Helmut Newton
(Filed: 26/01/2004)

Helmut Newton, who died on Friday in Los Angeles aged 83, brought fashion photography out of the polite, demure world of Norman Parkinson, and placed it on the edge of pornography, where the provocative image often seems to count rather more than the clothes on display.

Indeed, it was Newton's work that inspired the term "Porno Chic". His photographs were highly stylised essays in erotica, with the spectator cast as voyeur. Often their inspiration can be traced back to the Weimar and Nazi cultures in which Newton grew up. Typically, these pictures show tall, hard-faced Aryan beauties with flashing breasts and killer stares, ready for sin and eager to dominate.

"My camera is often low," Newton explained, "because I like the illusion of looking up. I like superwomen, physically strong and masterful. I like them very white, sickly, almost blue." The search is for striking images drained of humanity, and for an atmosphere at once cruel and glacial. "I hate sentimentality and romanticism," he once said. "You should feel that, under the right conditions, all women would be available."

Newton would describe the multitude of sexual adventures he experienced as a young man without ever giving the impression that his feelings had been touched; and in his pictures, too, he remained deliberately distant from his subjects. "The women you see in my photographs," he explained, "are my ideal women. The less I know of them, the better. The more I know, the more disillusioned I become. I lose the glamour, the aura, the illusion of beauty."

So, in an Italian castle four topless beauties toy sulkily with their spaghetti, while a sommelier struggles to pour the wine without spilling it over the tablecloth. So, in America, Newton photographed "Nurse Wolff", whom he described as "the most expensive and dangerous dominatrix in New York. She is very serious about her work. We got on very well."

Newton knew exactly how to tread the razor's edge between the barely acceptable and the downright pornographic. Adept at deflecting criticism with humour (though also capable of tantrums), he sometimes seemed to be engaged in self-parody. The truth, though, was that once he had hit upon his particular kinky and highly remunerative style in Paris in the 1960s, he found no incentive to develop. Far from satirising the world of fashion, he became enmeshed in his own images.

His obsession with power, however, did find other outlets. In 1991 he photographed Mrs Thatcher, who enraptured him, and whom he found "very easy because she was totally in command. I'm always looking for a woman who's superior, not an object I can push around." The smack of authority was obviously seductive, for he also photographed Jean-Marie Le Pen, Kurt Waldheim and Leni Riefenstahl - odd choices, given his own background.

Helmut Newton was born Helmut Neustaedter in Berlin on October 31 1920, the son of a rich button manufacturer. The family was Jewish, but hardly practised its religion: "We had Christmas rather than Hannakah," Helmut remembered. "I went to the synagogue once a year. It bored the s*** out of me."

Notwithstanding his bourgeois background, Helmut became highly conscious of the sleazier aspects of Berlin under the Weimar Republic; the whores, he noted, had an inborn sense of fashion. He found the Werner Trotschke Gymnasium school rather less inspiring, and did not shine at his studies.

"My father knew that trying to make a man of me was going to be a difficult job," he recalled. "I fainted, I fell down all the time. I was dressed like a girl. I was a whiny, spoiled brat. I don't think he got much support from my mother - she loved me in my pageboy haircut and my velvet suits."

On his own account, Helmut excelled at only three subjects: swimming, photography and sex. From the age of 12, when he was given a Box Brownie, he wanted to be a photographer. "You'll end up in the gutter," his father warned. "I'm still not far from the gutter, I'm glad to say," Newton reflected towards the end of his life. "I like it down there."

Apprenticed to a Berlin photographer called Yva - "of course I was in love with her" - Helmut made good progress. From 1935, however, it was obvious that the family was in peril in Germany, and in 1938 they fled from Germany. Helmut's parents went to Argentina; he would see his mother only twice more in his life, and his father, who died before the war was over, not at all.

Helmut himself took a steamboat to Singapore, making the most of the copious sexual opportunities en route. In Singapore he worked briefly as a photographer before enjoying a spell as the plaything of a rich French divorcée. Nevertheless, he remained alert enough to escape to Australia before the arrival of the Japanese in February 1942.

