An interview with Paris-based Helmut Newton, one of the most celebrated and vilified photographers in the world

By Robert Sarner and Anne-Marie Descott, Paris Passion, March 1982

Helmut Newton and his work leave few people indifferent. Admirers have referred to him as “the grand couturier of fashion photography” while detractors have denounced him as decadent, accusing him of creating “crypto-racist porn.” What’s beyond dispute is that Newton has developed and mastered his own style and photographic language that’s easily recognized.

Noted especially for studies of nude women, his images are boldly erotic, highly stylized yet strikingly cold, and decidedly provocative. Most reflect his fondness for the richness and mystery of luxury and female beauty. With its distinctively risqué quality, his work has often been imitated.

Born Helmut Neustaedter in Berlin to Jewish parents (his father was German, his mother American) in 1920, Newton purchased his first camera at age 12. A few years later, he apprenticed with a famous German fashion photographer by the name of Yva before fleeing the Nazis in 1938 to escape persecution as a Jew. Arriving in China, he initially worked as a reporter for a newspaper in Singapore and as a portrait photographer. Eventually, as a German ‘alien,’ he was interned by British authorities in Singapore and then sent to Australia where he was interned until 1942 when he enlisted in the Australian army.

He later settled in Melbourne where he met his future wife, June, an actress and an accomplished photographer in her own right who works under the pseudonym of Alice Springs. They were married in 1948 and in the late 1950s moved to London where Newton began working for European fashion magazines. For nearly the past quarter-century, they have been living in Paris.

Along with his wife, Newton recently met with Robert Sarner and Anne-Marie Descott in a café on Rue du Jour in Les Halles to discuss his life and work. Here with excerpts from their conversation.

When did you start working in Paris?
In the late 1950s I started photographing for Jardin des Modes magazine after leaving London where I broke my contract with British Vogue. I was very unhappy and couldn’t make it there anymore.

Why not?
It was before the ‘Swinging London’ period and everything there was still twin sets and pearls and it was pretty constipated.

So we came to Paris in 1958. I took my book around to all the magazines, and received a couple of offers. One was from Marie-France and one was from Jardin des Modes where there was a wonderful directrice called the Marquise de La Villehouchet. She was what you imagined a French aristocrat to be. She was like a battleship and used to sail through the offices.

I learned so much from her about fashion. She used to say, “Ah, il faut l’esprit de la robe” [You need the spirit of the dress]. That was something that I’ve never forgotten. In those days, Jardin des Modes was the most avant-garde fashion magazine in Europe. Lucien Vogel was its founder, and many well-known French photographers worked there at the same time, such as Frank Horvat, Jeanloup Sieff, Maurice Barr, Jérôme Ducrot.

When was the first time you actually picked up a camera?
When I was 12 in Berlin. It I bought a camera at the local equivalent of a Prisunic store for 2DM50. It was a kind of Brownie box camera with the film already loaded. I loved taking night pictures and I went straight to the Berlin subway and started snapping pictures. The last one was of the Berlin radio tower. Of course, everything turned out black except the picture of the radio tower, which is a very poor matchstick version of my favourite monument in the world, the Eiffel Tower.

Yes, it seems to appear often in your pictures..
It’s true. I can never get enough of looking at and photographing the Eiffel Tower.

Did you buy your first camera yourself?
Yes, I bought it with my own pocket money. I remember when I was 12 or 13 looking at the photographs in Vogue magazine that my mother subscribed to along with a German fashion magazine.

And dreaming of undressing the models in the magazines?
No, no, I never dreamt about that. That was not in my early sexual recollections. My dreams were entirely different but I’m not going to tell you about them now. At the time, I had notions of wanting to be a foreign correspondent, with 50 cameras and a raincoat.

My father kept his car in a garage also used by Martin Munkacsi. He was a star reporter-photographer for the Berliner Illustrierte magazine, a forerunner of Life magazine and everything that we know in photojournalism today. He did all the big assignments, such as on the Zeppelin, to South America, New York. He was the greatest reporter-photographer.

I think Munkacsi had a bad leg and limped a bit and I used to wait in the garage because he always came back around 6 o’clock in the afternoon. Out of the back of his car, he’d take out all these camera bags for his great big Gertzreflex cameras. The equipment was considerable that this guy was lugging around. He was my hero. I loved watching him come and park his car, and take those cameras out.

