Helmut Newton: Early Years 

Condé Nast Archive

Explore Helmut Newton’s Early Years in Vogue. By Ivan Shaw

Helmut Newton: Early Work
Fans of the boundary-pushing German photographer Helmut Newton had only a few sketchy facts about him before the publication of his 2002 autobiography, which came out two years before his death. It revealed his origins and the start of his career: Newton was born to a wealthy family in Berlin in 1920, escaped the Holocaust via a boat to China in 1938, ended up in Melbourne, Australia, where he started his career by setting up a small portrait studio and met and married June Browne (aka Alice Springs).
Melbourne - London - Paris
How Newton got from Melbourne to London and then Paris, and then on to New York and Los Angeles, was not entirely clear before, and one always felt that Newton, with his quirky sense of humor, sort of liked it that way. Thankfully, the book details his earliest interactions with Vogue, in particular his interactions with its dramatic editor in chief at the time, Diana Vreeland, and its editorial director, Alexander Liberman.  

Newton and Vreeland

“Mr. Newton, I would like you to come to New York, bring a beautiful girl with you, and work for the magazine,” Vreeland told him over the phone in 1965. Though this invitation seemed to have all the hallmarks of opportunity, things didn’t turn out the way the photographer expected.

From the start, Vreeland and Newton didn’t see eye to eye. “Mrs. Vreeland’s vision was one of fantasia, Moroccan extravaganzas, rouged heels — yes! — and dreams of exotica,” he wrote. “Mine was a highly sexual woman, in all respects Western, whose native habitat was Paris, Milan, and maybe New York.” The two were at opposite poles, resulting in work that the photographer deemed “miserable and unmemorable.”

"Thank you, but I’d rather not"
The same could be said of Newton’s mood, and after numerous attempts at doing the kind of story Vogue expected, he finally decided to call it quits. When Vreeland wrote Newton in 1967, asking him to come to New York to photograph the spring collections, he replied, “Thank you, but I’d rather not.” He chose instead to entrench himself in Paris, where he created work as sophisticated and edgy as the city itself, exposing some of the darkness hidden in the City of Light. He captured fearless and liberated females who, somewhat in the tradition that celebrated fin de siècle demimondaines, seemed to live for pleasure.

1971: New York

By 1971 things had changed at Vogue; with Vreeland’s departure, the era of far-flung fantasy was over. Shortly after Grace Mirabella succeeded Vreeland, Newton received a telephone call from Liberman, who had started at the magazine as an art director and became Condé Nast’s editorial director. “Helmut,” Liberman said, “I want you to come to New York and do forty-five pages for American Vogue in the same spirit as you have been working for French Vogue for the last nine years.”

Liberman understood that for Newton to be successful, he needed to let Newton be Newton and not hold him back. Simple as it was, it was a magic formula that gave Newton the freedom to create some of the most striking and challenging work published in the magazine.

Hawaii — Adventures in Sundressing

From this period came some of Newton’s most iconic stories done with the legendary Vogue fashion director Polly Mellen. For the December 1974 issue, Newton and Mellen went to the Pacific island of Maui to shoot “Hawaii — Adventures in Sundressing.”

Newton posed soon-to-be supermodel Cheryl Tiegs with soon-to-be Hollywood star Rene Russo dancing to the sounds of a phonograph on the edge of Haleakala crater. The lesbian overtones in the picture were scandalous for the time, and readers’ reactions ran the gamut from praise to canceled subscriptions.

Exercise Out
Newton and Mellen pursued the topic again in the January 1975 issue, with a single picture for a beauty article titled “Exercise Out.” This time it was models Lisa Taylor and Jerry Hall (the future Mrs. Mick Jagger) posed on a beach, with Taylor appearing to pull out Hall’s hair while each model grasps the other at hip level. Since its appearance, the image has proved endlessly fascinating and always ripe for further analysis. It’s not surprising that from around that time until the end of his life, Newton was affectionately referred to as the “King of Kink.”
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