He has been labeled the “King of Kink” by the media, called the Antichrist by groups of radical feminists and straddled the line between art and pornography (to be fair, he did make a porn film, but in his own words “I only showed it once, in a museum.”), yet Helmut Newton is considered one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. Beyond the vehement criticism, mostly early in his career, Newton’s reputation, both behind the lens and in front of it has earned him high praise from many of the most respected names in both art and fashion. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, who has published Newton’s photographs for years says, “He loves to be outrageous.” and calls him “…unbelievably influential.”
Though he was interested in photography since childhood, the journey to becoming an acclaimed fashion photographer who photographed some of the most beautiful women in the world reads like a work of Hollywood fiction. Helmut Neustädter was born in Berlin on October 31, 1920 the son of Klara and Max Neustädter. His father owned a button factory, which afforded the family a very comfortable living. At the age of 12, Helmut bought his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, with hopes of traveling the world as a photojournalist. Wanting their son to learn a trade, his parents arranged an apprenticeship with a society photographer, called Madame Yva, where Helmut, then 16, learned to use a camera. It was also during this apprenticeship where he saw his first lingerie shoot, which, though unknown at the time, would set the stage for the remainder of his career.
Once Hitler took in power in 1933, Nazism became the official ideology of Germany and, in 1935, with the passing of the Nuremberg Law, it became increasingly difficult for Jewish families, such as Helmut’s. As a result of the laws, Helmut’s father lost his factory and was placed briefly in a concentration camp. In November of 1938, Helmut and his family fled Germany. His parents went to South America, while Helmut went to Singapore where he briefly worked as a portrait photographer before being interned by the British authorities and ultimately sent to Australia aboard the Queen Mary. Newton was kept in internment for two years and, upon his release in 1942, he enlisted with the Australian Army where he worked as a truck driver. When the war ended in 1945, Helmut chose to remain in Australia, became a citizen and changed his last name to Newton.
Still feeling that photography was his calling, Newton opened a studio on Flanders Lane, a fashionable street in the textile district of Melbourne, where he began to shoot fashion and theatre. It was there that Newton would also see his work in his first exhibition, along with architectural photographer Wolfgang Sievers, who had served alongside Newton in the army. In 1953, Newton formed a partnership with another fashion photographer, Henry Talbot, though with Newton’s reputation as a fashion photographer growing, it was to be somewhat short lived.
In 1956, Newton was commissioned to shoot a special supplement for Vogue Magazine, which landed him a 12-month contract with British Vogue. Unfortunately, this meant he would have to leave the studio recently started with Talbot and move to London. However, Newton did not finish he contract for the magazine and, instead moved to Paris to work for various French and German fashion magazines. He returned to Melbourne in March of 1959, under contract for Australian Vogue. His homecoming was again to be short lived, as he moved to Paris in 1961, where he continued working as a fashion photographer, shooting for French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar (home of legendary Fashion Editor Polly Mellen). It was during his time in Paris that he was developing the stylized eroticism that would become his signature, fueled, at least partially, by what Newton calls his “rather nasty Berlin sense of humor.”
The 1980s ushered in the Supermodels, not at all the waif-like models of the 60s, and, for Newton, it was the inspiration he needed to produce one of the most notable projects of his career. Newton says, “And then the big Swedish, German, and American girls came on the scene in the ‘80s. They were built like truck drivers, which is a look that I like. It was the heyday of the super models like Cindy Crawford — Cindy had a great quality.” The project was called Big Nudes and in it, Newton created a new chapter in his body of work. The photographs were a stark contrast to his elaborately styled fashion work and, instead, were meant to evoke the strength of the women (a favorite theme of Newton), who were photographed on an empty set in nothing but high-heeled shoes.
Helmut Newton has influenced countless photographers, but his mark of influence also extends beyond photography into fashion, advertising and design. Fashion design icon and film director, Tom Ford, was Creative Director of both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent when he used a series of Newton’s photographs of women in orthopedic body braces as the inspiration for a line of jewelry. ”I was very aware of his twisted sexual fantasies as I was growing up in the 70’s,” says Ford. ”Every one of them has some sort of debauched setting and the subtlest layers of meaning. It was shocking, stunning and nauseating — but gave the sensation of the utmost glamour. That buzz. That, to me, became fashion.”