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Helmut Newton Interview

Helmut Newton, master of beauty and fashion photography, has a style all his own.

Helmut Newton's photographs are characterized by an atmosphere and style which immediately identify his work. German by origin, Australian by necessity, and French by choice, this uncontested master of fashion and beauty photography has provided Vogue, Lui, Playboy, Marie Claire, and Nova with photographs that are celebrations of imagination and spirit, sparkling with eroticism and provocative sensuality. A lover of the demimonde, of the artificial and the superficial, Helmut Newton is uncompromising; He understands himself completely. He is a rare example of that perfect accord between fantasy and photography, that total dedication that is absolutely necessary for creation. In this interview, originally published in the 1976 April/May issue of Penthouse Photo World, Newton clarifies, in abrupt terms, his artistic stance.

Penthouse: You seem to have reached your peak in the last two years, and your growing reputation appears to confirm this. Is there an explanation?

Helmut Newton: Yes! A coronary thrombosis on December 12, 1971. I was walking on Park Avenue in New York when I suddenly fell. When I woke up in the hospital, I was half-paralyzed, incapable of speaking or writing. It's unnecessary to say that when one emerges alive from such an experience, one makes certain strong resolutions. I radically changed my way of living and working, down to the smallest details. I once smoked 50 cigarettes a day, but I haven't touched one since. I had been acting, considering my age, like an unthinking young man. stopped all follies. For example, in September, 1971, three months before my illness, I photographed the fashion collections in Rome. I love that city. Twice a year, all the fashion photographers of the world meet there and have a great time, day and night. The result was that in six days I slept 10 hours, and the following week started all over again with the Paris collections. When I left the hospital, I rethought everything. The unnecessary work and the frantic competition are finished! Today I only take pictures for money or for pleasure. Outside these two considerations is the point where I say good-bye.

Is it to the coronary that we should ascribe the changes in your photographic inspiration, notably the blossoming of violent and provocative eroticism?

I think so, yes. In the hospital, for the first time, I took pictures for myself. During my convalescence I acquired a small electronic, automatic camera. I took pictures of everything: the visitors, the nurses, the doctors. Perhaps it was to distract me from my illness. Never before had I taken pictures for myself. Marvelous trips had been taken, sublime models had been met, but nothing was left, not the smallest photograph as a record of it all. When, after 10 days of reserved diagnosis, the doctor told me that I would live but I would have to be prudent, I promised myself to take all the pictures that I felt like taking. The year after my coronary, I gave up fashion and did nudes, nothing but nudes. But very quickly this became even more boring than clothes. I came back to fashion with enthusiasm, having nevertheless acquired new experience with the nude. For myself, then, I began to make what I call erotic portraits. They are nudes or semi-nudes, always in black and white. Most of the models I asked to pose for me accepted. They have confidence. They know that I won't show anything horrible. I don't mean pornographic. Pornography can be very beautiful. The works of Allen Jones bathe in pornography, and yet they are admirable. The discrimination between eroticism and pornography exasperates me. This makes me think of the opposition between good and bad taste. I hate good taste. It suffocates everything. No! When I speak of something horrible, I mean offense and disrespect toward the subject that is being photographed. 

What did this year of introspection, spent taking photographs of nudes, bring you?

A new vision, a larger experience. It is impossible to create the same images continuously, just as it is deadly to work for only one magazine. Today I get bored very quickly. My photographs must amuse me while I'm taking them. Fashion for me is not an illustration but an idea around which to create a scene. True fashion, high fashion, is dead with two exceptions: Mme. Grès and Saint Laurent. From now on I will not do the collections. Working straight through six nights from one to seven in the morning, just to photograph four ugly dresses that are unwearable—no thank you! I have better things to do today. The ready-to-wear is more fun, more inspired than the so-called high fashion.

To get back to my experience with the nude, I think that I've learned to integrate it into my fashion image. I don't photograph seventeen-year-old girls with superb bodies. I photograph young women of thirty, whose bodies are sometimes imperfect but who have interesting faces. For me, eroticism is in the face, not in the genitals. It's an old cliché to affirm that eroticism is the contrary of the total nude, and yet it is so true.

You always photograph the same kind of girl, the "society girl" type, ambiguous and perverse.

For me, a wealthy woman is more erotic than a beautician or a secretary. None of these words is meant as an insult but rather as a statement. Class, elegance, education, sociological environment are the factors that I believe in. Sometimes I feel guilty, but that's the way it is. A wealthy woman is naturally sexy. I hate it when everything is put in the window. It looks cheap. On the contrary, I adore it when you have to go and search inside. I like to suggest the idea that the women I show are available. They are real. Their availability depends simply on the time and the money that one wants to invest.

