“EVERYTHING IS AUTOMATIC”, HE SAYS RETRACTING FROM A SCENE DIRECTING A MODEL’S PERFECT STANCE ATOP A GRAND PIANO WITH THREE BLINDFOLDED ORCHESTRA MAESTROS BY HER SIDE, A CONCEIVABLY UNIQUE STATEMENT FROM HELMUT NEWTON, PHOTOGRAPHER AND VISIONARY WHOSE INFLUENCE HAS PERMEATED ENDLESS LAYERS OF THEMATIC COMPOSITION. POINT AND SHOOT WAS IN FACT THE ONLY CAMERA MOVE HE EVER HAD TO MAKE, THE REST LAY IN THE MAGIC OF HIS INSATIABLE IMAGINATION.
Storyline is often the most prevailing reference of Helmut Newton’s photographs, to the contrary, what interested him most was directing his setting and subject’s every object, limb, angle, and movement down to a fractal for meticulous positioning within each frame. He was interested in the moment. He worked with virtually every fashion house throughout the 60s to the 90s: YSL, Versace, Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Chanel. He captured some prolific faces through his portraiture alongside his nudes, a combination which defined a classic Newton photograph by his sculpted sense of composition. He was a master at capturing the sublime undertones that the eye of an unknown could never register. It was high drama that he was after and he caught it without fail every time.
Image making was Helmut Newton’s fixation and he photographed his subjects in a relentless quest to capture what could be conceived but not seen. Much like his photos, Newton’s own history followed multiple lifelines. Like a triptych, Berlin, Melbourne and Paris played equally important parts to the denouement of his work. Born in Berlin in 1920, he purchased his first camera, a Zeiss Box Tengor, for 2,50 Deutsch Marks and took his first photos at night in the train underground of Berlin’s U-Bahn. Following the lead of Brassaï’s night time wanderings and portraiture of Erich Salomon, his influencers exuded a firm fixation on Newton’s direction and at 14 he had decided that he would be a photographer and had himself kicked out of school. In 1936 he obtained an apprenticeship with Yva, a prominent name in nude photography at the time who established Tatura, the most successful photo studio in Weimar Berlin. New visual forms arose from Germany’s avant-garde movement such as Bauhaus, constructivism and new objectivity fluxed Newton’s direction roused by the light-dancing photograms of László Moholy-Nagyand Surrealism of Man Ray. He fled Germany’s political regime at 18, landing in Singapore for two years where he worked for the Singapore Straight Times as a society reporter, a job that lasted for two weeks. He says he was fired because his reaction time was to slow and he was never quite able to deliver the photos they wanted. His short stint as a photojournalist evidently served him well and played into his work’s later influence in documenting society’s underbelly as in his words, the glamour of, “the harshness of the everyday life of the rich and famous”.
In 1940 another direction veered him towards Australia and in 1947 he met his greatest partner in love and crime June Browne, then actress and later successful photographer who worked under her artist name Alice Springs. June and Helmut held an indescribable level of respect and affection towards one another and she was Helmut’s greatest confidant and inspiration. The two would document each other in moments of solitary and interwoven fascination. Many of Helmut’s published books including ‘World Without Men’ and ‘Sleepless Nights’ are lovingly inscribed For June. In 1956 Newton’s work caught the attention of British Vogue and he moved to London to work a twelve month contract, which he cut early since London wasn’t for him. He returned to Melbourne in 1959 to shoot the Olympics for the swimsuit edition of Australian Vogue which began his lifelong relationship with the Condé Nast empire. He loved Australia, but he began to feel discouraged aesthetically and in 1961, he packed himself, June, and two cameras into his white Porsche and left for Paris.
