Helmut Newton & George Holz

We meet with celebrity photographer George Holz at The Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel to talk about his 40-year career and how everything started with assisting Helmut Newton.
Words: Ger Ger
Images: George Holz

"Helmut liked things that were really American. On the Van Halen shoot I had to go out to McDonald's and get $100 worth of Big Macs for him and the band. He liked simple things and Americana, rock and country music."

George Holz, whose career started in 1979 as one of Helmut Newton's very few assistants, quickly became a highly accomplished fashion, celebrity, and portrait photographer in his own right. His work appeared in magazines such as Vogue, Madame Figaro, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Interview, The New York Times Magazine, InStyle, People, Glamour, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. His album cover art includes work for Madonna, Shania Twain, Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, Van Halen, Joan Jett, Boyz II Men, and Chaka Khan. In 1990, Holz received a Grammy for his artwork on Suzanne Vega's album Days of Open Hand and his fine art nudes have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world.

Born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1956, Holz graduated from high school in 1974. He then went to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he took all the photography classes he could. He spent a year in Israel and traveling through Europe thereafter, transferring to Pasadena's ArtCenter College of Design close to Los Angeles in 1977. Today Holz lives and photographs on his farm in upstate New York, though still travels extensively for assignments.

"I always knew I wanted to be a photographer, ever since I was very small. One of my sisters, Jane, was in the Navy in Guam. [She] bought me a Minolta SR-T 101, the same that David Hamilton had, and I was always photographing my girlfriends in high school. Then I started to do some work for a local modeling agency and I was hooked. There was one store in our town that sold magazines. There was no Internet. Now kids are bombarded by visual imagery and you can look up everything. But I saw those magazine covers, [the] work of David Bailey, Guy Bourdin and so on. It was mainly the photo magazines that interested me. There was Vogue and Mademoiselle but it wasn't like being in New York City, having hundreds of magazines. My dad had Playboy and I also looked at that. Some of the photographers shooting for it at the time were Chris von Wangenheim and Helmut Newton. I didn't know their names but recognized the pictures."

"It all started in Beverly Hills. A friend of mine, Mark Arbeit, orchestrated it all. Even in school Mark was a great fashion photographer and his father worked for TWA. So Mark could go to Milan or Paris for the weekend and do assignments since he could fly for free. The rest of us were photographing girls in Pasadena. He was working for a boutique on Rodeo Drive and the owner knew that Mark liked Helmut Newton's work. So she said, 'Oh Mark, by the way, Helmut is coming to pick up a check for his work for Fendi. If you wanna hang out here you can probably meet him.' I was Mark's best friend and he brought me along.
We ended up hanging out in the basement all day. Finally, Helmut came, Lina [Lee] introduced us and we just said, 'If you ever want us to be your assistants, drivers or whatever you have for us, we'll do it' and he was like 'Well, you could start by giving me a ride back to the hotel'. I had this 1969 Dodge Dart which now could be considered a very cool kind of muscle car but it was rusted and the seat was broken so I had to put a milk crate behind it so it wouldn't fall back. I opened the door with a fork. But Helmut loved riding in it. You pull up and would see Bugattis and Ferraris and he thought it was so kitsch to pull up in this car like Beverly Hillbillies. So we dropped him off at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Helmut and June [Newton] used to stay at that time. Later we came back and tried to get a hold of him at the front desk. That was before the days of email and cell phones."

"Mark, Just [Loomis], and I basically camped outside his hotel room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We knocked on their hotel room door and June opened the door and saw us. She slammed it shut and said to Helmut, 'They're still there!' Helmut opened the door, advised us to leave but to return in the morning of the following day. The rest is history. That's how everything started.

Helmut was doing a lot of work for Stern magazine and Vogue Paris at the time. It was a very creative phase in his career. We would assist him on shoots in Los Angeles and hang out here at the bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel afterwards and talk about photography. This was way before Helmut and June moved to the Chateau [Marmont] for their Los Angeles stays in the winter time.

Working with Helmut was not like he handed you your career on a silver platter. But we would show him our work regularly and he wouldn't shy away from telling us if it sucked, although he was always very polite.

After one or two years Helmut pushed Mark, me, and later Just, to move to Milan and start to work for fashion magazines that might give us a chance so we could work on our own careers. So when I graduated from ArtCenter, Mark and me shared an apartment with no heat in Milan. The good thing was that there was a modeling agency on the top floor. I remember Helmut saying things like 'Call this lady, or call him' or he would scribble somebody's name. Not a lot came out of it right away but sometimes later it might have helped and opened a door. People knew him. Although though Mark and I more or less stopped working for Helmut when we left L.A., we would never stop hanging out. We would all see him in Europe, L.A., and New York. I had the honor of having Helmut and June come to my first one-man show in L.A. at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in 1991. He and June never became parents and I guess in a way you could consider us to be their kids. Just continued to work for Helmut until around 2003. June, at 95, is still the glue that holds all of this together, and her creation of the 'Three Boys from Pasadena' exhibition with the initial show in 2009 at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin really brought all of this full circle. All of us were classmates at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena (this is why she gave us the name 'Three Boys'). She said we were his only three assistants that went on to become photographers in our own right."

