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Helmut Newton: Provocateur with a Camera

Helmut Newton's sizzling images of gorgeous, nude women pushed Buttons and spoke to society's fixation on beauty and glamour. Today, they fetch huge sums at auctions.
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

Few artists have bars named after them, let alone a museum dedicated to their legacy. Photographer Helmut Newton has both, as evidenced by the Newton Bar in Berlin where you can sip a cocktail or espresso in leather club chairs with a dramatic backdrop of his celebrated "Big Nudes" covering a wall of the popular watering hole. Across town stands the four-year-old Helmut Newton Foundation, housed in an ornate building that was formerly reserved for army officers during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It houses thousands of the famed photographer's works as well as archived troves of Warhol-like memorabilia, including a re-creation of Newton's Monte Carlo office.

Newton was among only a scant handful of commercial photographers who were able to vault from the magazine page to the gallery and museum wall. The list of those achieving that distinction includes the American fashion and portraiture stars Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. But if you add the caveat of sizzling auction prices garnered for these twentieth-century masters, the list grows even more exclusive.

Roaming around that exclusive pantheon is Newton, the Berlin-born fashion photographer, who after an idyllic and decidedly spoiled childhood as Helmut Neustädter, the son of a rich button manufacturer, barely escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager and spent lean years living in Singapore and Australia before establishing his astonishing career in the early 1960s.

In his 2002 autobiography, Newton described why he was so enamored with the medium: "The beauty of photography is that it's comparatively cheap to produce, can be done quickly with the minimum of personnel and equipment, and if you screw up one job there is always another one that might work out—also, one does not have to get up early in the morning."

Ironically, that laconic and even self-deprecating philosophy helped make him a superstar and the subject of gallery and museum exhibitions around the world. "He had a kind of cult status beyond the art world," says Simon de Pury, the head of the New York/London auction house Phillips de Pury & Company and the co-owner of the Zurich gallery de Pury & Luxembourg, which represents the Newton estate. "Every time we had an opening of one of his exhibitions, they were mob scenes. None of these other photographers had this kind of star status beyond the photography community."

Even his death was remarkable and legend building, with Newton going out James Dean—style in 2004, crashing his Cadillac Escalade SUV into a break wall adjacent to the trendy Hollywood hotel, Chateau Marmont, after suffering a heart attack at the wheel. He was 83 and until that moment had remained phenomenally productive.

Newton and his actress-turned-photographer wife, June, aka Alice Springs, had wintered and worked at the Chateau Marmont for years, taking a seasonal break from their sumptuous digs in Monte Carlo where Newton had lived since 1981 after a long stint in Paris, exactingly churning out a gigantic oeuvre of unforgettable images for the American, British, French and Italian editions of Vogue magazine as well as other storied fashion publications and Vanity Fair.

"He never left anything to chance," recalls his widow, June Newton. "He might have used chance, but he never relied on it. Sudden changes of weather challenged him—he adapted, changed plans, he used the elements and never quit a job because of bad weather, and no one ever left the set until he got what he wanted. Work was his mistress."

Newton's sizzling and sexy images set against startling interiors or stunning outdoor backdrops in Berlin, Paris and New York not only advertised haute couture, lots of lingerie and less exclusive off-the-rack fashions, but established an unmistakable and much copied look that brilliantly captured the popular culture. "If you open any Vogue magazine," says Zurich dealer Andrea Caratsch, who represents the Newton estate with fellow dealer de Pury & Luxembourg, "or follow the press campaigns of Dolce & Gabbana, they all sell sex. He was the pioneer of that."

Newton was especially keen on photographing his subjects at night on the cobblestoned streets he knew so well, preferring a plain 500-watt photo floodlight and unadorned camera over more high-tech strobe lights and motor drives. He turned the scenes into movie-like vignettes, injecting his quirky brand of humor and sense of danger into the settings, going so far as using elaborately rigged mannequins precariously perched on a bridge over the Seine, as if voyeuristically capturing the moment of a suicide.

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