Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin in 1920, Helmut Neustädter expressed an early interest in photography. Aged twelve he photographed Berlin’s Funkturm (Radio Tower), a motif to which he would later return. Four years later, he began an apprenticeship with renowned fashion photographer Yva; it was in her studio that he took his first, confidently staged self-portraits.
In 1938, as persecution in Germany increased, he was forced to leave his native city; he traveled to Trieste by train and then by ship to Singapore, where he worked briefly as a photojournalist for the Straits Times before leaving for Australia in 1940. In Melbourne, after the war, he opened a small photography studio and met his future wife, the actress June Brunell, who assisted him in the darkroom in parallel with her own career.
Most of the portrait, wedding, and fashion photographs from this early period are lost. Now working under the anglicized name of Helmut Newton, his early work remained for the most part within traditional conventions, but hints of what was to come made an occasional appearance. In 1956, much changed for Newton. He traveled through Europe with June and was given a one-year contract by British Vogue in London; but they soon returned to Melbourne and Helmut set up a shared studio with Henry Talbot, a fellow German- Jewish photographer. He also began working for Australian Vogue.
The fashion world—and Paris—beckoned, heralding one of the most important formative periods of his career. In this chapter, we encounter portraits and fashion photographs he took on the streets of London and Rio, a “photo novel” from the Franco-Belgian border, and an editorial for men’s fashion wrapped up in a James Bond story.
In 1961, following an invitation from French Vogue, Helmut and June Newton moved to Paris. Here, in the proverbial “City of Fashion,” he developed his own style and ultimately became one of the most in-demand and innovative fashion photographers of his time. In addition to French Vogue, his main client, he worked for French Elle, British Vogue, and the avant-garde British magazine Queen.
These magazines gave Newton the opportunities to earn a good living and to develop creative ideas; they also became the vital means of distributing his interpretations of contemporary fashion. Through them he reached a very substantial audience, long before his photographs began to appear in books and exhibitions. He repeatedly incorporated the dominant zeitgeist—from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini to the sexual revolution at the end of the decade—into his fashion photography, which was always more than mere illustration of an item of clothing or accessory.
Newton’s images suggested narratives and often incorporated an element of intrigue. With the Courrèges series of 1964 for Queen, he began a new chapter in his oeuvre, one in which the successful fulfillment of a commission was distinguished by a fearless audacity.
In the mid-1960s, Newton bought a house near Saint-Tropez and the Côte d’Azur, a location that became the backdrop for countless fashion shoots, intimate portraits of June as well as self-portraits. His interest in the motif in magazine commissions, which took him to Venice, London, Milan, Rome, Montreal, and Tunis.
Helmut Newton traveled regularly to the United States in the 1970s, taking photographs in New York, Miami, and Las Vegas as well as Berlin, Rome, and Saint-Tropez. From 1971, however, following a heart attack during a shoot in New York, he changed the way in which he worked. He would now only accept commissions he found interesting and challenging. And he used the settings, as well as the models and stylists, to his own ends, creating for himself a more risqué version of the planned fashion shot.
In 1976, a number of these unpublished images appeared in his first book, White Women; his second book, Sleepless Nights, followed in 1978, with previously published editorial material from Vogue and Playboy. Both books caused a sensation and were distributed internationally over many years, in various editions. From 1975 onwards, Newton also exhibited his work in cultural institutions and galleries.
He continued to present fashion mostly on the street, in exclusive hotels and apartments, or in luxurious restaurants, sometimes juxtaposing mannequins with living models. Only on closer inspection of his pictures do we start to distinguish what is real and what is a reconstruction or reenactment of his ideas and observations.
His inspiration came from sources as diverse as surrealism, the fantasy tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, and duplications and transformations as explored in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. Numerous Newton motifs from the 1970s became so iconic and timeless that they continue to be revisited as reference points today.
In 1981, Helmut Newton developed a radical visual idea for Italian and French Vogue: he asked his models—first in Brescia, then in Paris—to undress after a fashion shoot and photographed them again in exactly the same pose, but nude. The publication of these diptychs that autumn caused shockwaves. He called these striking pairings, which brought together his fashion and nude photography, simply Naked and Dressed.
Parallel to these images, he produced the first so-called Big Nudes, both for the printed page and as life-size prints, which no photographer had done previously. Newton was constantly testing the limits of society and morality and redefining them on his own terms. The Big Nudes formed the basis of Newton’s third book, his most successful thus far.
In late 1981, Helmut and June Newton left Paris and moved to Monte Carlo; from that time onwards, they spent the first months of every year in Los Angeles, where he took numerous portraits of his friends and acquaintances among Hollywood’s celebrities. He continued to make portraits of June, who from 1970 had her own successful career as a photographer under the pseudonym Alice Springs.
In 1987, inspired by the illustrated journals of his Berlin youth, Newton conceived his own large-format magazine, Helmut Newton’s Illustrated, four issues of which were published at irregular intervals.
Newton’s oeuvre in the 1990s was characterized by everinventive fashion photographs, many taken in and around Monte Carlo but also in Berlin, for example, in the legendary restaurant Exil, or en plein air in Paris and Miami.
This work was now less regularly produced for the editorial pages of magazines and more frequently commissioned directly by fashion designers and other clients, among them Chanel, Mugler, Yves Saint Laurent, Wolford, Swarovski, and Lavazza, often for substantial advertising campaigns. The fashion photograph had emancipated itself from the magazine, which had until now been the traditional context for its production and publication.
Numerous museum exhibitions and a flourishing art market accompanied this triumphal march, supported by a growing recognition of the cultural significance of this area of photography.
In the 1990s, Newton also produced further publications, including two issues of Helmut Newton’s Illustrated and, with Schirmer/Mosel, a volume of his Polaroid photographs. Instant photography remained important to him as a quick way to test ideas or to check composition during a shoot. In addition, he produced an extensive anthology of facsimiles of his magazine publications over five decades, Pages from the Glossies, and a joint book with his wife June, Us and Them.
Finally, in 1999, Taschen published SUMO, still the largest art book of all time. Newton received awards in France, Monaco, and Germany in recognition of his lifetime achievement in photography.
In his final years, Helmut Newton continued to be booked by magazines and designers to transform current fashions into arresting images. This continuity in a fashion business that thrives on change was as unusual as Newton’s sustained mental and visual freshness. Looking at these truly contemporary photographs, we would scarcely imagine that an eighty-year-old photographer was their author.
On the occasion of his birthday in 2000, Newton was honored with a major retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which subsequently toured internationally. Never before had there been a solo presentation of a photographer’s work in that legendary museum building by Mies van der Rohe.
Two years later, Newton’s autobiography was translated into ten languages and published by as many houses. Two significant publications were produced in collaboration with his gallery in Zürich, Galerie De Pury & Luxembourg, to coincide with the exhibitions Sex and Landscapes and Yellow Press. These late landscape photographs and journalistic images were shown for the first time. Several of the exhibits, those taken for magazines as well as those for himself, are included in this last chapter.
The final selection of images can be seen to interweave yet again, in Newton’s unique way, the major genres of his oeuvre: fashion, nude, and portrait, a potent last testament to the unique character and authority of this exceptional photographer’s remarkable vision.