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Helmut Newton

Curators’ Corner

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton was a fashion photographer (1920-2004) who specialized primarily in black and white photography but he is also known for his portraits of nude women. He was widely recognized by the style he established, which was a mixture of fashion, sex and theatre. His provocative and erotically charged black-and-white photos fundamentally changed the terms of the fashion image and they also shaped fashion in general. His photos could be seen in many major fashion magazines in Europe and in USA including Vogue, Stern, Vanity Fair and Marie Claire.

Helmut Newton was born Helmut Neustädter in Berlin on October 31, 1920. His father was a German-Jewish button factory owner while his mother was American. Helmut Newton attended the Heinrich-von-Treitschke-Real gymnasium and the American School in Berlin. At the age of twelve he purchased his first camera and became interested in photography.  In the years that followed, the war placed a heavy burden on his family with their Jewish background. Soon after the Nuremberg laws were introduced, his father lost control of his factory and was briefly interned in a concentration camp. Newton’s parents fled to Chile to avoid the Nazi regime.

During Work War II he worked as a portrait photographer in Singapore and later as a truck driver in the Australian Army.  After the war, Helmut became an Australian citizen and changed his name to Newton. He married actress June Browne (stage-name ‘June Brunell’) in 1948. June Newton later had her own photography career under the name Alice Springs.  In 1946 Helmut Newton increasingly focused on fashion photography and landed his first major commission with a photography contract for a special Australian supplement for Vogue magazine. After working for British Vogue for over a year, he left for London in February 1957 but terminated his contract with the magazine and went to Paris to work for various French and German magazines. He returned to Melbourne to work for Australian Vogue in March 1959 but after two years, Helmut Newton decided to go back to Paris and continue his work as a fashion photographer.

Newton introduced elements of violence (or the implied threat of danger) by featuring semi-nude, highly Germanic, intensely voluptuous models photographed from the rear holding pistols discreetly hidden from their beaus behind their backs. Knives or other instruments of carnage are held in reserve by delicious femmes fatales for moments of ostensible tenderness- and blindly trusting intimacy – with unsuspecting men ripe for the kill.

Helmut Newton was inspired by the crime novels by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, and the men in his photos typically appeared in servile roles, as waiters, chauffeurs or mere on-lookers. The familiar backdrops of Europe’s grandest hotels, Hollywood apartments, and Riviera swimming pools are the settings for a series of mysterious dramas, whose sources are never exposed and whose conflicts are never resolved. Helmut Newton died at age 83 on January 23, 2004 in Los Angeles in a car accident when he drove into a wall at the Chateau Marmont. He was cremated and buried next to Marlene Dietrich at the Städtischer Friedhof III in Berlin.