Berlin-born legendary fashion photographer, famous for his nudes but also for his portraits of politicians and celebrities, would’ve turned 101 on October 31.Needless to say, Helmut Newton is a polarizing figure. Some see him as a feminist, while the critics label his nude portraits as unquestionably misogynist. By today’s standards, his work would likely create more outrage than before, and it’d be just the matter of time, when he’d be called out and cancelled. However, while his vision is rooted in male fantasy, one can argue that they also display the awesomeness of feminine power.
Photo by: Helmut Newton, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Paris 1983. Helmut Newton Foundation
Helmut Neustädter (Newton’s real name) was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin in 1920. His father was a well-established button manufacturer, running a factory left behind by his wife’s Klara latest husband. Helmut’s mother doted on him, dressing him up very fashionably, in patent leather shoes and velvet suits, teaching him never to touch banisters and making sure he was always chauffeured to school.
He attended the Heinrich von Treitschke Real Gymnasium and later the American School in Berlin where he was frequently absent, already then being more interested in photography than academic learning. At 12, he started taking pictures of the Funkturm (Radio Tower), a sleek, chic symbol of the emerging modern age and a motif to which he would later return. Surrounded by artists, intellectuals and innovators who made Berlin one of the most avant-garde cities of the time, young Helmut came of age in a culture ripe with pleasure, provocation, and decadence.In 1936, he began working for the Elsie Simon (Yva), famous German-Jewish photographer, known for being daring and experimental (including nude photography), paving the way for the emergence of a new vision of femininity. Assisting Yva for over two years, Helmut and his artistic direction was unquestionably influenced by his mentor, who, unfortunately, didn’t escape the Nazi Germany and died in a concentration camp in 1944.
Newton’s family has left Germany in 1938, following the seizure of his father's factory, and emigrated to South America. Helmut alone first landed in Singapore and later in Australia. After the war 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 and who would accompany him through his entire life.
Photo by: Helmut Newton, Carla Bruni, Nice 1993. Helmut Newton Foundation
Photo by: Helmut Newton, Prada, Monte Carlo 1984. Helmut Newton Foundation
Photo by: Helmut Newton, Woman examining Man, Calvin Klein, US Vogue, St. Tropez 1975. Helmut Newton Foundation
It was only in the late 60s – early 70s, when Newton achieved the financially security he needed to explore his own vision – everything else prior to this period he’d himself call “boring.” He took a full-time position with French Vogue, together with commissions from British Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Queen, and started to enjoy unlimited creative possibilities. Working for well-known fashion magazines, he not only took classic studio shots but ventured into the streets, staging models as participants in a protest, protagonists in a paparazzi story, and more.
Drawing from the works of Alfred Hitchcock (Newton also appears in many of his works as an observer or an active participant), François Truffaut and Federico Fellini, as well as from the James Bond movies, Helmut used the photograph to stage enigmatic and thrilling stories which boldly questioned and transgressed the traditional depictions of fashion and femininity. He presented women in dominating roles normally ascribed to men which was at the time revolutionary.
Repeatedly testing social and moral boundaries, sometimes he even redefined them. He visualized an obsessive dilemma between exhibitionism, female emancipation, self-sacrifice, and beaty of death.
Despite his dramatic departure on the eve of WWII from Berlin, Helmut Newton had never forgotten the city’s formative influence on his life and work. It was the place where he had learned to be a photographer and where the nationalist socialism iconography played a major role in shaping his vision. He returned periodically to Berlin after the war to shoot fashion editorials and revisited his old neighborhood and favorite places.
Photo by: Helmut Newton, Fashion, Melbourne, 1955. Helmut Newton Foundation
Photo by: Helmut Newton, Cindy Crawford, US Vogue, Monte Carlo 1991. Helmut Newton Foundation
Until the end of his life he continued to both disturb and enchant people with his visions and visualizations of fashion and femininity. No other photographer has likely been published more often than Helmut Newton, and many of his iconic images have become part of our collective visual memory.
Of course, his open, liberal, sometimes provocative visual language must have been disturbing to conservative minds at the time. Looking back today at his fashion pictures over five decades, we can see how he became a pioneer of a certain social change.
“Helmut Newton: Legacy” is on view at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin from 31 October 2021 – 22 May 2022. With around 300 works, about half the pictures have never been displayed before. There is an extensive catalogue published by TASCHEN to accompany the “Helmut Newton: Legacy” exhibition.
We also recommend watching new 2020 documentary “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” by Gero von Boehm, with its stellar celebrity cast, including Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Hanna Schygulla, Nadja Auermann, and Newton's wife June.