Photographers Mark Arbeit, George Holz and Just Loomis first met Helmut Newton in 1979 while students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Eventually all three became Helmut’s assistants during one of the most exciting and prolific times in Helmut’s career. For almost thirty years, they kept in touch and shared their personal work with both Helmut and his wife June. In June 2010, Three Boys from Pasadena, curated by June Newton, premiered at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. The exhibit, currently on view at Clic Gallery in New York, consists of each photographer’s individual work, as well as several memorabilia panels, consisting of never-before-seen snapshots, handwritten notes, journal pages, contact sheets, and other souvenirs of their time with Helmut.
Above image: Helmut Newton by Mark Arbeit
Yael Malka: What brought all you to Pasadena, CA?
Mark Albeit: Well, myself, I was living in Hawaii and I wanted to take the next stage in learning photography so I went to this Art Center College of Design. I kind of had to leave Hawaii to go to the next stage of photography. That’s why I ended up there.
George Holz: I was living in Tennessee at the time. Going to the University of Tennessee, working for the local newspaper and things. I kind of exhausted all of my studies in photography there. A cousin of mine had gone to the Art Center College of Design and studied photography, and he spoke very highly of it. I was looking into that and RIT and I said the weather looks much nicer in Pasadena. I mean, to a kid growing up in Tennessee, Los Angeles, CA, had quite an allure to it.
Mark: The great thing about the school is all our teachers were working photographers. So it was this art center that had this attitude about the real world, whereas some other schools, you learn how to be an incredible technician like Ansel Adams or something, but for practical work, our school seemed to be one of the best to bring you into the photo market.
Just Loomis: I was born in Reno, Nevada. I looked at other schools and Art Center, I was blown away by the board when I came down. I looked at all the pictures on the board and I just said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’
Photograph by Just Loomis
Yael: Did you guys all take classes there at the same time and knew each other while you were at the school?
George: Yes, I met Mark in the darkroom there. He was making a very large print and the tray was so big he needed help agitating the print. I was couple semesters behind, because I started after Mark. We were working on really boring cereal boxes. Mark always had these amazing photos of girls from Italy because his father worked for TWA. He would go to Italy for the weekend for the assignment. And we’re all like (shocked facial expression), you know. So I was helping him rock the tray.
Just: He was a big influence on us. He was the one who really inspired us to go to Europe because he went there first. And like George said, his father worked for TWA. He would hop on a plane and go to Milan. He had also worked for this really interesting fashion store in Beverly Hills. He did advertisements for them so when we saw his prints on the crit board, they were these beautiful girls against these faded walls. It was so exotic and mysterious. I said, ‘that’s what we’ve got to do.’
George: And that’s how we ended up meeting Helmut too. He worked for Lina Lee who owned the boutique in Beverly Hills and Mark and I knew that Helmut was coming there to pick up a check for his work. At some point, he would have to stop by there. So we waited all day to meet Helmut.
Yael: So you waited and you saw him and you talked to him?
George: Yeah, we’re basically stalkers.
Mark: When he arrived, we said, ‘We’re photo students, we love your work, is there any way we can show you our work?’ He said, ‘Yeah, come over to the Beverly Hills Hotel.’ He invited us all over, we showed him our work. He thought it all looked terrible.
Yael: He said so?
Mark: Well, he was always very direct. He was so honest. He didn’t know how to be soft to you. He was just like this is awful. This is copying Debra Turbeville.
Just: It’s not like he didn’t know how to be soft. He knew that wouldn’t help us. He knew being soft on us wouldn’t help us at all so he kicked our butts.
Mark: It was hard to take a critique from him but afterwards it was just like a slap in the face, you know, wake up, what do you want to do? He changed my life.
Yael: Where you all working for Helmut at the same time?
Just: Did we ever go on a shoot all three of us together?
