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Helmut Newton Photo

Helmut Newton - Biography and Legacy

American Photographer

Born: October 31, 1920 - Berlin, Germany
Died: January 23, 2004 - Los Angeles, United States
Movements and Styles:
Fashion Photography

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.

Mature Period

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.

Late Period

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."

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Helmut Newton Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 18 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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