Collecting guide: 10 things to know about Helmut Newton
The German artist’s controversial sexualised imagery subverted the conventions of fashion photography — and made him one of the most important photographers of the 20th century
1. He described himself as a ‘dreadful sissy’
Helmut Newton (1920-2004) was born Helmut Neustädter in Berlin, Germany, in 1920 to prosperous Jewish parents. He described himself growing up as ‘a dreadful sissy’ who was ‘scared of everything and everybody’, and claimed to be only interested in women, swimming and photography.
Newton got his first camera at the age of 12. He took his first seven pictures in a subway, which, he later admitted, all came out too dark. The eighth was of the radio tower in Berlin. By the time he was 14, he was working as a photographer’s assistant and frequently skipping school to photograph childhood girlfriends in the streets wearing his mother’s clothes. It was then, he later recalled, that he realised he wanted to become a fashion photographer at Vogue.
At first, Newton’s father did not encourage his son’s interest in photography. At the age of 16, however, it was clear that Newton would not be joining the family-run button factory, and he was apprenticed to the portrait, nude and fashion photographer Else Neuländer Simon, better known as Yva.
Under the German-Jewish photographer, Newton learned to master large-format cameras — 8x10s. After Newton left Berlin, Yva was deported to a Nazi concentration camp and murdered. Newton did what he could to keep her memory alive, describing her as ‘a great photographer and an exciting woman’.
2. He arrived at Paris Vogue via Singapore, Australia and London
In 1938, with Jews facing increasing hostility in Germany, Newton’s parents moved to South America, while Helmut set sail for China, disembarking en route in Singapore. There he worked briefly for The Straits Times, before leaving for Melbourne in 1940.
In Australia, Newton served five years with the Australian army and met his wife June Brunell, also a photographer, who later took up the name Alice Springs. From Australia, the couple moved to London for a short period, before in 1961 settling in the fashionable Marais district of Paris.
3. Newton ‘subverted the traditional conventions of fashion photography’
It was during his 25-year collaboration with Paris Vogue that Newton firmly established his international reputation and defined his signature style: highly stylised and erotically charged black-and-white photographs that embraced elements of glamour, fashion, erotica, portraiture and documentary, while flirting with provocative themes such as voyeurism.
With his controversial scenarios, hyper-sexualised imagery and models who combined beauty, eroticism and strength, ‘Newton subverted the traditional conventions of fashion photography’, explains Christie’s specialist Jude Quinn. ‘In doing so, he earned himself a reputation as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.’
Among Newton’s roster of iconic images for French Vogue is the 1975 campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedo nicknamed ‘Le Smoking’, which depicts an androgynous woman with slicked-back hair in a dimly lit Parisian alley. ‘This was a fashion picture that, in the undressed version, becomes a quintessentially Newton picture,’ says Quinn.
For the ‘X-ray’ series for Van Cleef & Arpels, Newton led a string of models to a radiologist to see ‘what was going on under all the flesh’. He also wanted to see how $3 million worth of diamonds looked under X-ray — the diamonds, he discovered, disappeared completely, leaving only the metal settings.
During the 1980s, Newton completed his now internationally renowned ‘Naked & Dressed’ series, which he later described as the most technically difficult series of pictures he ever produced.
Newton is also revered for his use of recurring motifs, including mannequins, monocles, mirrors, doors and pools. When asked what people he liked to photograph, he replied: ‘Those I love, those I admire and those I hate.’
4. A brush with death led him to ‘nudes, nothing but nudes’
Newton suffered a heart attack in New York in December 1971. This brush with death would greatly influence his approach to photography. ‘When I left the hospital, I rethought everything,’ he revealed in Filthy magazine in 1976. ‘The unnecessary work and the frantic competition are finished! Today, I only take pictures for money or pleasure.’
Newton gave up fashion a year later to photograph ‘nudes, nothing but nudes’, but quickly found this became ‘even more boring than clothes’. He returned to fashion with a renewed enthusiasm, integrating his newfound experience of the nude into his campaign work.
It was also around that time that he embarked on his black-and-white series of nudes, or semi-nudes, known as his ‘Erotic Portraits’. ‘They have confidence,’ Newton said of the models in the series. ‘They know that I won’t show anything horrible.’