How did you go from Berlin to Australia?
I lived in the Far East before, I lived in Singapore, but I don’t want to go into the odyssey of my life.

Did you leave Germany in 1938 on your own initiative or did you have to flee?
I was certainly not an acceptable person because I was Jewish.

Have you been back to Germany since then?
Yes, many times.

Do you still have vivid recollections of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis?
Of course. I’ve got an excellent memory, including for certain things from my youth. I have an excellent memory. When Hitler came to power, I was already 13 years old and at that age you have total recall.

Were you indifferent to what was happening in your country when you were 13?
No, people weren’t indifferent, but when you’re young, you take things less seriously. It was a different matter for my father.

Did your family sense the impending danger to Jews? Is that why they fled?
No, but we won’t talk about that.

But it’s a period people today still want to know more about, to try to understand it better.
I myself can’t understand that period. That kind of madness and cruelty. I can never understand cruelty, whatever it is. It’s the one thing I’m totally opposed to.

Was there a sense that darkness was soon to engulf Germany?
There was an extreme sense of urgency but I thought of our family leaving Germany as a big adventure. I had a ball. I’d never been away from home.

You went directly from Germany to the Far East?
I left Germany in 1938 and headed for Tientsin in China. I had the best time I ever had on board a ship. I was away from the surveillance of my parents. I was 18 and I wasn’t thinking of the consequences, or I wasn’t aware of them. You’re not when you’re young. You have a good time. There are certain moments of fear that set in when you find yourself all of a sudden in a dump town like Singapore in 1938 and you have the equivalent of five dollars in your pocket. And you say, “What will I do next?”

So you had to depend on your survival instinct?
Yes. It was very strong. I think that when you get older you’ve got a weaker survival instinct. When you’re young, you can tackle anything. Your sense is to let nothing get in your way. It’s always interesting to look back at the past and see one’s evolution. Nobody’s past is insignificant. We’re all somehow formed by it.

Particularly people who are displaced. Those who do not live in their original country often have an interesting perspective on things. Do you feel that applies to you?
I think it’s very good to get kicked out from a place. Whether it’s kicked out by your parents, or kicked out by conditions or situations. In those days, it was almost normal.

Did it call into question your identity?
No, I must say I don’t have any identity at all. I never did have much of an identity. Paris has a certain identity for me. Back then, the one type of identity I did have was not a German one or a Jewish one but a Berliner one. I remember missing that very much.

So your sense of belonging and identity was always more linked to a specific place?
Yes, more so than to a people. Even now, my sense of identity is a more local one.

And so now in your identity you relate to Paris?
I relate very strongly to Paris because I’ve been living here for many years. I also relate extremely strongly to the Côte d’Azur, and very strongly to Los Angeles.

What about New York?
I find it hard to work in New York.

Do you do a lot of work in Los Angeles?
I spend three months of the year, the winter, in Los Angeles. I’m very happy there. I like the people and the atmosphere.

But for instance I could never take a picture in London. I still can’t take a picture in London. It’s a place that does not turn me on in any way. Yet we have many friends there, many English friends.

Is a sense of place critical to your creative inspiration?
Yes, I call it my photographic geography, which is very important. There are certain places and things that I refuse to photograph.

What for instance?
I’m not particularly interested in exotic countries.

What does it take in a place for it to inspire you?
Those places that stimulate me are those where I understand the women. It’s linked to my photographic geography which is very much a part of my pictures.

Is it the origin of the women or is it where you’re actually taking the photographs that interests you? For example, could it be a British woman in Paris?
There are only two English women that I’m really fascinated by. One I’ve only photographed once and that’s Glenda Jackson. The other one who’s very English but very cosmopolitan is Charlotte Rampling, who I’ve also photographed.

Do you photograph men at all?
Very rarely, unless they’re very beautiful. A beautiful man is like photographing a beautiful woman.

What do you call a beautiful man?
I don’t know. One man I’ve photographed regularly over many years is Karl Lagerfeld. And you can’t say that he’s really a very beautiful man. But he’s a wonderful subject because he changes.

What about Yves Saint Laurent?
Saint Laurent is another kind of personality. My wife has taken the best picture I’ve ever seen of him. I’ve photographed him a couple of times, and I have the greatest admiration for him on an artistic level. He’s a fantastic artist. As a person, he’s also quite extraordinary. For all these years, Saint Laurent has made women very, very beautiful.

