Helmut Newton, the self-proclaimed "bad boy of photography" best known for his provocative, edgy, and highly sexual fashion images, had a decades-long relationship with Los Angeles. Newton, the subject of a new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography, started coming here from his home in Europe for work in the mid 1970's. By the early 1980's, with wife and collaborator June, Newton was routinely spending every winter in residence at the Chateau Marmont. He continued until his death in a car crash at the hotel in 2004, at the age of 83. A regular contributor to Vogue in Europe and the U.S., and to Vanity Fair, and a prolific maker of advertising images, he found that Los Angeles, and the culture of Hollywood in particular, suited his creative sensibilities.
Newton was drawn to "fantasy, films, and narratives. He was very controlling, like a movie director," said David Fahey, co-owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea and a longtime Newton friend. Newton had close friends in the entertainment world, including producer Bob Evans and director Billy Wilder. In his 2003 autobiography, Newton revealed his fan-like enthusiasm about photographing one of his movie crushes during some downtime in Los Angeles in 1972. "Ever since I saw Jane Russell in Howard Hughes's 'The Outlaw' I have been madly in love with her," he wrote. "I heard she was living nearby so I suggested to my editor that we set up a phony sitting with her, pretend it's for the magazine, a small white lie. The editor complies and everything is set up. In my excitement I got the date wrong but Miss Russell comes down the stairs and very graciously announces that, no matter, she will pose for me today."
Newton writes that, of course, he chose to photograph Russell in her bedroom. "It's boiling hot, my t-shirt is stuck to my body, the sweat is running between my glasses and my eyes. From time to time she looks at me in a funny way. She's found out that she has a madman in her bedroom."
Newton was initially drawn to the Chateau Marmont because it was the "coolest, hippest place...he loved the ambience," said Fahey. In an essay in the March, 2013 Vogue, British actor Rupert Everett describes a 1985 Christmas-time encounter with Newton and his entourage. Everett was still a struggling newcomer, lonely and stranded in Los Angeles for the holidays and staying at the Chateau.
"One afternoon just before the new year, Helmut Newton and his wife June surged into the hotel surrounded by luggage. I attached myself to the group and pretty soon I had slipped into their easy routine. The men set off for work each day each day while I sat around with the girls-June, Tina Chow, and sometimes Wendy Stark. Most nights our group met in the hotel foyer and clattered down to the hotel basement parking lot where we bundled into Helmut's car to go out for dinner. I sat in the back while Helmut-shrieking at the wheel-negotiated the blind corner from the car park onto the street."
The hotel ultimately became a second home for Newton. "I love my winters in the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood," he wrote. "I have this fascination for familiar surroundings. My favorite photos are often those which evoke a strong feeling of 'I have been here before' "
Working in Los Angeles gave Newton endless possibilities for locations, especially outdoors. Photographers Mark Arbeit and George Holz assisted Newton in the early 1980's, when they were students at Art Center. "We drove him around in my old Dodge Dart," Holz said in an interview. "We took him around to places we knew but it was his eye that said yes, this place works, or doesn't work." Holz and Arbeit remember shooting at a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in the hills of Mt. Olympus, and in Manhattan Beach. "He really loved those blond surfers," said Holz.
The Hollywood sign makes an appearance in one image and the gymnastic rings at Santa Monica beach are a key element in photographs of actress Daryl Hannah from 1984. A 1981 image shows actress Raquel Welch fending off a menacing dog and surrounded by agaves in her Beverly Hills backyard.
He learned to navigate the minefield that is photographing movie stars, but he grew annoyed at the presence of publicists. "For a long time during my annual sojourn in Hollywood I photographed a lot of actresses for Vanity Fair," Newton wrote. "They were invariably accompanied by their press agents, who became more and more demanding and obnoxious, standing behind me, looking over my shoulder saying, 'Not from this angle, make her head turn to the right, you are showing too much skin, cover your shoulders.' " Eventually he banned all publicists from his sittings.
Newton, who was born in Berlin in 1920, moved to Paris after a short period in Australia. He loved what he called the "free-spirited" quality of life in the U.S. (even though he often expressed frustration with American art directors and the restrictions placed on his erotic images that didn't exist in Europe.) "He loved Americana...country music and diners," said Holz. He also loved Nudie's, the North Hollywood shop where tailor Nudie Cohn made custom outfits for movie stars and musicians.
Newton was attracted to Los Angeles for another simpler reason. "I think it was exciting for him," said Arbeit.."He was used to older, much darker European cities and he really loved the light here." June Newton, now 90 and a resident of Monaco, has continued the couple's tradition of wintering in Los Angeles. According to Fahey, she typically arrives at the Chateau Marmont on Christmas Eve and usually departs sometime in March.
Top photo: Daryl Hannah in Santa Monica by Helmut Newton for Vanity Fair in 1984. Lower photos: Helmut and June Newton at the Chateau Marmont, © David Fahey from the exhibit film "Provocateur."