5. Time magazine dubbed him ‘The King of Kink’
In the early 1970s Newton started working for Playboy — a collaboration that would last for around 30 years. Among his most famous sitters for the magazine was Charlotte Rampling. In 1973 Newton photographed the actress, who would later become his muse, nude on a dining table in Arles, a glass of wine in hand.
‘This image is a great example of not only Newton’s fascination with hotel rooms, but also his interest in creating a sense of “reportage” in his work,’ remarks Quinn. ‘Was Charlotte Rampling asked to undress or is he capturing a private moment?’
The photographer’s erotically charged images for Playboy, Oui and Lui magazines, among others, as well as the publication of his erotic photobook White Women, earned him the title of ‘The King of Kink’. Newton later acknowledged that many of the erotic fantasies he explored in his photography were his own.
6. Newton’s women were strong, liberated and dominating
Newton frequently positioned the sexualised female body at the heart of his work, but regarded the naked female form as a symbol of a woman’s strength, control and power.
According to Françoise Marquet, author of Helmut Newton: Work (Taschen, 2001), ‘He visualized women who take the lead rather than follow it; women who love and desire whenever and whomever they like, and whatever way they like; women full of health and vigour, enjoying the resplendence and vitality of their sinewy bodies, bodies over which they themselves have sole command.’
7. Apart from the ‘Big Nudes’ series, he preferred to shoot on location
Newton was a great admirer of the French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï (1899-1984), best known for his documentary-style street photography in 1920s Berlin and Paris. He was also a fan of the photo-journalistic work of German-born news photographer Erich Salomon (1886-1944).
In the same vein, Newton rarely worked in a studio, preferring instead to shoot on location: hotels, pools and streets were among his favourite sets. His ‘Big Nudes’ series from the 1980s, however, is a rare but brilliant example of his studio work, inspired by German police identity photographs of the Baader-Meinhof militant organisation.
A unique photograph from the series, ‘Big Nude III’ (Variation), Paris, sold for $2.3 million in May 2022, the highest price ever paid for a photograph by Newton.
8. Newton had a minimalist approach to equipment
Over the course of his five-decade career, Newton experimented with a variety of cameras, including a 4x5 Graflex Super D, a Rolleiflex, and the Instamatic. Despite this, he nearly always opted for the longest lens possible.
What’s particularly striking about Newton’s practice, though, is his minimalist approach to the medium. The photographer once revealed that his equipment was composed of just ‘four bodies, five lenses, a Strobe, and a Polaroid, all of which could fit into one bag that weighed less than 40 pounds’. This, he said, allowed him to take pictures anywhere.
9. Recognition, retrospectives and legacy
Over his prolific career, Newton worked extensively for American, Italian, German and French Vogue, shooting 64 covers for the latter, as well as for Marie Claire, Elle and Queen. He photographed a wealth of celebrities, as well as politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
During his lifetime, his contributions to art and photography were widely recognised: he was awarded the French Grand Prix National de la Photographie in 1990 and a commendation to the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 1996, among other honours.
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In 2000, to celebrate Newton’s 80th birthday, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin staged a major retrospective of his work, which later toured the world. Three years later, the Helmut Newton Foundation was established, but Newton would not live to see the opening. In January 2004 he died, aged 83, from injuries sustained in a car accident on leaving the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles.
10. The market for Helmut Newton’s work
‘The market for Helmut Newton has gone from strength to strength’, says Quinn. ‘Of his top 10 sales at auction, most have been made in the past decade.’ The large format of the ‘The Big Nudes’ makes it one of his most highly sought-after series.
Newton produced little colour work, often adding a blue light to avoid warm tones. His preference was to produce colour unconsciously, without knowing there was colour film in the camera. ‘These prints are exceptionally rare at auction and command high prices when they do come to market,’ states Quinn.
And new collectors? They should look to Newton’s Polaroids, often taken on set to check the lighting for commercial projects. ‘They may be the only print of that image,’ explains the specialist, ‘and prices can start from as little as $6,000.’
Newton, Riviera, an exhibition in collaboration with the Helmut Newton Foundation, runs until 13 November 2022 at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco’s Villa Sauber