Do you feel you have to know your subjects to photograph them well?
No. I’m not a portrait photographer. I’ve only done one serious big series of portraits for Life magazine, on the personalities of the modern German cinema and I didn’t know anything about them. The pictures were quite good.

As a photographer, would you rather not know anything about the subject?
It would be nice to know the person but I think it’s good maybe not to know. I don’t photograph any soul. I don’t know how to photograph the soul of a person and I’m not very interested in that.

Is glamour important to you?
Yes. I love glamour, but who doesn’t?

Who have you not photographed that you might like to?
Who would I like to photograph? I’ve got great admiration for Graham Greene.

I don’t know whether I would like to photograph him because I’m not a portraitist. June [Newton’s wife] is a portraitist. She has a kind of humanity and sweetness that’s very good, that comes out in her portraits. And it’s not because she’s my wife that I’m not talking about her.

How important is her opinion in connection with your work?
Very important. She’s one of the biggest influences on my life. Probably the biggest influence. We discuss everything that I do, and often she does not agree with a step I would take, but I still take it because I believe in it. There’s not one thing that I wouldn’t discuss with her. What’s interesting is that she was a much better critic of photography before she became a photographer.

Is there something you consciously strive for when you take a photograph or is it more of an instinct?
It’s more of an instinct. It’s very hard to spell out. I make notes because I can’t sketch. I make notes of what I see, of what I want to do and I write down certain things. Everything, every sitting is very carefully prepared.
It’s not contrived. It has a definite point of departure, which does not stop me from going the opposite way if I see it doesn’t work, or if I see something that is better. I don’t work with blinkers on.

Is recognition important for you?
It’s very nice although I’m not that interested that everybody likes my pictures. I’m not interested in being very popular, but of course it’s gratifying that I get mail and reactions, especially from young people. It’s extraordinary that my big audience is mostly young people.

Do you get a lot of mail?
Yes, quite a bit. I get a lot of flack. The most, strangely enough, comes from France.

From women?
Well, that’s another thing. But I get that in America, too. Like the photographer Chris Von Wangenheim once told me, ‘Don’t come to New York. The women’s liberation movement has got a contract out on you.’ But the flack I get in France is from the so-called socially concerned, the photographes engages, who consider me a slave of the consumer society, which is totally true, of course, because I work within a certain framework that they don’t like.

Because you’re not taking any stands on social issues?
I don’t go out on the street and photograph clochards (homeless people). There’s plenty of people who do that very well. Why should I do it? It doesn’t interest me.

Is it only physical beauty that interests you?
I’ve a great admiration for photographing physical beauty. Like I said, I’m not interested in the soul.

Is it always linked to luxury?
Yes, because luxury is very attractive.

Why don’t you photograph beautiful women in natural settings such as on a beach or in a field?
When you do, it becomes a photograph in a girlie magazine. I do a lot of nudes and they’re totally unacceptable to magazines like (American) Playboy. When you look at Playboy, it’s very old-fashioned. It’s not even the girl next door. There’s something clinical and totally plastic in their images. They look like girls in the Lido or the Moulin Rouge with all that pancake on their bodies. It has not changed much. It’s like the covers of American Vogue. Every one looks the same. It’s a formula.

Could someone say you have a formula?
I don’t think I have a formula because I change too fast. I get bored very quickly. So I change and hop from one thing to another.

Are you in a transition at the moment?
I hope I always stay in a constant state of flux. I still like fashion pictures, then I get fed up with that, I go back to news. I’ve been offered some things to do on personalities in America, in a way that I’ve never done before. Which I’ll find very interesting.
June once said if somebody dropped dead in the street in front of me, I wouldn’t photograph it because I didn’t arrange it. Which is very true.

Do you like having circumstances under control?
I can’t. All my pictures are based on things I see in real life. I’m not the kind of guy that carries a camera with him. To photograph, I have ideas in my head and I put them in my notebook and then I draw on those visions that I saw in real life for my pictures.

Given that only a small portion of your work is in color, do you feel more comfortable working in black and white?
It’s a big dilemma. When I worked for French Vogue, I’d say, ‘Well, what should I do? Color or black and white?’ And they’d say, “Well, whatever you would like.’

