In 1995, German publisher Benedikt Taschen approached the legendary photographer Helmut Newton with the idea of collaborating on a vast art book. Armed with a model of what the gargantuan tome would look like, replete with five pages of Newton’s images that showed off the exceptionally high quality of the digital printing techniques he would employ, Taschen convinced Newton to embark on this monumental task. The resulting book, titled Sumo and published in 1999, was limited to 10,000 editions, each signed and presented on a sleek, specially designed metal stand by Philippe Starck. It was received to widespread acclaim, an instantly coveted collector’s item. In 2009, 10 years after its publication, and five years after Newton’s death, his widow June suggested the book be presented as an exhibition at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, with all 464 framed pages hung side by side in rows in the order of their appearance in the book. Now, to mark Sumo’s 20th anniversary, the exhibition is back – a wonderful opportunity to marvel over Newton’s indelible legacy, as well as this iconic publishing feat, all over again.
Sumo includes many of Newton’s most beloved works – from a nude Pina Bausch, half consumed by a crocodile, to his inimitable campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smokingsuit, as well as his various, brilliantly characterful celebrity portraits. It spans Newton’s entire career until 1999, taking us from his native Berlin to Paris to Australia to Hollywood – where, from the early 80s onwards, he would capture some of his most celebrated fashion imagery and powerful nude studies. It was in California that Newton encountered the three bright young photography students – Mark Arbeit, George Holz and Just Loomis(dubbed by June, the “three boys from Pasadena”) – who would come to assist him with much of his work over the following years, forging close friendships along the way. Here, in celebration of the latest edition of the Sumo exhibition, which runs alongside three smaller exhibits of Arbeit’s, Holz’s and Loomis’ own works, the former assistants share with us their memories of the singular image-maker and the invaluable lessons he instilled in them at the dawning of their own careers.
“Mark, Just and I first met Helmut back in 1978. We were students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Mark knew that Helmut was coming to a store to pick up a cheque from a mutual client, who’d told us that if we waited, we’d see him. We waited in the store’s basement all day and finally Helmut showed up and we introduced ourselves. We told him we’d love to assist him some time and he said, ‘OK, come by the Beverly Hills Hotel tomorrow’. So we did. We knocked on his door and June stuck her head out and said, ‘He’s busy boys’. But we sat outside the door and waited like stalkers, and then we knocked again. She looked out again and said, ‘Helmut they’re still here!’ Then Helmut appeared and told us to meet him at the Polo Lounge later. When we met we said, ‘We’ll be your drivers, your assistants, anything...’
“A few weeks later he called us to do our first job with him in Los Angeles. I remember I had this old beat up American car that he loved riding in – when we pulled up to the Beverly Hills Hotel everyone would have their Maseratis and Rolls Royces and we’d be in my old muscle car. He loved everything camp and American! He seemed very excited about our enthusiasm; I think he liked that youthful energy. And I just learned so many things from him. The biggest lesson was how he dealt with people – whether it was a celebrity or a model, editors, make-up artists. He could talk people into doing anything he wanted, because they had so much respect for him. They trusted him, and that was something he instilled in me: the importance of winning the trust of your subjects and clients.”
“Helmut never put himself on a pedestal. He talked to us like he talked to anyone else, even though we were just the little students and he was the grand master. But when it came to work everything was serious. He was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He required very deep concentration from you – the lighting had to be perfect, everything had to be right. It was a good lesson for us to learn. I loved Helmut’s spirit about the business, especially his approach to fashion. He would always say to me, ‘Never forget why you’re there. You’re there to show the clothes.’ And it’s so true – you think he’s doing these out-there, wild shots but if you look at his pictures, you can see every button.
“I moved to Italy after I finished school and every time Helmut was in Italy, he’d call me to help on jobs – ‘I’m going to Rome to shoot for Valentino, want to come?’ – or hang out. Then after Italy, I moved to Paris and again, when we were both in the same city we saw each other. One of my favourite memories was assisting him in Paris when he was shooting the cover for his film, Frames from the Edge. I took some great pictures of Helmut and June after the shoot, really intimate ones of them looking over the Polaroids. She was his editor. She’d always say, ‘Try this,’ or, ‘Push it a little more that way...’ Of course she was a brilliant photographer in her own right – and they were an amazing couple, personally and professionally.”
“Helmut had a very strong influence on me when I was young. At photography school I learnt how to be a commercial photographer but working with Helmut was so different. It was much more intellectual – thinking out the photograph – and technically it was so freeing because he worked so simply: one camera, one lens, very little lighting, a lot of daylight. I was also so in awe of the choices that he made: the models, the locations, the make-up, the hair, the clothes. I tried so hard to absorb that – he’d mention a movie or a book or a location in Europe, a bridge or something, and I’d go off and try to find it – but of course I could never absorb it all because it was a personal, highly developed, very cultured sense of taste.
“One of my favourite anecdotes was going shopping with him to style latex sex dolls for a shoot I helped on in 2003, the year before he passed away. It was a job for Playboy at a factory in California that manufactured these life-sized dolls. Because they were the ‘models’, there was no make-up or styling so we went to Target together and he chose all the elements for the shoot himself. I’m walking around with him and he’s picking up purple lacy underwear here, a pair of shorts there! He styled the whole thing – it took about 45 minutes and it was wonderful. Everything Helmut did was so hands on; he did things himself – no need for five assistants, a big studio – and that was part of his ability to create such a unique look. He would have a complete vision in his head beforehand, and on set it was about pinning that down, and getting it completely right.”
Helmut Newton, Sumo; Arbeit, Holz, Loomis: Three Boys from Pasadena and the Photo Collection of Helmut and June are at The Helmut Newton Foundation until November 10, 2019.