Mark: Only in the beginning. After he saw our work. First he asked us, ‘Can you drive me around? We’re going to do location hunting for a big shoot for Stern Magazine.’ So we just spent days with him driving up and down the California coast drilling him for every question, but that was just when we first met him. At the beginning he just invited us to come along to hang out. We were like little protégés. But after that, I started working for him early on because I went to Europe first so when we were in the same city, his agent would ask me, ‘Mark, Helmut’s going to Rome, would come you along with him?’, whereas, later on he would come to LA. Just was in LA, and spent a lot of time with him in LA and Florida.
Detail from a collage
Yael: So you guys got the opportunity to travel with him a lot?
Just: No, not too much. It was always if you were there where he was, then you could work with him, but I didn’t travel very much.
Mark: I traveled to Rome with him from France. I traveled to Venice.
Just: Yeah, we met him there when he was doing his book.
George: But our first two shoots: one was for Stern. He was doing a lot of stuff for Stern Magazine. Photographed Lisa Lyons for Stern. He did this surf story. Then we photographed a Van Halen album cover in Pasadena.
Just: He photographed Jerry Hall, who was sort of a popular girl.
George: Michelle Stevens…
Just: But he didn’t like Michelle Stevens so much.
Mark: He didn’t like blondes.
Just: Sometimes he had to photograph certain women. Sometimes Vogue would impose certain girls on him, like a Michelle Stevens. I think he liked Jerry Hall, but he always countered those girls with somebody else. He would always have another girl as a sort of counterbalance to some of these more traditional girls, because American Vogue was so traditional in a way compared to what Helmut was trying to do.
George: But at the same time he would love a Lisa Lyons, who was shot by Mapplethorpe, because she was strange. She had the veins. She was not a traditional beauty. The way he would photograph her was amazing. He was fascinated by that kind of beauty as well.
Yael: You mentioned the location scouting, which I would love to hear about because I know he was interested in finding ready-made locations and he did not want to mess with anything, so how did he go about finding where he wanted to shoot his models?
Mark: He knew what he was doing in his mind. He was doing a series where there would be five, seven men that would be the slave to one this one gorgeous woman in beautiful clothes. So it’s this kind of thing that was always this story about all these men being accessories to a woman in fashion. He would see things, but I didn’t see it at all in the beginning. We ‘d just go to a swimming pool and he’d just know that this is right, this is what I want. He loved pools. He loved beaches.
George: He loved very decadent, kind of Hollywood, over the top houses with statues. Things that were just very opulent, very glitzy and rich and tacky to a point.
Photograph by George Holz
Yael: How did he choose his models?
Mark: One time to me, he said, ‘Mark, do you know any big women?’ and I said, ‘you mean like big busted?’ He goes, ‘No, no, no, a large woman. I want to photograph a large women.’ He just liked these monumental kind of Amazon women.
Just: It’s a very well-developed sense of taste, a sense of style. I mean, it’s taste developed through years and years of European living and working in Europe. It’s highly developed and that’s basically 99% of the photograph was the choice of the girl. That always had to be right on. It was also his choices of women: they were odd. They weren’t the Christie Brinkleys and the more Vogue-esque women that were being shot at the time. They were unusual and it had lasted to today as those more traditional types, you know they’re pretty, but it’s not like they grab you in some kind of deeper spot. Helmut had a way of choosing women.
Mark: You can tell he was looking at the shape of the lip, the space above the eye, you know, just everything. The hands, the legs were very important to Helmut. He just loved long legs. A couple of times I remember him getting mad at us for ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this girl?!?!’ You know, some girl we’d be photographing.
George: We would meet girls he would photograph and we’d become friends with them because we had him as a mutual friend. So it was kind of like this little weird family.
Yael: How was he when he was with the models? How did he talk to them and direct them?
George: He was always very nice. I never saw him talk down to the girls. I mean, they loved working with him. A lot of them were really in awe because they knew it was Helmut. I never saw him yell at them. He made the girls feel very sexy. They would do anything for him. That’s how he would get away with anything, just because he was Helmut it was like working with a president or something. They would just melt. You see pictures of girls and they look at the pictures now and go, God, how did I ever get talked into doing that?’ Helmut just had that effect where they felt very beautiful and sexy.