His first assignment in Paris was a knitwear and scarf editorial for French Vogue. While stopped in his car at a red light in Rue de Rivoli he pulled down his window and asked a girl that struck him at the intersection if she would accompany him to the Vogue office and model for his shoot. The influx of fashion editorials he shot throughout the 60s and early 70s lavishly gleamed the hyped trends of the time with titles like ‘Second Skin’, ‘Flying High With Fur’, ‘Paris 1970 Takover! The World is Free!’ Magazine editorials were all about sensationalising the importance of trending textiles and cuts from ciré to capes. As his product-driven spreads filled magazine pages, Helmut’s commercially viable success throughout the 60s had little to do with the product themselves; it was how he projected his own reality into images that made his name stick with much reputed success.
The 70s proved to be a prolific decade for Helmut Newton, the inception point at which his name was enough to conjure up an air of provocation. Image play of the faux pas and scandalous themes of murder, subversion, eroticism and mystery never graced the glossies with the level of glamour that made heads turns in both intrigue and dismay. His use of light was one of the most critical elements of his composition and he often shot at night under the glare of artificial lights, the strong contrasts casting shadows over his models which draped their bodies and served to create complementary lines to the clothing or bare flesh, cast impeccably as in his photo, ‘3 p.m in Bel Air’. In scanning the contact sheets, he would select the final print based on the perfect amount of visual ambiguity and way in which the figure filled the frame, vertical frames to him were more effective visually than horizontal ones. Lines, shadows and angles were the basic elements to his photographs and the relationship between his subjects and way in which their form interacted was the pivotal oscillator between art and eroticism. His golden ‘gunshot stance’ had his models stand with their arms by their side slightly separated, legs firmly grounded apart. Back lit, the light shone through their arms to emphasize the outline of their silhouette. It was classic Newton, composition to him was paramount.
He used Polaroids as his sketchbook throughout the 70s to test his lighting and image composition. This way of working followed a formula of precise spontaneity and speed which he liked. Often using one roll of film when he had two, an editor on a shoot once said to him, “Helmut, you’ve only taken six photos.” “You only need one”, was replied. His had sharp instinct as he orchestrated his photographic scenes much like a director was inspired by film, his great influencer a director Erich von Stroheim. A scene from Stroheim’s “Foolish Wives” plays a parallel vision to a place Helmut loved very much, Monte Carlo. He would mirror the fashion, decadence, and glamour envisioned in films to stage and photograph his movie star subjects. Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren were among the few.
His dire rule was that a fashion photo should never look like one; the fashion involved should never be the soul of the shot. In contrast to other fashion editorials, Newton was a genius for creating depth and complexity by placing single fashion items within the frame. If the photo involved shoes there were only Manolo Blahniks, In Saint Tropez, the body stockings were Wolford lycra jersey. It was all about the item of the moment. His accessories of choice: handcuffs, masks, guns and ropes added a dizzying element of forbidden glamour and tension to his scenes. The dark side of fashion appeared in the form of orthopaedic corsets as accessories, a styling choice which twirled the element of restraint among the excess.
The female body fully unhinged Helmut Newton’s potency. One cannot veer away from his breakthrough vision through which female nudes was the substance of his sculptural, linear and shaded photographic composition. His models had full form, muscles and exuded a certainty and power in gaze, self-assured and position. His models were all about their attitude and in 1980 he began his most successful series of nudes. His photos filled up the pages under the more liberal direction of French and Italian Vogue. ‘The Big Nudes’ became one of his most renowned works which lasted over a decade. He photographed his models in various cities around the world against a white backdrop and lit them with a single strobe light. He often played with the element of duality within this series as in his famous 1981 ‘Sie Kommen’, four women walking toward the camera. In one frame they are dressed; in the next they are holding the same pose nude. This series marked an important element in his work that extended the threshold by which he could push boundaries even further to bring the female form and fashion photography, without the fashion, in a new light.
His ‘Domestic Nudes’ series: Housewives in Bondage fired the decade’s trend ‘bondage chic’. It was Glamour tucked between the cracks of the Hollywood Hills. He photographed Julie Strain in the kitchen of his Chateau Marmont hotel room, manipulating every muscle like a director, her flexed form balancing back, one hand raised to the clock, the other on the stove. He often cast athletes such as female bodybuilding pioneer Lisa Lyon and Canadian marathon runner Gayle Olinekova in his sculptural image assemblage. He was attracted to the powerful woman and he challenged conventional gender proportions by employing physical contradictions within his frame. Observing movement of the form was a great mystery to him and he built up much of his image momentum through the innate movement of his subjects. Cindy Crawford walking down the marble staircase in Monaco was captured so by the distinct way in which she moved downward, the breadth of her step, the flex of her muscles. In this light, Helmut Newton was the viewer, the observer of form.
