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  • Berlin, Berlin: The legacy of Helmut Newton


Berlin, Berlin: The legacy of Helmut Newton

Looking back on the controversial life and legacy of Helmut Newton on the 20th anniversary of the foundation.

Photo: Helmut Newton Foundation

Often described as the ‘Golden Twenties’, 1920s Berlin was a magnet for cultural trailblazers and a pleasure playground for hedonists.

Writers across Europe returned from trips boasting about their debauchery-filled evenings at Clärchens Ballhaus and Wintergarten Varieté, where coupe glasses overflowed with Sekt, big bands roared and showgirls shimmied behind ostrich feathers. The Weimar Renaissance saw Germany’s capital transform from a city sickened by war into a sizzling metropolis.

1920s Berlin was a magnet for cultural trailblazers

During that period, it also became home to some of the cultural scene’s most defining figures, including born Berliner Helmut Newton, who would go on to become one of the most booked photographers of the 20th century, working with everyone from Hollywood great Elizabeth Taylor to the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Throughout his career, with photography that spanned (and melded) high fashion, portraiture and pornography, Newton worked tirelessly to galvanise the editorial world, ensuring that his name could be found on coffee tables or tucked away in bedroom drawers around the world.

Polarising as it was, Newton’s work quickly earned him the title of “King of Kink” and became the renewed subject of scrutiny years after his death in 2004. The 2017 #MeToo movement saw critics revisiting his photography and wondering whether he should be remembered as misogynistic or legendary.

Newton’s work quickly earned him the title of “King of Kink”

This point of tension is something Dr Matthias Harder, director of the Helmut Newton Foundation (HNF), has had to respond to time and time again when curating exhibitions for the museum, and this year will be no exception. In June, Berlin, Berlin opens to mark 20 years of the foundation and displays photos from Newton’s equally controversial and colourful ourvre, with a special focus on his relationship to his hometown, as well as other photographers’ work.

The Apprentice

Born Helmut Neustädter in 1920 to affluent Jewish parents Klara and Max, Newton grew up in Schöneberg. During his time at the American School, Newton decided that education was not for him.

He was more of a ‘school of life’ individual, with much more important things to pursue such as photography, swimming and girls. Much to his parents’ dismay, he dropped out of school before his 16th birthday, led astray by his older half-brother Hans. The two of them were lapping up all that the German Sin City had to offer. 

In 1936, afraid Newton would lose direction and end up in the gutter, his parents sent him to work as an apprentice for the Jewish photographer Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon, better known by her artist alias Yva.

She was a Weimar hot topic and artistic visionary, who masterfully blended fashion and graphic design. Shifting away from an overtly sexual image of women, she experimented with theatrical lighting and androgynous forms to construct sleek and geometric aesthetics that were as alluring as those captured by her male counterparts but more empowering.

Photo: Helmut Newton, ‘Wurstmaxe and Consumer,’ Berlin 1991

Since Yva had been blacklisted during the rise of the Nazis, she and Newton worked together through the night. Spending hours on end in the darkroom, they grew very fond of one another. Later, in his 1982 autobiography, Newton admitted that he spent his teenage years absolutely besotted with the artist 20 years his senior.

One month after Kristallnacht in 1938, Newton made his departure from Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, bound for Shanghai with a ticket bought by his mother and two film cameras in hand. Yva and her husband Alfred Simon, however, had no such escape: they were arrested by the Gestapo four years later and sent to a concentration camp in Poland, where they died.

Although the majority of her images were confiscated in 1943 and lost in a fire, Newton kept her alive by channelling all she had taught him into his work. Following in her footsteps, he paved a career for himself specialising in the same three categories of photography: portrait, fashion and nude. The last of Yva’s vintage prints will be on display at Berlin, Berlin.

A New Lease of Life

Newton never made it to Shanghai. Instead, he disembarked early in Singapore, where, following an attempt to make it as a journalist for the country’s Straits Times, he was arrested by British forces and sent to Australia in 1940.

His first two years down under were spent as a political prisoner and the next three serving the Australian army as a truck driver to etch away his German citizenship. In 1947, with his hard-earned British citizenship (which would soon become Australian), he set up his first photo studio in Melbourne. The same year, he met the Australian actress June Brunell whilst shooting her. A year later they were married.

I mean, my husband is not a gynaecologist. He’s just taking pictures.

“June’s roleplay she would create on the theatre stage was a very important aspect for Helmut and how he recreated staged scenes in his shoots,” Harder says, explaining that besides Yva, most of Newton’s inspiration came from June. “When she was being broadcast on the television, he would photograph her through the screen just to be close to her. He really admired her and took a lot of inspiration from her.”

