Helmut Newton —
One of 20th century's most iconoclastic fashion photographers, Helmut Newton was an outsized personality known for his highly stylized, often erotic images. From his boldly subversive fashion stories to his avant-garde celebrity portraits, Newton was considered revolutionary but his approach has transformed the genre and is now solidly part of fashion photography’s vernacular.
Born in Weimar-era Berlin to a bourgeois Jewish family, Newton (née Neustädter) was forced to flee Germany when he was 18 to avoid Nazi persecution. He made his way to Singapore where he caroused around the British colony before moving to Australia and setting up his first a photo studio in Melbourne. Newton’s restlessness and ambition drew him back to Europe in the late 1950s where his star quickly rose through partnerships with Vogue, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chanel.
German drama and expressionism clearly influenced Newton’s work and career. He stretched the boundaries of what fashion looked like and made headlines by introducing sadomasochism to the pages of mainstream magazines. For years, he was considered photography’s “enfant terrible” based on his shocking images of women outfitted in fetish wear. Newton’s black-and-white, over-the-top photographs ranged from a long-legged model being swallowed whole by an alligator to nude women wearing nothing but a dog collar, lace lingerie, or thigh-high boots.
With a rich catalogue of transgressive, boundary-pushing work, Newton was an art-world rebel whose imagery might be considered politically incorrect today. His defiant work raised questions about female empowerment and his photos consistently provoked feminists who felt the sadomasochistic acts and explicit nudity objectified and exploited his subjects.
Yet to view Newton’s work is to understand how deeply his photography reverberated through the worlds of fashion, art, and film. Newton’s notorious style influenced such directors as Stanley Kubrick, Brian de Palma and Roman Polanski.
Among the models most associated with Newton are Nadja Auerman, Cindy Crawford (who he began photographing when she was still a teen), Grace Jones, Lisa Taylor and actress Charlotte Rampling, all of whom said they adored him.
Newton died January 23, 2004 after losing control of his car on Sunset Blvd while exiting the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood where he lived during the winters. He was 83.
Today, Newton’s photographs are in the permanent collections of major museums throughout the world, and numerous gallery shows have been devoted to his work.