Voyeurism played a recurring theme throughout his imagery and the question of who is watching who often hangs in ambiguity. Overt nuances and power roles prevail between the characters in his frames and though there is an often closely bound relationship implied between his subjects, their body position and deviating eye contact, raises a level of tension within the frame which Newton was a master at achieving. He constantly challenged the confrontation between the real and the false in his fashion photos.
Environment and decor both played critical elements throughout his images and there were places that he refused to photograph without those two. He called this sense ‘photographic geography’ and would turn down jobs in places where he felt no ties without hesitation. Paris, Los Angeles and the Cote D’Azur were prominent locations that drew him beyond a close affinity to the fashion or glamour that was booming there at the time. Shooting in locations where he could understand the women was paramount. Without authenticity, there was no shot. He would seek out the essential elements of a scene depending on his geographical positioning, if the model had to be photographed with a car in Los Angeles, the car had to be a Cadillac, a Mercedes in Berlin, a Citroen in Paris.
Regardless in which city he was shooting, he would find the perfect location within a 2km radius of his home base and having a close connection to his surroundings allowed him to pull greater depth from his subjects. Hotel rooms such as Le Hotel Balmoral in Monte Carlo or the Chateau Marmont in L.A. were frequent settings for his photos. He was fascinated by the idea of the paparazzi and applied that essence to serve as a connecting thread to the scandalous events that could unfold within that realm. Hotels in this way served as a blank slate for him to create the duality between intimacy and foreignness, the perfect setting for which his scandalous scenes could unravel.
David Bowie and his bedside drawer at the Kempinski Hotel in Berlin were caught on coloured film for his ‘Bedroom Series’. Close working relationships and his gift for extracting the intimate and at times forbidden were the key ingredients to the voyeuristic element that infiltrated Helmut Newton’s world. His fashion photos, his portraits, and his nudes all drip with a provocative seductiveness.
There is period between 1987 and 1994 when he took a break from shooting for the fashion pages of Vogue to switch gears and focus on his portraiture and nudes for publications like Vanity Fair and Condé Nast Traveler. It was a creativity fulfilling time for Newton that granted him a healthy break from fashion to travel to the countries of his choice and capture faces that spanned the breadth of Margaret Thatcher to Dali to Nicholson. Throughout these years he worked in parallel to publish his own magazine ‘Helmut Newton’s Illustrated’ and each edition followed a theme reflected in their title: No. 1 “Sex and Power,” No. 2, “Pictured from an Exhibition,” No.3, “I was There” and No.4 “Dr. Phantasme”. It was the perfect medium for his humour and aesthetically twisted sensibility to shine through the compilation of his life’s work. He did return to fashion to shoot Thierry Mugler’s highly cutting campaign images of the late 90s, which tied the ends that brought his life’s work full circle. His portraiture, journalistic photos, fashion images, and nudes sparked an enigmatic vision that ultimately synchronized the trajectory by which his imagination and mastery in composition have defined Helmut Newton as one of the most compelling photographers of our time.
He shot mostly women and embellished sleek fashion lines with complementary angles and shadows. His subjects were often nude and he coined his noted ‘gunshot stance’ by which he combined the female form with high contrast lighting to create his trademark stark, low lit, highly provocative black and white photos.
Composition to Newton was key, often more important than the subjects themselves. He used film as a main source of inspiration and worked by the rule that no fashion photo should ever look like one. He chose instead to reference movie stills to develop the complex moments within his photographic frame. His use of high drama and provocation were his secret weapons.
Helmut was a fan of the fake and often used fake dolls, nipples and prosthetic legs in his shoots to provoke the eye and the imagination. He kept a blow up doll statue doing a handstand in his office in Monaco.
