The old master spent his winter months at the Chateau Marmont, sitting beneath the palms, the white canopies and its distinctively European tower on the Sunset Strip. Photographer Helmut Newton was as recognizable there as his famous subjects, dining on the patio between sessions for Vanity Fair or Vogue as he shattered taboos through his pictures of startling sexuality.
He'd first earned fame as a fashion photographer, shooting long-legged models in high heels in erotic layouts for publications such as Vogue and later added sadomasochistic nudes and celebrities in provocative poses to his portfolio.
Newton shot "domestic nudes" in the laundry room at the Chateau Marmont, in the bungalows and overlooking the huge Marlboro Man billboard (now long gone). He died nearby in 2004, from a heart attack right before or right after crashing a Cadillac into a wall across the street. So it's a fitting place for George Holz to reminisce about Newton and the role he played in the lives of three young photography students from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design whom he met in late 1979.
"It was his point of view and how he carried himself," says Holz, now a well-established magazine photographer. "You learned by osmosis. There is a little of that Helmut DNA ingrained in all of us. For him, there was no difference between his commercial work and his fine art work. He approached every photograph the same."
Newton's influence on Holz, Mark Arbeit and Just Loomis was profound and can be felt in the work collected in "Three Boys From Pasadena: A Tribute to Helmut Newton," a traveling exhibition curated by the photographer's widow, June Newton.
Each of his protégés developed in fairly disparate ways over the decades, and none could be easily described as a Newton clone. The show, which opened June 14 at Art Center's spacious Williamson Gallery and runs through Aug. 26, is focused on their own creations. About 150 prints represent their work in fashion, portraiture, nudes and various personal projects.
Newton's presence is also felt in artifacts and pictures documenting their time together, in personal messages scrawled into books and prints, and in countless Polaroids and proof sheets showing Newton and his "boys" at work. One picture shows Holz chaining Van Halen singer David Lee Roth to a fence in Pasadena for what would become one of Newton's most striking celebrity images.
Their connection with Newton lasted 25 years, beginning as students and assistants, but grew into a lasting mentorship long after each had found success in photography. "He was shooting [pictures] up till the very end," Holz says. "He was excited like a little kid."
While still an Art Center student, Arbeit was shooting fashion pictures for the Rodeo Drive boutique Lina Lee when he heard that Newton was going to stop by the Beverly Hills store. Arbeit and Holz waited for him all day, hoping to meet the accomplished photographer. When the connection was made, Newton was intrigued enough by the students to invite them (and Loomis) to his hotel to show him their work.
When they arrived, Newton was friendly but blunt about their work. "It taught me it takes time," Arbeit remembers of that moment. "You have to work and work at a style before it comes out.
"He taught me, don't lock yourself into something," Arbeit adds. "He saw something pure and innocent in young photographers, but he also saw a dedication and seriousness about us, and he let us into his world."
Newton was then a highly regarded and inventive editorial photographer but was only beginning to reach beyond the fashion world with a personal vision revealed in his first books, 1976's "White Women" and 1978's "Sleepless Nights." "It was prime-time Helmut," Holz says.
Newton's new pictures revealed a world rooted in memories of growing up in Weimar, Germany, with big, powerful women in stiletto heels and little else, or dressed in elegant European suits and vivid colors, boots, furs and generally revealing couture. "They were so completely different," says Loomis of the pictures. "People call it decadence, but there is such a sense of style about that period, a definite energy in women and in culture. He was able to translate that to the page in a very striking way.
"Helmut loved women. You can see it in his pictures. And the girls loved him. He could get anyone to do anything, no matter how famous they were. They wanted to be shot by Helmut."
It was Newton who urged the trio to move to Milan, where a young photographer might find a magazine art director more willing to give him a chance. All three did end up there, and struggled. "We lived out of each other's pockets," Loomis recalls.
After Newton's death, June (a photographer who went by the name Alice Springs) kept in touch with his three Art Center proteges, with frequent reunions during her winter stays at the Marmont. In recent years, Holz has been based in upstate New York, Arbeit in Hawaii and Loomis in Malibu. All three are represented locally by the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea Avenue.
During one lunch at Mel's Diner on Sunset — another favorite Newton spot — she revealed plans to curate a show of their work, which she would call "Three Boys From Pasadena." It opened June 3, 2009, at the Helmut Newton Foundation museum in Berlin, followed by shows in Paris and New York in 2010, and a month ago in Cologne, Germany, before landing at Art Center.
"Right up there is where I nearly knocked over Ansel Adams," Holz says, recalling an encounter with another photography icon, looking up at a walkway at Art Center. "He was here to give a commencement speech, and I came barreling through the door ...."
A week ahead of the opening, Holz has come to the campus with Arbeit and Loomis to hang the show, and he laughs at the memory, imagining the resulting headline: "Ansel Adams paralyzed by Art Center student."
In the same building where they remember as students seeing exhibitions by the iconic photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, the trio was devoting the final week before the opening to hanging pictures and finalizing a new 30-minute documentary about their time with Newton.
"We continue to be friends, although we definitely have our creative differences. Especially in the last two weeks," says Holz with a laugh, noting that the photographers typically communicate across three time zones. "It's a democracy."