This Day in Jewish History: Fashion Photographer Who Didn’t Insist on Clothes Is Killed

Helmut Newton, scion of Weimar’s stylish decadence and possessor of chains and padlocks in his car, dismissed shocked critics: ‘Bad taste is a lot more exciting than good taste’

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The Helmut Newton Photography Museum in Berlin.
The Helmut Newton Photography Museum in Berlin.Credit: Tim From Ithaca/Wikimedia Commons

On January 23, 2004, fashion photographer Helmut Newton, who titillated viewers with black-and-white images of minimally or unclad females that ranged from the merely erotic to the downright sadomasochistic, died after a car accident. He was 83.

He was born Helmut Neustaedter in Berlin on October 31, 1920, and he grew up surrounded by the stylish decadence of Weimar-era Germany, imbibing a sensibility that informed his life’s work.

Helmut’s father, Max Neustaedter, owned a successful button factory. His mother, the former Klara (Claire) Marquis, was “a snob and a spoiler with good legs, who fired a maid for dressing too well on her day off,” wrote Anthony Lane in a 2003 New Yorker magazine review of Newton’s autobiography.

Helmut attended a gymnasium and later Berlin’s American School. He began taking pictures at age 12, after he happened into a photography shop and bought his first camera.

By 1936, he was apprenticing with a local fashion photographer, Else Neulaender-Simon, who went by the name Yva. (A Jew, she would die at the Sobibor death camp.)

Teenager in love: Hitler who?

Hitler came to power in 1933, but at least according to his memoir, Newton was too busy chasing thrills to pay much attention to the noose tightening around the neck of Germany’s Jews in the years that followed.

In summer 1935, for example, he fell for an Aryan girl, perhaps not the wisest move. But seven decades later he recalled that “when you’re fourteen years old and you’re in love, what do you do? Whatever it is, you certainly don’t think about Nuremberg racial laws!”

Max Neustaedter’s factory was expropriated and he was briefly imprisoned. In late 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, the family fled Germany. The parents headed for South America, while 18-year-old Helmut boarded a boat bound for China. He disembarked in Singapore.

There, he worked briefly as a photographer for the Straits Times and, according to his New York Times obituary, as a gigolo. In fall 1940, the British deported him to Australia as an enemy alien. After a brief internment, Helmut enlisted in the Australian army, serving through the end of the war.

Men just want to have fun

After the war, he took Australian citizenship and changed his surname to Newton.

In 1948, he married a local actress, June Browne, who went by the stage name June Brunell. Later, when she began doing photography, she called herself Alice Springs, which also happens to be the name of an Australian town. The couple had no children but by all accounts remained happily married for the next 46 years.

For the next decade, Newton, based in Melbourne, was a successful portrait and theatrical photographer. In 1956, British Vogue offered him a contract to work in London for a year. This was followed by a move to Paris, where he worked as well for Vogue and for Elle, Marie-Claire and Playboy, among other magazines, as well as for fashion designers.

Newton would photograph his women in half-open raincoats – revealing their nakedness underneath -- or decked out in leather and spiked heels. Many of his models had an androgynous look, or were depicted in suggestive situations with other women.

According to friends and colleagues, Newton was mainly trying to have fun, something that included shocking audiences (which was still possible several decades ago).

In a rare interview with Thames Television in 1978, he admitted that “I am very attracted by bad taste - it is a lot more exciting than that supposed good taste,” before adding, “I always carry chains and padlocks in my car trunk, not for me but for my photos. By the way, I never make the knots real tight.”

Helmut and June Newton spent part of the year in Monaco and part in Los Angeles, where they stayed at the Chateau Marmont hotel. It was after emerging from there on this day 11 years ago that he lost control of his Cadillac and crashed into a wall. June was unhurt but Helmut was killed.

The designer Karl Lagerfeld noted to the New York Times: “It was his last picture, taken by himself.”

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