William "Bill" Helburn, the New York-born photographer best known for his fashion and advertising work in the Fifties and Sixties, has passed away at the age of 96. In the October 2014 issue of the Esquire Big Black Book, writer John-Michael O’Sullivan looked back on his considerable legacy.
The Bill Helburn revival has been decades coming, but it got an early jump-start last summer, thanks to Mad Men. When Megan Draper made an appearance in a Communist star T-shirt midway through the show’s sixth season, Brooke Helburn was quick to spot the resemblance to her father’s iconic portrait of Sharon Tate, taken during a 1967 photo shoot for American Esquire and published two years before the young actress was brutally murdered in Los Angeles by the Manson Family. She tweeted the show’s designer, who promptly acknowledged the inspiration, and the Helburn/Tate images have been doing the rounds on the web ever since, their blend of knowing innuendo, weapon-heavy iconography and tragic postscript fuelling increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories about Mrs Don Draper’s fate (google “Megan Draper T-shirt” to see).
William (Bill) Helburn, who lives in Connecticut these days and turned 90 this spring, isn’t remotely perturbed by the fuss. “Yeah, that was my daughter! She couldn’t be less aware of what I’ve done, but I guess at some point in her life she must have seen that photograph lying around, and she got in touch with the show to ask, ‘Is my father getting any recognition for this?’”
Recognition has never seemed high on Helburn’s agenda, though; not then and not now. He’s unrelentingly self-deprecating about his work despite the surge in interest fuelled by Megan Draper’s wardrobe, and by the upcoming publication of the first book on his career. But he was once one of the most successful photographers in the US: a man known for his startling, sexy, vividly approachable images and a larger-than-life character, a figure who loomed as large in New York’s fashion and advertising worlds as David Bailey would later in London, and whose stance was just as unapologetically controversial.
“Was I interested in photography growing up? Well, as a kid I made stink bombs by lighting rolls of film and throwing them through the back windows of neighbours’ houses — does that count? Look, it wasn’t like I set out to be a photographer. I was an ugly Jewish boy, who was never going to get laid, and was never going to have money. So those became my main obsessions in life — laying as many women as I could, and making as much cash as possible. It was all about getting the girl into bed, and the money in the bank. And I didn’t want any identification, actually. If they knew you'd just done a Clairol ad, L’Oreal mightn’t want to use you. But I could do a job for Max Factor, and then do Maybelline, and no one would know. I could work for everyone. And I would work for almost any price. I was what they called ‘volume’.”
That self-summary doesn’t do Bill Helburn much justice. “I tried to always, always, always do something a little different,” he concedes. “I would take girls out in the middle of a snowstorm, naked under a fur coat, and have them strip naked in the middle of a street and do a shot. ‘Shock value’ was a term that was used. And I meant to shock people as much as I could.”
And for three decades from 1947, that unerring capacity to shock kept Helburn at the top. He photographed Suzy Parker in bed for Revlon, drowning her world-famous face in pillows till only a pair of red lips remained; he coaxed Carmen Dell'Orefice up a First Avenue lamppost, and shot a his-and-hers portrait of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in the middle of a rush-hour Times Square; he photographed Angela Howard with nothing but stars-and-stripes towels and a pack of cigars, and dunked high-fashion supermodel Dovima into a mink-lined bathtub. And he took that picture of a beautiful girl called Sharon Tate in a red-starred T-shirt, not knowing he was creating an icon-portrait of the era’s most tragic martyr. Bill Helburn’s name isn’t one you’d expect to forget. But, as he says, it wasn’t like he set out to be a photographer.
Growing up in the Thirties and early Forties on New York’s Upper East Side, William Dwight Helburn had a different life plan: join the US Air Force, come home a war hero, get a ticker-tape parade and a fast-pass to boardroom high life. But a sinus condition blew that particular strategy out of the water, and instead Helburn served his time in Guam, working with the 35th Photographic Technical Unit. And he came back to the US (with negatives from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his backpack), just as his hometown was gearing up for a peacetime explosion of its own — an unprecedented commercial and creative boom, which saw New York become the world leader in the spheres of fashion, photography, advertising and publishing. Using his GI Bill payouts, Helburn set up in a $28-a-month studio over stables near Central Park with an army buddy, Ted Croner. After an initial plan to work in aerial photography fell through, they switched to doing test shots for models, charging 20 cents a roll. “And these weren’t girls from the top agencies,” Helburn confides. “So, if you could make them look good you were doing something right!” (Not always as hard as he made it sound: Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren were their first two clients.)
“It was just… the most remarkable time,” reflects Barbara Mullen, one of Helburn’s contemporaries and an early model, fumbling for the words to convey Manhattan's mid-century high. They were youngsters who rose quickly through the ranks of an industry barely older than they were, in a world where everyone they knew had suddenly become somebody — or seemed about to be somebody — in a visual arena still so new and unformed that anything and everything seemed possible.