"My first job in Italy was for Donna Magazine. I was doing some still lifes of shoes and I'd become known for shoes and accessories. Then I got in with Lei magazine with Franca Sozzani. She and her sister, Carla Sozzani, gave me a lot of really great assignments and I started to work for Vogue Italia. Those were great years, living in Milan, receiving assignments in Paris from French Elle, Madame Figaro, and L'Officiel, and from Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar in New York.

In the beginning I did mostly fashion and beauty work, and then that turned into advertising in the early '80s in New York, which was an amazing time to be there. I ended up having a studio there for over 20 years. It was the day of photography, advertising and fashion. I also started to do album art for Warner Bros. Records and in the early '90s I segued into working for Vanity Fair, People, and Premiere magazine, and it almost became all celebrities."

"When I was shooting Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for 'As Good As It Gets', I remember she was getting her makeup [done] and he was just sitting on the couch smoking cigarettes. I asked the publicist if I could do a couple of shots and she wouldn't want to allow anything outside the group cover. He goes like 'Ah fuck. How many shots are on a roll? That's how many shots you get.' So I got 10 pictures in a very quick, simple setup. Some straight on and then the shot of him smoking from the side that became really iconic.

When I got out of school I was very influenced by Helmut. The kind of girls I might choose, the poses. I'm still in a way, considering the fact that I do like portraits, fashion, and nudes but I also always loved the classics: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Man Ray. So that changed over time. I think the style finds you the more you shoot."

"On a Bloomingdale's catalogue shoot with Aly Dunne, the iconic model of the '80s, I remember there was this garden and a pool. The owner of the house, an old man, was swimming and someone was walking beside him with oxygen. At lunch break I said, 'Aly, will you do it?' And she just whipped off her clothes right in the middle of the job, with the clients and everybody around, and we got that amazing shot.

That's something I learned from Helmut. Take advantage. If you are on a great job, an amazing location, have great hair and makeup, after the shoot keep the model and do something for yourself. Take time and milk it."

"Helmut loved available light. He could light with a lightbulb in a closet. He would expose in what I would call 'available darkness' but would not be afraid to go out in the middle of the day in the hard sun. Occasionally, he would use a little flash on camera but it wasn't like on my shoots with huge equipment trucks.

I got much more into light because for the shoots I would have to do I needed to be able to light a variety of subjects in different ways. When I do my personal work I do like to work with the simplicity. I'm not saying that Helmut wasn't technical. He could expose film perfectly to the way he wanted the exposure and color balance. He knew about pushing [film]. But usually Helmut carried only a single Louis Vuitton suitcase with his cameras inside. At the time it was mainly the Olympus OM-1, a pretty simple SLR camera. He also liked medium format, especially the Hasselblad he had. But other gear was rare. Usually there was no grip and I often would block the light from his eyes with my bare hand. Teams back then were often small and Helmut loved to keep things simple. Sometimes it was only Mark and me or Just and me assisting or he was by himself.

These days it's somewhat about the show. Some clients or the talent will want to see an equipment truck full of gear or they want to see a camera better than what they have. Often I bring most of it just in case, to be prepared for eventualities. Even if the photographer could perfectly do it with a Nikon D800 or whatever, some people want to see a Hasselblad or Phase [One]. It's funny and really silly."

"With Jennifer Aniston I had the opportunity to work several times. This particular shot was taken with my 11x14 Deardorff camera close to a window. I knew the magazine would never use this shot but she loved this picture. With Lauren Hutton we had two days to shoot. She was crazy, wacky, and just wonderful. We were shooting her house, the architecture, and then were outside and she just had this grin. The sun was coming in at the end of the day and she rolled her cigarette.

Bruce Willis I shot for a cover for Entertainment Weekly. We were in Philadelphia at a train station. It was at night and cold. They were filming in the area and that was the only time we could shoot. He had these numbers tattooed on the side of his head for the movie, like a barcode. He brought these huge bodyguards with him. I asked, 'Why do you need bodyguards?' since he is a big guy. And he goes, 'People are always trying to pick a fight with me to say they can 'kick Bruce's ass,' because he always played those characters."