Just: He was very gracious, very polite but very serious. The seriousness, as I learned much later, was an important part of him getting his picture. There was always a tension when he was photographing. Sometimes it was so tense, that you were like why is this so tense? Later I realized that was a very important part of his picture, this tension. Not knowing what to do and the girl on edge and that was an important part of his aesthetic. If you look at them, you can see the girls, there is a certain tension going on. It’s not like all happy, and everyone is loose, everyone is nailed to the floor he would say.
Mark: I remember one experience when he was photographing Patti Hansen. He’d start at the face, he’d say, ‘look this way, your shoulders here,’ he would slowly work down the body. ‘Your hips a little this way, turn your toes,’ until he sculpted this thing and she was so good that she knew how to do it. Basically he would control everything, everything was important. The exact direction of the toe, the stare, but also what Just said about the tension. But really sculpting the body until it was all what he wanted.
Yael: Would Helmut explain a concept to the models prior to the shoot or would he just set them up and talk to them throughout it? Or would he even go sometimes on a shoot and figure it out as he’s going along?
Just: He knew what he wanted to do before he went to do it. He always knew. He said if I walk on the street with a girl, nothing’s going to happen. He would take a girl and walk around the block. He would always bring the model into the concept. He would say, ‘Okay, today you are a woman, you’re a very rich woman, you’re alone in this room’ and it wouldn’t be very elaborate but he would tell her exactly what he had in his mind. He wasn’t one to elaborate and use a lot of verbose words. He would really tell her what he had in mind.
Mark: He loved to be fickle. If he had a better idea, he wasn’t afraid to change it to that better idea. But he always had to have a strong starting point, but he would change like that.
George: He was always open to happy mistakes though. If something with weather would come up, or something would present itself, like with the surfers or if something came into the picture, I don’t think he was opposed to being so stringent with his ideas that he wouldn’t be able to be flexible to let something like that come in, to happen. He shot on location and there are so many unpredictable elements with weather that he would have to have his ideas but be able to shift gears in a second. I remember after working with him, sometimes I would go, ‘what would Helmut do in a situation like this?’ because he was a great problem solver. Working with what he had, and if everything went great and according to plan that was fine, but sometimes things don’t and you have to be able to work with that to be able to make it work to your advantage.
Mark: Yeah, I really learned that from his too. Just if you come up with a better idea, don’t be afraid to change it.
Photograph by Mark Arbeit
Yael: How did each of your styles change after working with Helmut?
Mark: One time, Just and I went to Verona with Helmut and he looked at my portfolio and he goes, ‘you’re in love with glossy paper.’ He was kind of telling me there’s a lot there but there’s nothing there. I was shooting everything in the studio and magazines were just asking me to shoot fashion, but I was just turning out all this studio stuff that just wasn’t that interesting and it shifted me to work more on location. I decided at that point, ‘I’m going to try to work on location.’ And my style just completely changed. I didn’t accept to do as much in studio.
Just: Working with Helmut was more going through the process of trying to copy him and then understanding that I couldn’t and realizing I had to do the opposite of Helmut. I’ve done a lot of fashion photographs, but I would almost sort of use Helmut as a way to sometimes do the opposite of what Helmut did. In other words, I love motion and spontaneity and I loved catching the girl at a certain moment. To be that was sort of working opposite, which I think is important when you’re young; to go through certain things and than react to those things. So I think a lot of what I did was a reaction but what he taught me about certain light, levels of light, being able to shoot in natural lighting, and his attention to casting was really incredible for me. The craft of photography… all of that.
George: At the time, we were young, we were going to Art Center, we were very impressionable, but we had this dogma drilled into us at Art Center. We had very commercial teachers and the light always had to be beautiful and pretty and everything kind of perfect and what I remember from him is to unlearn all this. We see this guy show up with this little camera, maybe a light bulb, a little flash and not cases and cases of equipment. He would shoot portraits of girl in high noon sun, which is a total no no. If you did that at Art Center they would go, ‘are you crazy? You don’t have a fill light, you have to wait for the magic light.’ So it’s like you were unlearning all this stuff that has been hammered into you at school and you were just saying, ‘this is amazing, how kind of simple.’ And I think the other thing was the intensity. I think I picked up on the intensity of how he worked with people. I get kind of crazy, not in a bad way. I think probably at one point, we all did a very Helmut-influenced picture and copied him. It’s interesting how we all really moved away and it takes years to develop a style. It just takes shooting and you don’t even know it, it creeps up behind you. You just keep shooting and shooting, and all of a sudden people start saying, ‘that looks very George Holz, or Mark Albeit or Just Loomis.’ It’s like looking for love. You never find it when you’re looking for it, it sort of just comes on you.