Seven years before Bill Helburn was born, Wrigley’s Chewing Gum erected the first giant billboard in Times Square, an all-illuminated, city block-long assault on the eyes. In the years that followed, the US embraced the power of image like nowhere else on Earth: widescreen, super-scaled, sky-high, Technicolor. New York sprouted skyscrapers, transforming brownstone and brick into shimmering planes of glass, bronze and steel, particularly along the mile-long stretch of Madison Avenue that became the heart of the country’s advertising industry (earning the nickname Ulcer Gulch in the process). Meanwhile, the city’s newsstands were packed with innovative new magazines like Life and Look, whose dynamic layouts were filled with sensational, full-bleed images: Stanley Kubrick’s snatched glimpses of street life; Louis Faurer’s luminous colour studies; William Klein’s violently graphic close-ups; the jagged, kinetic collages of Saul Bass. A buoyant economy and unprecedented consumer confidence led to soaring advertising revenues, and to a generation of groundbreaking commercial image-making. And Helburn, like perhaps few others in his field bar Warhol, realised that photography needed to offer something different, something bigger than mere elegance or beauty: entertainment.
Joe Nissen, an art director who regularly worked with Helburn, is fulsome in his praise. “The great editorial photographers — and I have always considered Bill Helburn their equal — worked in a carte blanche environment. But the commercial guys had to work within a proscribed field: smaller budgets, less time, and a predefined idea. It was a far more difficult environment in which to create great images and, in that respect, people like Bill were few and far between.
“And Bill was accessible. He had a very open personality, open to different ideas and processes, and to new ways of thinking,” Nissen says. “And he didn’t have an edit button in his head. You got everything he was thinking, everything he was feeling, unedited.”
Robert Lilly, who with his wife Lois Allen has spent four years developing and editing Helburn’s forthcoming book, expands. “Bill was there when the great advertising revolution was taking place and he created these iconic American images of what the country was at that time, and what it could be.”
Jerry Schatzberg, who assisted Helburn before embarking on his own successful career in photography and film-making, agrees: “I think the Sixties was the golden age of advertising — not everywhere — but at particular places like Doyle Dane Bernbach [advertising giants notable for their groundbreaking VW Beetle ads, among many others], where you had so many great art directors. And Bill was part of all that, he had a great mind, he loved to shock, he loved to try out things that were outrageous. That’s what stands out for me in his work, that sense of the startling, and the unexpected.”
One of the most maverick talents on Madison Avenue was George Lois, the industry’s self-styled enfant terrible, who also designed 92 covers for US Esquire from 1963 to 1972. “The reason everything changed was first down to Doyle Dane Bernbach and then second and third to my agency,” Lois explains. “The stuff we did started the creative revolution. It was only one per cent of the advertising in America, but it was the percentage everyone would be talking about at the water cooler the next day. And that changed the advertising world.
“Photographers like Bill and Howard Zieff [who would later make the transition from adman to movie director] were the guys we used, the kind of guys you could tell what you wanted, who would not be afraid you were on top of them, and if they didn’t like it, fuck ’em. But they’re great pros who created beautiful lighting and were fun to work with. Bill could produce really powerful, graphic images. I saw him as a photographer who was really talented, who could work with a great art director. A no-bullshit, straight-shooting, good guy.”
“And his relationship with the models he used, the way he interacted with them was extraordinary, too,” Nissen adds. “It meant he got that ‘extra something’, which often made the difference between the success or failure of the end result. You can see that in the images, right?"
He was certainly hands-on. Michael Gross, the acclaimed American author famed for revealing the tawdry secrets of the US elite, revealed stories of Helburn’s flirty approach, fondness for schoolboy pranks and near-miraculous bra-unfastening abilities in his book Model: the Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. In his own portfolio, there’s a shot of him in his mid-forties, stripped to the waist and cupping a model’s breast, beaming at the camera with a gleeful Sid James smirk. Because of that shot — and because it seems disingenuous not to — I find myself circuitously asking some of the era’s most elegant women whether they felt comfortable working with him.
Fifties’ cover girl Lucinda Hollingsworth concedes, “Sure, I saw the flirting — with other girls — but l I don’t think anyone took it seriously! And Bill was… look, he’s not a very tall person, and I was, what, 5ft 10in! But I must say, Eileen [Ford, head of the famous model agency] protected the girls, she was protecting her investments. She would’ve made sure Bill toed the line, just like she did everybody else!”
When asked the same question, Barbara Mullen dissolves into laughter, “Well, he clearly never wanted to go to bed with me!”
Helburn married two of the most beautiful models of his day, and was engaged to a third, Italian model-turned-actress Elsa Martinelli, in between. “Bill has said Elsa was the love of his life,” Robert Lilly notes, “but over the years I’ve worked with him, Bill has said that about a number of women!”
Helburn’s voice, however, gets softer as he talks about Jean Shrimpton, the legendary English model who took the US by storm in the early Sixties, and whose refusal to be interviewed for his book has prompted some stabs of regret. And it gets softer still when I ask about Sharon Tate.