"Angelina Jolie had just finished her Golden Globe-winning performance in 'Gia' when I was called by People to photograph her for the '50 Most Beautiful' issue. She arrived with no makeup, no publicist, and no entourage. Angelina was incredible in front of the camera. We did the safer images that the magazine required in the beginning and then ended up shooting four more hours. She gave everything. We spied a kitchen knife in catering and used it as a prop. I thought the photo editor was going to have a heart attack when she saw us shooting with it but that edgy shot went on to become an iconic image. In 2012, photographer Terry O'Neill included one of the images from this session in the Daily Mail's list of "ten of the most iconic photo portraits of all time.
Carly Simon I was photographing in her bathroom for InStyle. It was really steamy inside and she had this idea to go downstairs and bring one of the lobsters she had in her fridge. She came back up and there was mist everywhere. It was a very small room. My assistant got so tired that the camera was synched wrong. A quarter of the frame was black at the bottom. I could have killed him when I found out after the shoot. But Carly was great. She played 'You're So Vain' on the piano and I played the drums next to it."

"Brad Pitt was still very young when I photographed him. I was out in Montana on a fishing trip, on vacation. My agent called and said, 'Would you like to shoot this young actor Brad Pitt?' and I didn't know who he was. They said, 'He was just in 'Thelma and Louise'', and I said 'Oh great!' I loved fly fishing and they were doing Robert Redford's 'A River Runs Through It' and I went out and hung out with him. His parents were there and his dog. I taught him how to fly fish, how to cast, because they just started filming. At some point my assistant and me kind of kidnapped him and were driving around the countryside. No publicist. Nobody knew who he was.

When I shot Cameron Diaz she just had done the movie 'The Mask' and the shoot was at the Mission up in Santa Barbara. The setting was great and so were the clothes. The casino dress was very iconic old Hollywood. Cameron was hilarious, really funny. She was gorgeous, she was a model as well. It was a memorable shoot ending up with so many pictures that day."

"What I find inspiring in women? When they really are a muse. The true term. I look for girls with something you cannot really put your finger on, a mysteriousness and a fragility. I also like girls that can act and emote, who are not stiff. Sometimes I like people who haven't been photographed and don't fall into certain poses. The portrait is also very important to me, even for nudes. There is something about the face and the eyes. And a certain passionate interest in wanting to be photographed."
Today Holz lives and shoots many projects on his and his wife's farm in Phoenicia, in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. His wife, Jennifer, is a writer and producer. Their son, Joshua, who recently graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Film and Television Studies, also shares a passion for still photography. The Holz Farm is a popular location for other photographers: Mario Sorrenti has shot at the farm and so have Vogue Australia, Italian Vanity Fair, and Triumph Motorcycles.

"With today's connectivity, it's easy to work in a remote location. I still travel a lot but nowadays, I prefer to be as much as possible in nature. Less stress and the air is good. We also regularly host models for personal projects for two to three days. They can take naps or sleep in, my wife cooks and we listen to the girls' stories. On jobs you're always watching the clock. Personal work at the farm in contrast can be very relaxing and days in the summer can feel very long." — George Holz

Image Credits: [1] Helmut Newton photographing models at a pool in Mount Olympus in the Hollywood Hills on assignment for Stern magazine, 1979. George Holz [2] Carly Simon for InStyle, 1995. George Holz [3] Bruce Willis for Entertainment Weekly in Philadelphia, 1995. George Holz [4] Helmut Newton photographing Lisa Lyons in Hollywood, 1980. George Holz [5] Cyndi Lauper for InStyle in her apartment in New York, 1979. George Holz [6] Jack Nicholson for Entertainment Weekly in Los Angeles, 1997. George Holz [7] Angelina Jolie for People at Primal Light Studio in New York City, 1998. George Holz [8] Amanda with local boys in stream in the Tobago Keys for Men's Journal, 1992. George Holz [9] Aly Dunne photographed in Palm Beach, 1983. George Holz [10] Stone Mountain Flying Trapeze in New Paltz, New York, 1999. George Holz [11] Helmut Newton photographing Lisa Lyons in Hollywood, 1980. George Holz [12] Jennifer Aniston for InStyle in Los Angeles, 1995. George Holz [13] Lauren Hutton in New Mexico for InStyle, 2002. George Holz [14] Alicia jumping for a ball in Woodland Valley, Phoenicia, 1998. George Holz [15] Portrait of Helmut Newton in Manhattan Beach, 1979. George Holz [16] Cameron Diaz for Los Angeles Magazine at the Old Mission Santa Barbara, 1995. George Holz [17] Brad Pitt fly fishing in the Gallatin River in Montana photographed for People, 1991. George Holz [18] First time on set with Helmut Newton in Manhattan Beach for Stern, 1979. George Holz