Then you put your own fantasies into your photos?

Exactly. For Lui magazine, I did a series of photos that show a woman taking a walk in a fur coat with nothing on underneath. She appears in places as diverse as the subway, an art gallery, the Ile Saint-Louis, a car on the Champs Elysées. I know where these images come from. When I was fourteen years old, I read a book by Arthur Schitler called Fraulein Else. It's the story of a banker who has gone bankrupt. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter who is very beautiful. A man proposes that the girl— if she wishes to save her father—come down into the lobby of a hotel, naked under her fur coat. She hesitates but then decides to do it. So she comes out of her room and walks around the man while opening her coat. The man doesn't touch her, but he saves her father.

I adore this story. It was written in 1910 and was madly audacious for the era. That is where my images come from. The series of photos of the nude in the fur coat was very difficult to do. You can't photograph in the subway without authorization, and I think that for this kind of photo the subway management wouldn't have even deigned to answer. I also wanted to shoot on the tourist boats on the Seine. When I told the public relations man for the company, he almost fainted. So I did it all clandestinely. We began the series in a sumptuous car with chauffeur, parked on the corner of rue de Berri and the Champs-Elysées, on a Thursday at 1 PM. The girl was naked, and her clothing consisted only of a veil. The strollers were dazed.

You like to shock, and there is sometimes an element of vulgarity in your images.

An element? But you are modest! My photos are stamped with vulgarity! Creation comes from bad taste and vulgarity. In 1957, when I worked in Europe for the first time, for the English Vogue, the editor gave me a list of things to avoid that was as long as my arm. There wasn't a photo possible anymore. At another magazine, for which I continue to work today, there are two editors who have the same attitude. They become more virtuous with every mad ingenuity. They do it by finding accessories—scarf, chic handbag, flat heels, ample clothing—that hide the body and drive me raving mad. They systematically choose everything that a normal man finds anti-sexual. Would I make love with a girl dressed like that? That's the first question that I ask myself when I do fashion photographs. These two editors don't understand that. Because their mothers were that way, they perpetuate the tradition. Good taste is anti-fashion, anti-photo, anti-female, and anti-erotic! Vulgarity is life, amusement, desire, extreme reactions! 

Nevertheless, you're extremely distant in your voyeurism, face-to-face with the model.

Yes. Voyeurism in photography is a necessary professional evil. To look, to capture, to observe, to aim—these are the laws of our milieu. The world is totally different the way see it, with my eyes in the viewfinder. I always maintain some distance in relation to what I see in my camera. It serves as a screen.

You use a lot of swimming pools and hotel rooms as sets.

Because I'm lazy. When I travel, I hate to look for a setting. I never go beyond two or three kilometers from the hotel. Furthermore, I like hotels. That's another fantasy from my childhood. I love all hotels—from sumptuous, old, palatial hotels like the Ritz to modern, depressing, cold buildings. A hotel is practical. It costs less to rent an entire floor of a hotel than to rent a studio. I've even photographed in a real "hotel de passe." The proprietor was reticent. He wasn't looking for any publicity. Finally, he gave in. He gave me a room on a day when there was very little business, a Sunday, of course. The second time, when he saw me come with the model, my assistant, the beautician, and her assistant, he exclaimed, "Are you here for an orgy or to take a photograph?"

How do you work out your photographs?

In a schoolboy's notebook in which I write everything that interests me. It is divided into three headings: ideas, girls, places. If I don't write it down, I forget it. All these notes slumber, evolve, take form. This summer, on a beach at Saint-Tropez, I saw two boys and a girl who lived together happily. The perfect ménage à trois. I recently picked up on this image for a fashion series that appeared in the Italian issue of Vogue.

What was your childhood like?

I was born much more than 40 years ago in Berlin to a respectable, upper middle-class family. I had a childhood without problems and adored my parents. When I was twelve, my father bought me my first camera. I took my first seven pictures in the subway. Naturally you couldn't see anything. The eighth is a picture of the radio tower in Berlin.

My grades, in school, were deplorable, I was a dunce. Since my classes ended at 1 PM when I was fourteen years old, I got a job as an assistant to a photographer without telling my parents. This lasted for six months. My school grades became worse and worse; So, finally my father confiscated all my cameras and confined me to the house. By the time I was sixteen, my parents no longer had any hope.

