Although he is often considered to be one of the most notorious photographers of the 20th century, there’s no denying that Helmut Newton is an extremely influential artist whose works dictated the course of fashion photography to where the genre is today. The King of Kink made his name shooting models in stunning, often provocative black-and-white photos that eventually became the author’s trademark alongside his sharp tongue – for example, Helmut once stated that all photographers were voyeurs and that every single one of them negated that fact is a genuine idiot. Newton was a highly prolific artist who worked for a very long time, eventually proving himself to be one of the main creative pillars behind the Vogue magazine and other publications, as well as ensuring that his work was widely imitated by all those aspiring to became as successful as he was. Although he collaborated with many colleagues and worked with a lot of assistance that ultimately became great artists in their own right, Helmut had a special artistic relationship with his wife as he was married to a fellow photographer Alice Springs.
Escaping the Nazi Terror
Born in the year of 1920 as Helmut Neustädter, this artist grew up as a German Jew and had a rather privileged childhood in Berlin due to his family’s wealth. A son of the factory owner, Helmut received his first camera at the age of 12 and was rarely caught without it in his hands ever since, often neglecting his studies in school in order to pursue photography. It is reputed that Newton first became fascinated with the female nude as a photographic subject as a teenager while working as an apprentice to a certain theater photographer Yva in Berlin. He fled increasing Nazi oppression in Germany in 1938, shortly after a massive, coordinated attack on Jews known as Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass).
A New Start
After that night, young Helmut went to Singapore while his parents sailed to South America. He worked in Singapore and Australia during World War II, serving in the Australian army for several years. When the war ended, the photographer became an Australian citizen and changed his name to Newton in the year of 1946. He was finally able to pursue an artistic career in photography as the events of World War II prevented him from doing anything long term in that regard. Newton later opened up a photography studio and moved to Europe in the 1950s, seeking better circumstances for his art.
Initially, Newton became fascinated with the female nude while working as an apprentice to a photographer Yva – this theme will soon become the young artist’s focal creative point
From the moment he arrived at the Old Continent, Helmut realized that the decision to move here was a great one. He was a young, wealthy artist whose ambition was only rivaled with an inspiring story of how he survived and fought through the war that was still very much echoing throughout Europe. In order to be as close to the avant-garde circles as possible, Newton moved to the City of Light. There, it took him no time to began working for French Vogue and other publications during the 1950s and 1960s as his reputation grew, traveling frequently throughout the world on assignments. He was hired by Australian Vogue in the 1950s, by British Vogue in 1957 and by French Vogue in 1961. Throughout the years, Newton contributed to magazines such as Playboy, Queen, Nova, Marie-Claire, Elle and the American, Italian, and German editions of Vogue. All in all, the name of Helmut Newton became a fashion sensation and was on everyone’s lips, topping the wishing lists of many famous companies that were pursuing his services.
Dramatic, Beautiful and Perverted
Helmut soon became renowned for his ability to visually provoke with style as his nudes were managing to be simultaneously elegant and highly erotic. He was also able to insert narratives into his pieces although the themes in which he dabbled required nothing of the sort – Newton was doing this very subtly and boldly, insisting that his artworks were more than simple fashion photos. And they were. Unfortunately, a heart attack in the year of 1970 reduced Newton’s output quite a bit, but his profile continued to increase, especially with his 1980 Big Nudes series, which marked the pinnacle of his erotic-urban style, underpinned with excellent technical skills. Newton shot a number of pictorials for Playboy that are till deemed as the magazine’s greatest, including the images of Nastassja Kinski and Kristine DeBell.
As far as Helmut Newton was concerned, being a good photographer was all about being provocative, unique and capable of creating a surprising narrative
Besides the fashion pieces, Newton also worked in portraiture and more fantastical studies in his free time. However, his technique was always the focal point, always the core of the photo. He was known for the dramatic lighting and the unconventional poses of his models in his photographs. Newton’s work has often been characterized as obsessive and subversive, incorporating themes of sadomasochism, prostitution, violence and a persistently-overt sexuality into the narratives of his images. Stylistically, it can be said that his black-and-white pictures combine the impression of 1930s noir photojournalism with aspects of New Wave movies, all underlined by a strong erotic note. Over the course of years, his work centered mainly on fashion, nudes and portraits, with the three categories often mixing with each other. He increasingly focused more on these images rather than fashion photography in the 1980s, emphasizing the aggressive and provocative in his works.
Awards of Helmut Newton
It should be noted that Newton is a recipient of the Best Photography Award from the Art Directors Club in Tokyo, Japan in 1977, an award recipient of the American Institute of Graphic Arts Award and in 1978 he received an award for the Gold Medal from the Art Directors Club in Germany. Among other honors, Newton received the German Kodak Award for Photographic Books, a Life Legend Award from Life magazine and an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for his photographs. Helmut Newton continued to travel later in life, dividing his time between his homes in Monte Carlo and Los Angeles. Just as the case was way back when he was a teenager, he never dropped the camera from his hands. Shortly before his death, the artist had established the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin and also donated around one thousand of his works to his native city. He died in the year of 2004 in a car crash in Los Angeles, at the age of 84.
Here’s a short documentary video that provides us with a small glimpse at the way Helmut Newton worked, thought and saw his art
An Assembly of Great Artistic Features
Although he was a part of a very superficial artistic community, Helmut Newton was renowned for his ability and desire to insert unexpected contexts into his work. Newton is also credited with imbuing fashion photography with narrative depth that only further enhanced his stylized, dreamlike scenes. His work was and still is renowned for an entire assembly line of bold creative decisions that ultimately paid off extremely well for this author. Newton’s radiant black-and-white images of elegant, powerful and sensual women, shot in controversial scenarios, daring lighting and striking compositions remain as some of the greatest photographies ever taken. Now, more than a decade after his death, the artist’s reputation hasn’t faded at all as the rather questionable argument against his lasting influence on high-fashion photography ended a long time ago. The iconic Helmut Newton continues to live on through his immortal images of models wearing little but high heels and cold glares – images that even now have the power to shock and amaze.
- Marquet, F., Newton, H., Newton, J., Helmut Newton: Work, Taschen, 2000
- Springs, A., Newton, J., Helmut Newton and Alice Springs: Us and Them, Scalo Publishers, 1999
- Newton, H., Helmut Newton 1920-2004, Schoenhofs Foreign Books, 2012
- Newton, H., Helmut Newton: Polaroids, Taschen; Mul edition, 2015
- Abish, W., Newton, H., Cole, G., Playboy: Helmut Newton, Chronicle Books; First Edition, 2005
- Squires, C., Newton,. H., Helmut Newton Portraits, Pantheon Books, NY; 1st American Edition, 1987
- Felix, Z., Newton, H., Best of Helmut Newton, 1st Thunder’s Mouth Press edition, 1996
Featured image: Helmut Newton – Photo of the artist – Image © Helmut Newton Estate
All images © Helmut Newton Estate.