Many people struggled to understand the couple’s relationship and June’s level of comfort with her husband working daily with naked women. Harder explains how June would be frequently questioned about her husband’s work and jealousy, to which she would answer: “I mean, my husband is not a gynaecologist. He’s just taking pictures.”

Whilst many instantly assimilate Newton’s name with nude photography, he did much more than capture naked women on camera. His editorial fashion resume was second to none; Newton held positions at British Vogue, Queen and Elle Paris and shot numerous campaigns for bigs brands like Prada and Valentino, working so hard that he suffered a heart attack in 1971.

Photo: Helmut Newton, ‘Self portrait at home,’ Monte Carlo 1993

Nonetheless, his provocative persona was as memorable as his renowned work ethic, whether he was shooting a raw chicken wearing high heels for American Vogue or a racy lesbian office scene for Playboy. Newton’s transition into nude photography in the 70s was the catalyst for most of the criticism he’d later face, but to trace his nude photography back to the start of this decade would be incorrect.

Maybe the reason his nudes were so seasoned by then was owing to the natural nudity between him and his wife. In 1999, the couple even published a photo book of their intimate moments titled Us and Them.

His provocative persona was as memorable as his renowned work ethic

For Harder, the photo book that captures Newton’s playful and boyish character best is Sleepless Nights (1978). “You’d flip through the pages and think, oh la la, wow, what beautiful images for Vogue! Then you would turn the page, look at the imprint and realise that it was shot for Playboy. You’d sit and think, no, this can’t be! Is he really smuggling naughty images into these magazines and now this book? He really was a very naughty boy!”

Back to Berlin

Newton’s plans to establish a permanent home for his works had been on the cards since 1999. After spending over 60 years away from Berlin, he began paying regular visits to set the creation of the HNF in motion.

I’m not homesick for Germany, I’m homesick for Berlin

“He used to say in interviews, ‘I’m not homesick for Germany, I’m homesick for Berlin’,” Harder says. “If you love a city like Berlin, you know it has a different pull [than] Frankfurt, for example. I can understand that. So he was very happy to be back and to see this kind of possibility for his own place in his hometown, and the Berliners were there welcoming him back with open arms.”

In the autumn of 2000, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the Neue Nationalgalerie opened Helmut Newton: Work encompassing 300 of his works curated by Francoise Marquet. At this retrospective, Harder met Newton for the first time.

Photo: Helmut Newton, ‘Mode an der ehemaligen Mauer,’ Zeit Magazin, Berlin 1990

“It was [Neue Nationalgalerie’s] first-ever photo show. Newton was occupying the holy hall, and in the basement, there was a Picasso show, so the banners had their names next to one another – it was really a statement! Even though Helmut never called himself an artist, this was such a homage and moment for him too,” Harder recalls.

Shortly after, Harder, who was working for Munich Stadtmuseum at the time, received a phone call inviting him to Berlin to meet with Newton. “I saw his first book as a young man. I was an art historian specialising in photography. How could I have not come into contact with his photography? It would’ve been impossible! He was always such an important figure in our system. So, of course, I agreed to meet him.”

They met at the bar of the Gold Hotel, and, joined by June, spent the duration of the meeting sharing their thoughts on the current photographic trends. Harder recalled the euphoria he felt receiving a follow-up call the next day, offering him the official position as curator of the foundation.

Full Circle

Plans for the foundation were finalised in October 2003, following an agreement made with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation that granted unlimited use of the ground and first floors of the former Landwehr-Kasino in Charlottenburg for exhibition purposes.

The building dates back to 1909, and its location – directly opposite the Zoologischer Garten Bahnhof – fittingly symbolises Newton’s departure from and return to his hometown.

Photo: Erbengemeinschaft Arno Fischer / Loock Galerie Berlin

In January 2004, at the age of 83, Newton died in a car crash in Los Angeles. The foundation officially opened five months later. “It’s an absolute pity that he never got to see his vision come to life. June then became the driving force, and we were there to assist in fulfilling her ideas for the shows,” Harder says.

“As time went on, she began granting me more and more responsibility and freedom, and then one day she told me, ‘Okay, you are the boss, you do the shows.’ Now she is gone, and as the director, it is my job to keep both of them alive.”

Year after year, the foundation has turned out show after show that sees visitors lining up from all over the world. Harder credits Newton’s commendable organisation in the foundation’s access to seemingly infinite content, which allows them to create two collection-based shows per year.

🎨 Review of previous Helmut Newton collections

“After his heart attack, he began storing all these papers and images in order to build an archive with an incredible level of order. He was very precise, like a true German or Prussian. It’s quite funny because he was such a free spirit.”

  • Berlin, Berlin starts Jun 7, through Feb 16, 2025, Helmut Newton Foundation, more info here.