I became an apprentice for a portrait photographer who was famous then. His name was Yva. I always wanted to become a photographer. When I was thirteen years old, imagined myself in a trench coat, running all over the world with creatures dreams are made of on my arm. At fourteen I took pictures of my childhood girl friends in the streets, dressed in my mother's dresses and hats. It was then that I swore to myself that I would later become a fashion photographer at Vogue. With Yva, learned to use large format cameras, 8x10s. Yva had a particularly marvelous color camera using glass plates. It was an enormous thing made of mahogany, which was very heavy and needed a pose time of one second in the noonday sun. Then, at eighteen, left Germany for Australia. 

Why?

Well, because I am a Jew, and at that time, in Hitler's Germany, it was something that was rather looked down upon. The Gestapo erupted one day in 1938. They came to my home and arrested my father. Warned by my mother, I hid for two weeks at a friend's house in Berlin. Then I left. I went to Italy, then from Trieste, I left for Singapore, and then I left again, this time, finally, for Melbourne. I spent the five years of World War II in the Australian army. If, one day, you are forced to fight, fight with the Australian army. Everything is more relaxed, more humane than elsewhere.

I began my military service as a chauffeur for the Officers. Then I was a truck driver and, finally, a photographer. When I did my first cover for a magazine called The Australian Post, I ran around to all the newspaper stands, with tears in my eyes, to look at it. But it was impossible to live off fashion photography in Australia. So, in order to eat and to survive, I did weddings. I absolutely detested it. My colleagues opened my competitor's cameras and ruined the film. It was an outrageous period.

It was at that time that met June, who was a theatrical actress. I was then working with an 8x10 camera with glass plates. The shutter was like a blind that you opened by pulling on a string. Because of retouching, you could only use the large format. Even the 120 of the Rollei was considered too small.

From 1954 to 1957 I worked for the English Vogue in London. I was never able to adapt myself. London is a city that I hate. It wasn't yet the era of the "Swinging 60s." My pictures were horribly bad. One day in 1958, I left for Paris with my book under my arm. I went to see Jacques Moutin, the art director of Jardin des Modes. At that time it was the best French fashion magazine. Frank Horvat, Jeanloup Sieff, Marc Hispard, and Jerome Ducrot collaborated on the magazine. Moutin saw me and said, "If you move to Paris, I'll give you work." It was a dream Come true!

June and I installed ourselves in the best room of the Hotel Boissy d'Anglas. It cost us 17 francs a day at that time. Moutin had only one fault. He never decided immediately to whom he would give an assignment. He hesitated. June and I spent hours across the street from Jardin des Modes, in a pastry shop in the rue Saint-Florentin, with a coffee and half a croissant in front of us. I paced the floor continuously. What did it matter! It was marvelous. The day I arrived in Paris, it was love at first sight. I knew that I would live in this city. In a week, I could get around Paris with my eyes covered. But by the end of a year, I had no more money. I was hardly working. The editorial pages of fashion magazines paid badly, and my photographs were not good. I returned to Australia, where I signed a marvelous contract and earned a lot of money. In 1961, the contract over, June and I sold everything and came back to Paris to install ourselves permanently. I began to work at the French Vogue, then at Elle, where Roman Sieclewicz was the art director.

A first try at working with the American Vogue failed. The editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, had a very personal conception of what fashion photography should be. The women had to be exotic, baroque, and unbelievable—the opposite of everything I liked. I think that a woman dressed by Diana Vreeland couldn't go out into the street without provoking an immediate demonstration. When she left Vogue, I began to work for them again, with more success. My relations are good with Alex Liberman, the art director and boss of Condé-Nast. He always chooses my best photos.

Technically, you're interested in everything. Is there any camera that you haven't tried?

Yes, I look, I try, experiment, but it's a common practice. The selection of cameras for amateurs is larger than the one for professionals. So why wouldn't I be interested in it? The miniaturization of camera bodies and strobes can be very helpful. My equipment is composed of four bodies, five lenses, a Strobe, and a Polaroid, all of which fit into one bag that weighs less than 40 pounds. That allows me to take pictures anywhere, no matter what the conditions. 

What was your technical development?

I began with a 4x5 Graflex Super D. Then I used a Rolleiflex. I don't like the Hasselblad, because it's too heavy and too noisy. After that I successively used the Nikon (in 1962, at Frank Horvat's suggestion), the Konica, the Olympus, and the Instamatic. Today, my choice is definitively the Nikon and the Pentax. Recently tried a Leica CL. It's a marvelous camera, but I can't use it. I don't feel my images through its viewfinder. It took me a long time to get used to 35mm. The Rolleiflex, which is worn on the stomach compared to the Nikon at eye level, presents a very completely different perspective.

