from British Vogue to work in London.
His time with British Vogue was in his own words "boring," constrained as he was by its prudish conservatism, and he left for Paris before the end of his contract. After a short spell working for German and French fashion magazines, and a brief return to Australian Vogue in 1959, he once again returned to Paris in 1961, taking an apartment in the fashionable La Marais district. It is there that he made the iconic portrait of a woman wearing an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo, nicknamed Le Smoking.
His full-time position with French Vogue, together with commissions from British Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Queen, gave Helmut the financial security he needed to explore his own vision for fashion photography. In 1964 he bought a house in Ramatuelle, in the Côte d'Azur region in France, near St. Tropez, where Helmut and June would spend their vacations over the next decade or so.
It was his work during this period which established his reputation as a world-renowned fashion photographer, and his distinctive style, which included compositions controversially laden with erotically charged voyeurism, and imbued with sadomasochistic fetishism. In an interview he explained, "I love vulgarity. I am attracted by bad taste - it is a lot more exciting than supposed good taste, which is nothing more than a standardised way of looking at things."
Inspired by the work of Brassaï, a Hungarian photographer, with his innovative street photography, and portraits of the rich and famous, Newton replaced the docile, objectified images of models with women who exuded sexuality, and weren't afraid to use it as a means of dominance in a man's world. This departure proved successful, attracting assignments from elite fashion magazines of the day including Elle, Queen, and Marie Claire. The editor-in chief of French Vogue, Francine Crescent, was a particular champion of his new vision of femininity following her appointment in 1968.
His work in the 1960s set him up for what is considered his most influential period, in which he produced the work that would come to define his style. Combining the glamour and decadence of high fashion with a subversive sexuality, his photographs dare the viewer to challenge preconceptions. The opulence of his cinematic backdrops make the clothes seem unattainably desirable, and emphasize the equally unattainable femininity of the models.
His work in this period attracted criticism, both from feminists who believed that the representation of a sexualized female body deferred to "the male gaze", and fashion houses who didn't like the equal emphasis of their clothes and the models who wore them, criticisms that would continue with oscillating intensity throughout his life.
The 1970s didn't start well for the Newtons. Helmut became ill and June, his wife, had to step in to complete a shoot for a cigarette advertising campaign. Plagued by ill health, Helmut suffered a heart attack in the following year while in New York, and for a while, it seemed that illness would curb the enormous enthusiasm and energy he had for his work. That same devotion to his work had led him to declare to June during their courtship that photography would always be his first love, June would come second.
Taking a break from commissions during this time, he explored his fascination with female sexuality in a series of vignettes which incorporated fetishism, sadomasochism, lesbianism and moral culpability. His brush with death encouraged him to abandon any remaining inhibitions, going beyond what might be acceptable to those who considered themselves aesthetes of the avant-garde.
His combination of erotica with surreal decadence, also attracted more low brow magazines, partnerships that perhaps appealed to his love of bad taste. He began creating erotic picture stories for the American adult magazine, Oui, in the early 1970s, and also worked for Playboy, an association that lasted 30 years. His Playboy assignments allowed him to explore dark fantasies and develop the subversive aesthetic he became famous for. He took the sensuality, decadence, and fetishism from erotica, and brought it into mainstream fashion photography. Though many of these works did not achieve the mastery he was capable of, there were some notable exceptions, in particular his portraits of Nastassja Kinski, Elsa Peretti, and Kristine DeBell.
As his career developed, he began taking portraits of celebrities, photographing everyone from David Lynch and Madonna to Nicholas Cage, and Andy Warhol. Actress Charlotte Rampling famously posed naked for him in a portrait for Playboy. He also photographed some controversial political personalities, including French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of whom he said, "As she became more successful and more powerful, she seemed to me to become even sexy". In his portraiture, his ability to convey the character of the sitter is emphasised, bringing us closer to these seemingly untouchable people. These commissions, many of which were published in Vanity Fair, continued throughout the 1980s. As he said, "My job is to seduce, amuse and entertain," an ethos which is apparent in many of his portraits.
In 1981 Helmut and June left Paris for a place in Monaco where they would spend the summer months, returning to Los Angeles in the winter. Commissions were never in short supply, and although he continued to work at a ferocious pace, he always found time to take the photographs he wanted to.