It’s very hard to make a choice because I like color very much. It presents many more problems, especially when it comes to nudes and the level of color of the skin, which is sometimes hard to control.

I guess it’s like a painter; I don’t like pink skins very much. I like cool colours, you know white skin. I’m crazy about big statuesque girls, but I don’t like them when they’re bronzed. I can’t tell you why. I even like blue veins in white skin. I love that. It’s wonderful when it’s almost cheesy. I have a black and white television set at home and funny enough I don’t miss color that much. I’m going to do colour again and I’m very happy when I get colour imposed on me.

For me, black and white is easier to cope with in many ways. There’s a mystery about it because life is in color, not in black and white.

One of the problems with girlie magazines, why pornography gets really dirty, is when it’s in color. Good pornography in black and white is very beautiful and is much easier to accept. Pornography in color is difficult to accept, unless it’s masterfully done. Otherwise, it looks like a medical handbook. Too literal. I think it becomes obscene in a way. You can do an awful lot in black and white and get away with it. The impact is artistically much better.

Are you the one who chooses the women for your photographs?
Yes. They’re mostly professionals and come from modeling agencies.

Something one notices about you is that you have an extremely youthful look.
I had a good sleep this afternoon, that’s why.

It’s difficult to believe you’re 62.
I had so many facelifts (laughs).

Something’s obviously working right.
A clean life, and clean thoughts.

And yet critics often portray you as a monster.
God bless them! As long as they have an image of me, that’s enough. All is not lost.

As long as they spell your name right?
That’s right. (laughs)

Are there any photographers whose work you really respect?
Yes, Irving Penn, Brassaï, Richard Avedon.

What photographers have influenced you?
June and I have a small collection of photographs: August Sanders, George Platt-Lynes, Horst, Cecil Beaton , Andre Kertesz, Solomon, who is one of my great heroes, Brassaï, another enormous hero; there’s also Latrigue in the collection, there’s one Cartier-Bresson, a very marvellous photographer. Who else have I got? I’ve got George Hurrell, Diane Arbus, Margeret Burke-White, Larry Clark, Ralph Gibson.

Do you feel your photographs influence the way people approach women?
That would be nice if that were the case.

There are a lot of beautiful women who like my pictures very much. At the same time, some don’t. I’ve been attacked physically at dinner at La Coupole by a German lady who jumped practically across the table and hit me. They’re so violent about it. I don’t ever make fun of women. I think, if anything, there’s a great glorification of women in my work.

There’s not one photograph where you could say that I make fun of women. I never put them down. It’s mostly the men who are smaller, who are in the subordinate situation in my work. Women are the dominant characters. Always, they’re big, costaud [hefty, tough], never little clinging wallflowers. They’re typically very healthy and strong.

Is that your way of looking at the two sexes? That women are actually the dominant sex?
I have a lot of admiration for women. On an intellectual level, I think women are far more realistic than men. Women have a much healthier attitude to life, a greater feeling for survival. I speak from experience. I’m speaking of my mother, and of my wife. There’s a kind of reality there. I admire women for their realism.

Do you find it easier to relate to women?
Yes, there are very few men I would like to go to dinner with. I’d much rather go and talk to a woman.

Do you ever photograph women you don’t find attractive?
Not really. It’s like a painter. He doesn’t paint a woman he dislikes, does he? I photograph what I consider as my ideal woman at the moment. That ideal can change. In a way, it fluctuates. Physically, photographically. I find however it’s much easier to photograph a tall woman than a small woman.

Breast size is not important. It doesn’t interest me very much. I’m not interested in perfect bodies. I think the face is very important. Proportions are very important, especially as the camera sees things in a certain way.

You talk as if the camera were almost a separate eye.
The camera will do what you tell it to do. A painter can do anything he wants. The camera has its limitations. But it does obey. If you give a camera to 10 photographers, it will give you 10 very different things.

Why is there so little tenderness in your work?
I’m not very strong with tenderness. I don’t know how to deal with it photographically. It’s not one of my driving instincts. Not that I’m a tough guy. I’m not. But I’m sharp and I don’t think there’s any tenderness in sharpness.

There’s a wall like that between my life and my pictures. I don’t live my pictures.

Do you still have the same passion for photography as always?
I think it gets progressively more passionate.

So there’s still a lot of new frontiers for you?
I should hope so. It would be terribly sad if there weren’t.

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