You use Kodachrome II?

Yes, but the emulsion lacks sensitivity. It's still too slow. Sometimes I use Ektachrome X but only under special conditions.

Which lens do you prefer?

The longest possible, but one that still allows me to maintain contact with the subject I am photographing. When I photograph in a hotel or a studio, I am always up against the wall. I don't like the studio. I hate walls, and I'm not at ease except outdoors.

How are you evolving as far as images are concerned?

Toward simplicity. I would like to continue in the same vein—portraits of the worldly mixed with the erotic.

Last week, a lady from women's liberation, who wasn't stupid at all, attacked me in a restaurant with a rare violence. "Reactionary sexist," she screamed at me. I laughed like a nut. I had no answer for her. What she thought left me indifferent, and I'm not going to change for women's liberation. I photograph the world I love. I know the world without money, and it doesn't interest me. I prefer photographing the rich rather than the poor. They are funnier, perhaps without knowing it, sometimes ridiculous, often beautiful. It's too easy to photograph the poor.

Which photographers have impressed you most?

Penn, Avedon, Baron de Meyer, Steichen, Honeighen Hune, William Klein, Weege, Sander, Brassaï, Lartigue.

There are a number of young photographers who are "doing Newton." What do you think of it?

It amuses me enormously, and I'm rather happy about it. One must always, in the beginning, attach oneself to a person one likes. I did the same thing when I was young. We all copy at some moment or another in our lives. It's enough at first, but then you must get out and follow your own path.

What do you detest most in photography?

Dishonesty, a bad image made in the name of an artistic principle, the fuzzy, the grainy, bad technique.

What suggestions would you give to a young person who wanted to become a photographer?

Ideally, to be the assistant to the photographer of his choice. But out of 10,000, very few can succeed. I think someone young should go into a big commercial studio to familiarize himself and learn the basics of technique. In the moments when he is free, he must take photographs. When you want to be a photographer, you must live only for that.

Would you like to teach?

Yes, it would be fascinating. Jeanloup Sieff, Peter Knapp, and I have thought about a project that we would like to do some day. It might be in the form of limited classes that would be conducted like real shootings. Perhaps some day.

Recommended Helmut Newton Photography Books

Helmut Newton's work has been commemorated by many over the decades. With work spanning Vogue, Lui, Playboy, Marie Claire, and Nova, it would take years to properly view and appreciate all of Newton's photographs. To narrow down the selection, we present our picks for Helmut Newton photography books. 

Mrs. Newton by June Newton & Helmut Newton

Mrs. Newton takes the reader on the extraordinary journey of June Newton, via the photographs of her husband Helmut Newton, from her childhood in Australia to her life in LA and Monaco. The photographs of Mrs. Newton, originally published under the name Alice Springs, are a mix of personal snapshots and professional portraits of figures including Yves Saint Laurent, Gore Vidal, Balthus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Brassai, Nicole Kidman, and Angelica Houston. These photos illustrate the story of her life, alongside previously unpublished diary extract and writings. 

Helmut Newton: Pola Woman by Helmut Newton & June Newton

A Polaroid is to the photographer as a sketch is for the painter. It is the first formulation of a concept. The raw material of the imagination. Helmut Newton: Pola Woman includes a selection of Newton's Polaroids, and this was the first time that the master let people look directly over his shoulder. The raw material possesses its own charm, giving viewers insight into the intense process of photographing erotic fantasies.

Helmut Newton: Pages from the Glossies by Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton always expressed the belief that the printed page was the most important factor to his work. Pages from the Glossies displays the most eminent and interesting examples of Newton's magazine work through facsimilies of over 500 spreads. Including works from Elle, Amica, and Vogue, the volume explores Newton's ongoing ability to break boundaries. Each image is accompanied by personal anecdotes from Newton himself, discussing his inspiration and the informal moments behind his most memorable images. 

Helmut Newton: Polaroids by Helmut Newton

Polaroids hold their own special place in the world of photography, especially in the midst of the development of digital techniques. The images beguile realness unlike any other photographic medium. Newton utilized Polaroids to test lighting and composition before shoots but, unlike many of his counterparts, held onto these tests. His widow June Newton has now assembled these photos into Helmut Newton: Polaroids. Comparable to the preparatory sketches to masterpiece paintings, these Polaroids offer incredible insight into Newton's creative process. 

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