“Of all the women I ever slept with… I never wanted to be with Sharon that way. I just wanted to be with her, to talk with her. Our relationship, in that sense, only lasted maybe three weeks in total. Polanski was filming Rosemary’s Baby up at the Dakota [apartment building], and every day he’d ask her to come on set with him and every day she’d say, ‘No, I want to hang out with Bill.’ So, every morning I’d walk into the lobby of my building and she would be sitting there waiting for me. We’d go up to the studio together and she’d sit in the office — which sounds a lot fancier than it was, it wasn’t any bigger than a bathroom! — and we’d chat between jobs and she’d help out if she could, I'd maybe use her in a picture if I needed an extra person.
“After the film wrapped, they went back to California. She’d call maybe once a month or so for about a year, and then that stopped. And then — well, that happened. But I think she would have done really well for herself. She was just lovely, a gorgeous, sexy woman and an outstanding person.”
Helburn pauses for a rare intake of breath. “But no one’s ever going to be able to look at those pictures, or think of her name, without thinking about what happened to her, are they?”
The golden age of the American image didn’t last. As Gloria Swanson snarled in 1950 in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.” But perhaps things just got to the point where it couldn’t take big pictures anymore. As the decade went into tailspin, image piled upon unforgettable image. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Marilyn singing “Happy Birthday”. Marilyn naked. Marilyn dead. Woodstock. Vietnam. Dead Kennedys. Neil Armstrong bouncing across the Moon’s surface. Roman Polanski in Life magazine sitting outside his house in Beverly Hills, next to a door covered with the already-fading word “pig” daubed, three days earlier, in Sharon Tate’s blood.
“It didn’t happen in an instant, but it was still definite, somehow,” Joe Nissen reflects. “Things changed. The small companies got bought by big conglomerates, the little agencies merged or sold out, and everything shifted to TV. And there were younger people who made that transition much more successfully.” And Helburn, who carried on well into the TV era with not inconsiderable success, sighs, “I remember sitting in my studio, waiting for the phone to ring… and it wasn’t ringing any more. I guess I finally retired in ’88 or ’89, so, when I was, what, 65? I was still making babies at that stage — five children altogether, from three marriages. I moved out to Connecticut and my wife, who was into real estate, decided to stay in Manhattan. The kids chose to stay with me so I became a stay-at-home dad, at the age most guys are becoming granddads! And you know what? I loved it. And I stopped photographing — I was never much for taking pictures if I wasn’t getting paid!”
But he’s still creating pictures, every second he speaks, using words now instead of a camera. He’s an irrepressible, engaging storyteller, with a penchant for black humour. Our conversation is peppered with too-good-to-not-be-true anecdotes: jostling with fellow GIs at a hotel bedroom keyhole to spy on John Wayne and his latest wife mid-honeymoon; a farcical early attempt at seduction involving breaking and entering, a fruit stand and a dead plumber; a sideline as a Ferrari racing-car driver (predictably, he says he was a lousy driver, visiting the emergency room more often than he did the podium); his last awkward encounter with Jean Shrimpton that ended with the two colliding heads and the model leaving with a bloody nose. Or the funeral of a beloved aunt, whose coffin — at the moment it was being laid to rest in the family mausoleum — crashed through into a forgotten lower level. Helburn still has a knack of painting an arresting picture, if only in your mind.
The process by which reputations are made (or not) is arbitrary. Arguably only a handful of photographers of that era — Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Terence Donovan, Lord Snowdon — have retained any foothold in the popular consciousness. And within their industry, creative men like Lois, Gene Federico, Helmut Krone and Robert Gage will always be superstars. But for most of the others, it was a different story; all that’s left are footnotes on yellowing pages, and last-name-only credits in tiny, sans-serif type: Plucer, Croner, Derujinsky, Balkin, Steinbicker, Leombruno-Bodi, Somoroff, Palumbo. The great magazines were bought, sold, merged, revamped and dissolved, their archives divided or destroyed. Many photographers’ work simply evaporated and Helburn was no exception: “Over the years I just kept throwing things away [those Hiroshima negatives among them]. You never realise, I guess, how important things were.”
And yet, despite the looming publication date of his book, Bill Helburn’s too busy to talk much about posterity. “But what about the future? The world is changing so much, so fast, don’t you think? And I worry about it, you know? I mean, I’m not going to be around for whatever happens, and neither are you, probably, but still…”
There’s a pause, then a shift in gears. “But you know, my life was wonderful. I really have had the best time in the world — just outstanding — beautiful women, fast cars, great wine, fine restaurants, going to incredible places. And I still love getting laid!
“Getting old is lousy. And I’ve told my kids, at the rate I’m spending, I'll be broke in six years! Who wants to live to be ninety-fucking-six, anyway?”
I hope Helburn does make it to 96, though. He’s just leased a new car, for one thing and he’s finally become a grandfather for the first time. Connecticut would be a far duller place without him.
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