Just: I think George’s style in particular has the monumentality of Helmut’s. A lot of people refer to your work as being stark and monumental. As an outsider, that’s what I think. In some ways, George has the most influence.
Mark: George, different then you and I, likes that hard look that Helmut liked.
Just: (to Mark) You’d always print a little flat and George’s work was always strong whites, strong blacks.
Yael: I would love to hear you explain some of the memorabilia collages in the show.
George: This was the first shoot I was on with Helmut. The amazing thing is that, in the beginning especially, we would always have our cameras with us. Now if I was on shoot and an assistant took out a camera, I would kill him, and I think possibly that’s because in the day of the internet, but it was different then.
Just: While he was shooting sometimes I’d just be sticking my camera in his face.
George: This is one of the things in Mount Olympus, I was telling you about these decadent locations he loved. He loved these statues, the glass and marbles.
Just: He was about 60 there.
George: He was in great shape, the girls loved him. How many 60-year old men do you know that would take their shirt off? I think Terry Richardson gets away with it, but he takes his pants off too. I think I’d need to go for a wax first… I had this great old car and I wish I had a picture of it. It was a ’69 Dodge Dart and it was so beat up, and so rusted ,that the seat he would sit in, the front seat, I had to put a milk crate between the front and the back so it wouldn’t fall over. I used to open the trunk with a fork. And we’d pull in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, with these Ferraris and Mercedes and he just loved getting out of this car. He thought it was so camp.
Detail from a collage
Mark: We met Helmut once in Milan when he was shooting and we got dinner. After dinner we walked up to the train station in Milan. It is this Mussolini-built, monumental thing and he wanted to show us all these different places. At night time, it was 12.00 at night, we were just walking around this giant train station and he would say, ‘I shot next to this train station, next to that pillar at F.11 at a quarter of a second.’ He remembered every detail.
Just: That light meter there, you had to know how to use that thing, man. If you were off, you were dead.
George: A Gossen Luna Pro.
Mark: He didn’t use a lot of equipment, but he wanted the technique to be perfect still.
Yael: Would you guys say you looked up to him as a hero? Or after you started working for him, was he brought down to size?
George: It took a little while to sink in. We knew that it was really cool thing when we did it. But it’s like everything I think, history gives you a perspective. I think years later the legacy became more important. It wasn’t a very big deal. Things have to age, like a wine.
Mark: I thought of him as a photo guru. He had a strong opinion about everything. He would just let us know and he would always speak to us, not like the teacher or the superior, just like a friend. A couple of times he came on shoots when I was shooting and he loved to see what younger people were doing. I think it’s what kept him young. He knew how to look and see. He just treated us really equal. Except when it came to work, he was just so serious.
George: It was tense.
Just: The work ethic was important. He was funny as hell. He just had everyone rolling around, but then on the flip side when he worked, very serious.
Yael: Well, that’s a great balance.
Just: Yeah, it’s a great balance.
Mark: This is Just’s last portrait of Helmut. 84 years old.
Yael: Where was it taken?
Just: In Monte Carlo.
Yael: He was working up until he passed away?
Just: He had this huge shoot in Los Angeles set up and June had to finish it. It was this huge Gillette ad. Everyone was flipping out, saying, ‘what are we going to do?’ and June says. ‘I know what I’ll do.’ And it went silent. It was like this incredible moment. It was like this magic moment where Helmut came into her body and said, ‘June, you do it.’
Three Boys from Pasadena: A Tribute to Helmut Newton, curated by June Newton, is on view through January 30, 2011 at Clic Gallery, 255 Centre St, NY, NY