Helmut Newton lives on through his work

April 26, 2022

Dr. Matthias Harder
Director / Curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation

Helmut Newton (1920–2004) never ceased to both astound and polarise. Early in his career, he succeeded in finding fellow creative spirits who appreciated his unique visual concepts. The result is a body of work that is not only exceptionally characteristic and accomplished but also one that has reached a public of millions through the magazines and books in which his photographs have appeared as well through the exhibitions of his prints. Spanning more than five decades, the work of Helmut Newton defies categorisation. Newton transcended genres, bringing elegance, style, and voyeurism to fashion, beauty, and glamour photography for an oeuvre that remains as inimitable as it is unrivalled. Fashion photography – which not only describes but also redefines the spirit of the times – aims to tell exciting and surprising stories with images. In this respect, Newton mastered this task perfectly.

His fashion shoots invariably went beyond standard practice, interweaving a parallel narrative, sometimes tinged with a sense of surrealism or the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Frequently it remains unclear where reality ends and staging begins, with elements combining to create a confounding play of power and seduction.

It becomes evident that Newton’s clear aesthetic sense pervades all areas of his work, particularly in fashion, portraiture, and nude photography. Women take center stage – with subjects such as Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Liz Taylor and Princess Caroline, to name but a few. The interaction between men and women is also a frequent motif we encounter in his work. But also Newton’s men’s portraits appear here, featuring Hollywood film stars, fashion designers or artists and photographers, among them Billy Wilder, David Hockney, Pierre Cardin, and Andy Warhol. He shot them mostly on commission of magazines like Egoïste, Interview, and Vanity Fair since the 1980s. Newton was a master in lighting and using props to choreograph each scene. At the very beginning of his career we find two self-portraits, 16-years-old, taken at Yva’s studio where he did an apprenticeship. By then, Yva was a well-known photographer working in the portrait and fashion fields and publishing her unusual work in the most renowned magazines of the Weimar republic. Newton would follow her steps later abroad, working for other magazines and clients.

Moving beyond traditional narrative approaches, Newton’s fashion photography is imbued not only with luxurious elegance and subtle seduction but also cultural references and a surprising sense of humor. It was while he lived in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s that Newton sharpened his inimitable style, often playfully flouting convention and challenging taboos. Only since that time has fashion photography drawn wider audiences, allowing for the popularity of photo books and exhibitions on the subject – made all the more attractive by the participation of seminal photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, William Klein, or Helmut Newton, with their fresh interpretations of the genre.

Newton’s fashion and product photography often took the form of photographic sequences. During these later years, Newton shot for the German, American, Italian, French, and Russian editions of Vogue, primarily in and around Monte Carlo where he was living from 1981 onwards. One location was the garage of his own apartment building in Monaco, with models and parked cars arranged in visual dialogue. Newton transformed banal locations into starkly contrasting or particularly minimalist theatrical stages for his unconventional scenarios. The exclusive and eccentric lives of the beautiful and rich, full of erotic and culinary debauchery, is a recurring theme in Newton’s work. He made use of and simultaneously questioned visual clichés, at times tinged with self-irony or mockery, but always full of empathy. Pushing, transgressing, and tearing-down boundaries are among the photographer’s trademarks. Newton combined nudity and fashion subtly and with a sense of timeless elegance. In doing so, his work is both a documentation of and commentary on the shifting role of women in Western society.

Helmut Newton often clearly depicted the locations in his fashion and nude photographs, with settings as stylized as his models – be it a panoramic view of the city of Paris, the long staircase in his Parisian studio apartment, or a room at the notorious Pension Florian in Berlin. Newton began photographing nudes in the 1970s, both independently and incorporated into his fashion photography, and regularly worked in this genre until his death in 2004. His series Naked and Dressed, which marks the transition from fashion to nudes in his work, and his Big Nudes made him world-famous, inspiring countless photographers and other visual artists to imitate or re-interpret them. Newton worked until the end of his life to create an oeuvre that is both unparalleled and enigmatic, also with his nudes, where he challenged or disregarded many common taboos. His nude work was published throughout his lifetime, commissioned in part by magazines such as Playboy or Oui. Newton also succeeded in having some of his independent work printed in fashion and lifestyle magazines. Here we see nudes at swimming pools, ingenious shots of unclothed mannequins and other fashion-focused nudes, half-dressed models wearing orthopedic prostheses, and provocative stagings of sexual obsession by a female cast. Together, these images open up a realm of associations where our imagination can wander.

In 2003, Helmut Newton decided to establish a foundation in his native city of Berlin, Germany, in a public-private partnership with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. This happened 65 years after Newton boarded a train at Berlin’s Zoo railway station to flee the Nazis. He would later return on occasion, commissioned as a photographer by renowned magazines.

Three years following his successful retrospective at the New National Gallery in Berlin in 2000, Newton was offered various buildings to house his foundation; his personal preference lay with the former military casino in Jebensstrasse located just next to the Zoo station. In just a few months, a floor of the building was converted, fashioning a museum-like space with a mixture of Prussian austerity and modern elegance. After completing the plans for the foundation with his wife and the architects, Helmut Newton died unexpectedly on January 23, 2004 in Los Angeles before he could witness its completion.

The Helmut Newton Foundation is dedicated to the preservation, examination, and presentation of the photographic oeuvre of its founder as well as that of his wife June, who has created a significant own body of work since 1970 under the name Alice Springs.

From the very beginning, the foundation’s exhibitions have all received great response from the public as well as from the press. Other photographers have a forum here as well, according to the wishes of its benefactor. The first was Vera von Lehndorff, whose “directed self-portraits” were showcased in 2006. Also known as Veruschka, she was one of the most widely published top international fashion models of the 1960s. Other photographers invited to be presented alongside Helmut Newton include David LaChapelle, James Nachtwey, Ralph Gibson, Larry Clark, Frank Horvat, Paolo Roversi, Sarah Moon, Guy Bourdin, Mario Testino, David Lynch, Vanessa Beecroft, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Longo, Inez & Vinoodh, Viviane Sassen, Saul Leiter, Sheila Metzner, Evelyn Hofer, and Joel Meyerowitz.

At the Helmut Newton Foundation, the provocative and iconic images of this great photographer enter into dialogue with the work of other prominent photographers time and again. Helmut Newton’s wish to establish a “lively building, not a dead museum” has indeed been created, keeping with the vision of its founder.

Image: Helmut Newton, Andy Warhol, Paris, 1976, copyright Helmut Newton Estate, courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation