By Kelly A. | Contributing Writer

Few photographers shook the world of fashion photography more violently than the work of Helmut Newton. The black and white nude bodies in languid and suggestive poses broke open the boundaries of nudity, sexuality, and taboos in editorial fashion. Though many are familiar with his scintillating art, few know the man behind the lens, whose life was a wild adventure that took him all over the globe practicing the medium that would eventually make him a legend. The inventor of ‘porno chic’ was born to be a photographer, and every step in his life was a building block for the eventual work that would fundamentally change the world of photography.

Helmut Neustädter, who would eventually change his last name to Newton, was born in Berlin, Germany on October 31, 1920. His Jewish family was wealthy at the time of Newton’s birth, but in the coming years their estate would suffer at the hands of the Nazi regime. Newton loved growing up in Berlin. In his autobiography, Newton cites the European city as a source of great inspiration for his later work, “Many of my fashion photographs have been taken in places that remind me of my childhood.” Though he only lived in Berlin until he was a teenager, Newton’s love for his home city never waned.

When looking back on the life of this icon, his path to photography emerges quickly. Newton gained an early preoccupation with the naked female form after stealing his older brother’s copy of a German nude magazine, Das Magazin. He picked up his first camera, an Afga Tengor Box, at the age of twelve and began taking photos of the Berlin Metro. Newton was instantly in love with photography, stating, “When I picked up my film…there were seven blanks and number eight showed a somewhat fuzzy image of the Funkturm. I thought it was a remarkably good shot and knew I was launched on a great career as a photographer.” From that moment on, the world of photography would never be the same.

Being Jewish in Berlin during the early thirties proved to be extremely challenging for the Neustädter family. When his elementary school began separating the Jewish pupils from the Aryan, Newton was transferred to The American School of Berlin. At fourteen Newton already had a very active love life and began an affair with a twenty one year old Aryan girl. When Newton’s father, button factory owner Max Neustädter, found out about the affair he beat Newton for defying the Nuremberg laws and endangering their family.

No matter what else was occurring throughout his life, photography has remained a constant in Newton’s life. As a teenager he began working as an apprentice in Berlin for local photographer, Yva Simon, an experience which he has cited as some of the happiest days of his youth. Simon’s studio did portrait work for dancers and actors. It was in this studio that Newton began honing his craft, learning the basics of photography, including how to print and develop film. Unfortunately, time with Yva Simon was cut short as the situation in Berlin escalated and it became increasingly more unsafe for Jewish citizens to remain in Germany. Newton’s father was taken to a concentration camp briefly, and upon his return, the entire family realized they needed to leave the country immediately. His parents fled to Argentina while Newton left his friends and family to board the ocean liner, Conte Rosso, on a journey to Shanghai. On a stop in Singapore, Newton was given the opportunity to leave the ship and work as a photographer for Singapore’s premiere newspaper, Straits Times, which he gladly accepted.

For a time, Singapore suited Newton, running in the circles of the elite as boy-toy of Josette Fabien, the owner of a successful printing business. Newton had a torrid affair with Fabien as her gigolo for two years. Just as he was feeling ready to move on from life in Singapore, Newton was taken by British authorities to an internment camp in Tatura, the Victoria region of Australia. This was a measure that the British government introduced to deal with refugees in Southeast Asia who had fled Europe during World War II. Newton volunteered to clean latrines in the internment camp because that job only lasted two hours a day, which maximized his free time.

In 1942 Newton was released from internment, and he enlisted in the Australian army as a truck driver. He was discharged in 1946 and gained his citizenship as a British subject, which he happily accepted having fallen in love with Australia. He used this opportunity to change his name from Neustädter to Newton on his paperwork to aid his photography career. After relocating to Melbourne he opened his first fashion photography studio to moderate success.

Newton had spent his life romancing women of all ages across the Eastern hemisphere. But in 1948 he finally settled down and married actress June Browne. Browne was a spunky brunette who would remain his lifelong partner and a collaborator on many of his works. Browne worked in theater under the name ‘June Brunell’, but she also often assisted on Newton’s photo-shoots.

A lifelong goal of Newton’s had always been to shoot for Vogue magazine, a dream that finally came to fruition in 1957. Newton and Browne relocated to London for a one-year contract, but for Newton, London was no Berlin, “I was an unsophisticated guy from the Australian bush who didn’t know what to do. I didn’t understand the English way of life- I wasn’t interested in their way of life.” Newton despised London and the provocative style he had adopted was not appreciated by British Vogue. Before the twelve months were up, Newton broke his contract and headed for Paris.

Newton did work both in Paris and Melbourne from 1959-1961 until returning to Paris full time for a contract with French Vogue. At long last Newton’s career as a photographer finally skyrocketed, and he would continue to work for French Vogue for twenty three years. Paris was an endless source of inspiration for his erotic depictions of the female form, “It was an extraordinary, euphoric time. I realized that certain countries and their women inspired me more than others. France, Germany, and American became my major stimuli. And the most beautiful women in the world were coming to Paris,” Newton wrote in his autobiography. Newton would do anything for the perfect shot, from photographing prostitutes in the middle of the night to hiring a plane that would fly dangerously close to the model’s head for the perfect North By Northwest-inspired editorial. Newton’s erotic black and white photographs were revolutionary; there was nothing else comparable to this sensuous work during it’s time.

The sexually-charged photographs were featured in countless publications, and Newton became a staple among the fashion world.  He published several books during this time, most notably White Women in 1976 and Big Nudes in 1981. His health declined towards the end of the 1970s when he suffered a heart attack.  Although he was less prolific in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his cult status in photography continued to rise. Newton resided both in Los Angeles and Monte Carlo with his wife until he died in a fatal car crash at the Chateau Marmont in 2004. He was 83. The ‘King of Kink’ whose photographs reflect the sexual revolution of his era with a hint of fetishism was, and still remains, unparalleled. After a long life pursuing photography around the world, Newton remains one of the greatest photographers of our time.

Helmut Newton

St. Jean Cap Ferrat, 1978

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

http://www.helmut-newton.com