1976 Art Directors Club Tokyo – prize for best photography of the year
1989 Photographer Award by the Photographic Society of Japanin recognition of his outstanding achievements during the 1960s and 1970s.
1997/78 American Institute of Graphic Art – prize for his first book ‘White Women”.
1998/79 Gold medal from the Art Director’s Club Germany for best press photo.
1990 Awarded the Grand Prix National de la Photographie, Paris
1991 World Image Award for the best photo-portrait, New York.
1992 Awarded Das Grosse Verdienstkreuz by the German government for service to German culture
1992 Appointed Officer des Arts, Lettres et Sciences by S.A.S by Princess Caroline of Monaco
1996 Appointed Commendeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Philippe Douste-Blazy, The French Minister of Culture at the time.
2000 Infinity Award by the International Centre of Photography
He buys his first camera with his pocket money, follows the inspiration of Brassaï and begins taking nighttime shots in the Berlin underground.
He fled Germany’s political regime with the onset of the war and ended up broke and alone at 18 in Singapore. He got hired as a reporter for the Singapore Straight times. He got fired shortly after and the gig lasted only two weeks.
He photographs for the Australian Post and the Sydney Morning Herald and sets up his own photo studio in Melbourne.
Vogue UK notices Newton and offers him a twelve month contract. He realizes that London is not the city for him and he moves back to Melbourne. He goes on to work with the sportswear editor of Vogue and photographs the Olympic Games in Melbourne.
Newton photographs one of the greatest fashion phenomenons’s to hit the 60s: Courreges, he begins to gain recognition for his fashion editorials.
Newton Produces a controversial photo shoot along the Berlin Wall that earned him the nickname among his friends: Helmut “The Wall” Newton.
Newton sees, ‘La Dolce Vita’ and becomes very inspired by the idea of the press and paparazzi, possibly the starting point by which his voyeur inspired photos took off.
Vogue sends Newton to Dakar for a shoot which goes terribly wrong, which doesn't prevent him from realising his long time vision of hanging a model from a helicopter over shark infested waters, which is published as a spread in Vogue. Newton also builds a photo machine with a motor and self-timer that allows the model to pose and shoot her own photos.
Newton begins his series of self portraits beginning with the ceiling shot at Hotel Bijou Paris.
Newton’s shoots the iconic black and white image of the YSL pantsuit in Rue Aubriot, Paris. He also has his first solo show in the Nikon gallery in Paris.
German Vogue sends Newton to Berlin with the idea that he shoots in the locations in which he grew up.
Newton photographs David Bowie in his hotel room at the Kempinski Hotel in Berlin and David Lynch and Isabella Rosellini in Los Angeles.
Newton shoots the Pirelli calendar which is published a decade after his death in 2014.
A camera crew follows Helmut Newton between Los Angeles to Paris to Monte Carlo to Berlin to shoot a documentary film.
Newton publishes No.3 “I Was There” for his self-published magazine series, ‘Newton’s Illustrated’.
Newton completes the last photo of his Big Nudes series which began with the first one in 1980.
He prints the last issue of his self-published magazine, ‘Newton’s Illustrated’ titled at No.4 “Dr. Phantasme”.
Newton shares his vision of changing trends and editorial spreads from the 50s to the late 90s in a published book titled, ‘Pages from the Glossies’.
Newton shoots a stunning campaign for Thierry Mugler’s Pret-a-Porter lingerie collection with model Brigitta Bungard in Monaco.
Helmut Newton sets up the Helmut Newton foundation in Berlin and he donates more than 200 original photographs. He dedicates on room to his wife and calls it June’s room, which is filled with original contact sheets.
Helmut Newton fatally crashes his car outside of Chateau Marmont. He passes away at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.
A true gem of a film, Helmut’s wife June spent the last few years of his life following him around with a video camera that she bought him that he never used. ‘Helmut by June’ pays a touching tribute to his animated character and the beautiful bond he shared with June throughout his life’s work.
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