Official recognition in the arts came in 1990s. He was awarded the Grand Prix National de la Photographie in France in 1990, Das Grosse Verdienstkreuz for services to German Culture in 1992, and appointed Officier des arts, lettres et sciences by Princess Caroline of Monaco. He received a commendation to the Commandeur de l'ordre des arts et lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 1996.
His late period saw significant recognition of his contribution not only to fashion, but also to art and photography. His reputation as one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century had been established. In recognition of his influential career, the new century led the celebration of his life and achievements with a retrospective in the Neue National Galerie in Berlin, which then toured the world. The exhibition covered his work from the 1960s, and was accompanied by a book simply entitled 'Work.'
June Newton, his tireless supporter and inspiration for over 50 years, created the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, a museum that preserves and promotes the work of both Helmut Newton, and June Newton. Certainly, he would not have achieved so much without June's support, both personally and as his artistic director. Without her it is impossible to imagine the career he had, and the influence and notoriety he achieved.
Leaving the Chateau Marmont Hotel in 2004, where they lived while in California, Newton suffered severe injuries after his car spun out of control and hit a wall in Sunset Boulevard. Although June survived, the accident proved fatal for Newton and he died on January 23, 2004, not living long enough to see the opening later that year of hisFoundation. In 2009, June organized a tribute exhibition for him at the Foundation entitled Three Boys from Pasadena. The exhibition was based on three photographers who had trained as assistants with Helmut Newton; Mark Arbeit, Just Loomis, and George Holz, all of whom had gone on to become accomplished photographers in their own right.
The Legacy of Helmut Newton
Helmut Newton left an indelible mark on fashion photography, leaving a trail of imitators in his wake. When Newton began his career in the 1950s, fashion photography was generally safe and conventional. Taking inspiration from cinema, erotic photography, and journalism, he created photographs full of desire and emotion that went beyond the generic limitations of fashion photography, and revolutionizing advertising for high fashion. As Ashish Sensarma, CEO of the lingerie brand Wolford put it, "He captured the brand DNA through photography."
His achievements as an artist were recognized in his lifetime. The publication of his books White Women (1976), and Big Nudes (1981), ensured his place, not only among the great photographers, but among the greatest artists of the 20th Century. He turned fashion photography into an art form, contributing to the growing acceptance throughout the 20th Century of the photographic medium into the world of fine art. Newton's work continues to have relevance today; a major retrospective was held in 2016 at FOAM in Amsterdam, and in 2018 his work features in the Icons of Style exhibition at The Getty Museum.
The Helmut Newton Foundation, established in 2003, further cemented this reputation, and continues to provide a platform for his photography, as well as the work of June Newton. The foundation has held a number of important exhibitions in the years since its inception, including Mario Testino's site specific installation Undressed, which explored representations of the naked body, as well as numerous exhibitions of Newton's work alongside those influenced by it. Newton's vision for the Foundation was not to be a "dead museum", but a "living institution", putting his work into dialogue with other artists and photographers, and providing new contexts to examine the significance of his output in relation to both historical and contemporary photography.
His work has often provoked outrage, from feminists as well as clients, but equally he has always had those willing to defend him. As art critic Derek Scally put it, "It is the men who should be complaining: objectified in successive images as anonymous, oiled muscle men in swimming trunks, always in packs and vying for the attention of the inevitably immaculate, aloof, couture-clad goddess." His photographs of women, while often erotically charged, are never demeaning, and are often almost worshipful of their power and sexuality. Newton had a knack for causing controversy, but nevertheless he remained uncompromising in his vision until the day he died. Wallis Annenberg, CEO of the Annenberg Foundation sums up his artistic contribution: "he expressed the contradictions within all of us."
Influences and Connections
- David Bailey
- Mark Arbeit
- Just Loomis
- George Holz
- Terrance Donovan
- David Lynch
- Yves Saint Laurent
- Karl Lagerfeld
- 20th Century Fashion Photography
Useful Resources on Helmut Newton
- Helmut Newton's IllustratedBy Helmut Newton
- Helmut Newton and Alice Springs: Us and ThemBy Helmut Newton and June Newton