As he still had a German passport, he was sent to an internment camp. Later he served as a truckdriver in the Australian army, and with the return of peace opened a studio in Melbourne. In 1948 Newton (as he had now become) married an actress called June Browne, who not only became a photographer herself (under the name of Alice Springs), but for the rest of his life became his professional collaborator, editor, and inspiration. They did not have children.

The marriage began in penury, though things looked up after 1952, when Newton became the first contract photographer for American Vogue. A spell on British Vogue in the mid-1950s was not a success; in London, Newton thought, he took the worst pictures of his life, owing largely, he opined, to the British lack of talent for sex.

Matters improved after he went to Paris in 1957. Encouraged by the editors of French Vogue, and of such magazines as Elle and Marie Claire, he began to construct the meticulously cold, stark sets that characterised his fashion work throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He found props in sex shops in the Pigalle, and developed a penchant for strong, leggy women.

He enjoyed a succés de scandale, whether photographing a German model as a Russian spy by the Berlin War, or representing girls as men. "I was very proud of that," he said. "Even the most beautiful boy can never be as beautiful as a woman." But the puritan Anglo-Saxons remained unimpressed: even the editor of Playboy, ringing in the late 1970s to organise a shoot, felt compelled to add: "But we don't want anything kinky like you do for Vogue." And in 1975, when he published a fashion spread involving a ménage á trois in American Vogue, thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions.

After suffering a near-fatal heart attack in New York in 1971, Newton emerged with a new set of priorities, and began to concentrate more on nudes and portraits. His wife encouraged him to take pictures "from inside himself", based on memories of his youth in Berlin.

He stopped photographing women on the streets and went into their bedrooms, where he evinced similar predilections, chaining them together and strapping them into corsets. "I gave up fashion because I wanted to do nudes," he said. "Fashion is easier. Fashion hides things. Photographing someone totally naked is very difficult, trying to get skin texture right."

Newton preferred to use natural light, and continued to work primarily in black and white. But he gave up 35mm film, relying instead on a Plaubel Machina (a German camera of pre-war design) and a Rolleiflex.

As for portraits, he concentrated on witty, rather cruel portrayals of society figures, movie stars, and European royalty. But his style did not essentially change: thus the fashion icon Tina Chow was shown in silken bonds, and Catherine Deneuve with a cigarette in her mouth holding up a dress threatening to collapse into complete déshabillé. But when Annie Leibovitz suggested a full-frontal nude portrait of Newton, he demurred.

In 1984 the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris presented a retrospective of his portraits. These included Natassja Kinsky with one breast bare holding a Marlene Dietrich doll, and Mickey Rooney standing at a urinal.

Newton's books include White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1978), Big Nudes (1982) and World Without Men (1984). When a critic of the last work accused him of taking the fun out of sex, Newton protested: "I don't think sex should be fun. Sex is deadly serious. Otherwise it's not sexy. To me there's got to be a great element of sin to get people all excited. I don't see any fun. That's an American attitude, fun in sex."

Newton did not enjoy an excursion into real pornography, undertaken at the request of two couples: "I couldn't control that; real pornography is rough." He could not resist adding, however, that "June [his wife] thinks my pornography is really elegant."

Control of the subject was at the heart of Newton's work, to such an extent that he refused to regard himself as an artist. "My photography is not conceptual; it's not manipulated. Of course the subject is, but so many other photographers worked in the same way."

Latterly based in Monte Carlo, Newton went on working to the end. His book Us and Them (1999) celebrated 51 years of marriage with such images as June raking out the fire and ironing naked, while the happy husband prances before a mirror wearing nothing but a pair of black, hold-up stockings.

Another book, Sumo (1999), won a reputation as one of the heaviest tomes of the 20th century. Thirty-one inches high, it weighed 26 kilos and cost £625 a copy; Brad Pitt bought several. In London, an exhibition of Newton's work at the Mayor Gallery in 2002 was entitled Sex and Landscape. Last year Newton published a volume of autobiography covering his life up to his marriage.

Helmut Newton's wife survives him.