Helmut Newton & Mark Arbeit

In our second Newton special, we talk to American photographer Mark Arbeit, the second of three assistants Helmut Newton befriended and mentored for 25 years.
Words: Ger Ger
Images: Mark Arbeit

"One time I was assisting Helmut shooting [Prince] Egon von Fürstenberg. Helmut worked on one picture (a roll of film of 36 exposures) for about an hour. When I went to change the film, I realized I had forgotten to load it. I thought Helmut would kill me. He didn't say a word and started over again. Back at The Beverly Hills Hotel, Helmut said, 'Mark, there are assistants and photographers. You're not an assistant.'"

After assisting Helmut Newton in Los Angeles and Irving Penn in New York, Mark Arbeit followed his instincts and moved to Milan, where his own career as a fashion and portrait photographer was born. In 1985, he settled in Paris to further his career and expand his artistic boundaries. His work appeared in Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Madame Figaro, Vanity Fair, InStyle, People, Forbes, and Harper's Bazaar. He has also created a broad spectrum of personal and experimental work.

Mark Arbeit was born in Chicago and raised in Northern California. When he was 16, his family moved to Oahu, Hawaii. The beauty of the islands awakened Arbeit's visual senses. At 18, Arbeit enrolled in the University of Hawaii to study art and photography. A few years later, he transferred to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. While living there, Arbeit met Newton and started to work for him.

"I worked with Helmut in Los Angeles between 1979 and1980 for Stern magazine, American Vogue, GQ, on advertising campaigns, and in Milan, Italy, in 1982 for Amica magazine. In Rome, we shot the Valentino advertising campaign at Valentino's house with the model Patti Hansen and Keith Richards was there. In 1984, I went with Helmut and [his wife] June to Venice, Italy, to help him with a photography workshop and an exhibition at the Museo Fortuny. Four years later, I worked with Helmut on a cover shoot for the film "Frames from the Edge" at the Hotel Raphael in Paris. We always stayed in touch. In 1996, I was given an assignment to photograph Helmut Newton for Femme Magazine. Helmut was pleasantly surprised when I walked in on his photo shoot, an ad campaign for YSL."

"My first job was selling lemon ice cream bars at Stanford University football games. I bought my first serious camera in 1971: the Canon F-1, built like a tank. I went to my first concert at 14: Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore West. Two years later, when we moved to Hawaii, a friend on the high school swim team missed his yearbook photo shoot and asked me to shoot it. He was taking a darkroom class and showed me how to develop the film. The first time I saw a print being processed, I was hooked for life. Starting with a blank sheet of paper and watching it develop into a two-dimensional precious object...
I was very lucky to travel around the world starting at an early age. My father worked for an airline, so whenever we had school breaks we'd be traveling around the world. Those early travels to Spain, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, and Thailand had a strong influence on me, the way I look at women, cultures, and architecture.

My fashion vision was originally more in the direction of Avedon, Blumenfeld, Penn, and Guy Bourdin.
It was later on, working with Helmut, that I started to appreciate his vision and philosophy, his choice of models, his lighting technique, his choice in shooting locations, and his ways of directing the model. He was in total control of everything. And then I also started to love Helmut as a person."

"Penn always worked in a very controlled environment where he could light his subject perfectly and consistently, whether in a north-facing studio or using electronic flash. Helmut, on the other hand, would take many more chances. He could light a picture or subject anywhere and in any lighting situation.

But both had a similar approach of directing their models. Helmut would start with the chin and direction of the face, working down to the shoulder, back, 'one hand this way, the other up and away, turn the hips slightly towards me, legs apart, turn the left foot slightly, left toe a little to the right.' They would both sculpt their models in the exact position they desired.

Helmut mostly worked with one assistant at a time so everything was on you. He was extremely serious on set. Helmut had this beautiful Louis Vuitton hard suitcase he used as his camera case. The majority of the time he shot with a Nikon 35mm camera. For film, he would mainly shoot Tri-X 400 Black & White film and Kodak Ektachrome color transparency film. In the studio, Helmut also used a Hasselblad and Rolleiflex with electronic flash."

"Both Penn and Newton could shoot an editorial one day, an advertising campaign another day, and the following day personal work that could be in a museum. I worked for Penn in 1980 and watched him shooting his 'Street Material’ series. Years later, I would see those same pictures in museums and galleries around the world.
Irving Penn was a very quiet and private man. He was not easy to get to know at first. I was one of the two to four people who worked on retouching his black and white prints. Penn created a multilayered platinum print technique. He would have two to four sheets of film of varying densities and contrasts, and it would take him about two weeks to make one print. Because of his technique, the pictures had so much dust. It would take four to seven hours to finish each print. It was difficult work but Penn would let us take a one-hour lunch break. As soon as he started shooting for Vogue and Vanity Fair, I would sit in the back of the room eating my sandwich, watching the master work.

With Helmut, at the beginning I was most interested in his relationships with the magazines' photo and art directors, and then it quickly became so much more. I learned so much from him.

One time I met with Helmut to show him my latest, just-published editorial shoot, which I was very attached to. Helmut said, 'Your pictures are like babies and some babies must die.'"

"Another time when Helmut invited me to Verona, Italy, to oversee the printing of his book 'World without Men,' I had a 40-page editorial coming out every month. I brought my portfolio again. Helmut looked at my work and said, 'You're in love with glossy paper,' meaning there was a lot there, but nothing interesting.

It was a big slap in the face, but it made me think, 'what am I doing?' I had been shooting a lot in studio. It was okay, nice lighting. But it made me ask myself what I really wanted, and that was to shoot fashion on location. I started turning down studio work and pushed more and more to work on location. Over time, this became my style and what magazines would seek out from me. Years later, I was shooting in Monte Carlo and ran into Helmut at the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel. His editor from American Vogue mentioned she had seen a great editorial I shot in Thailand. What Helmut said to me in Verona many years before had changed my direction and style in photography forever."

"My biggest mistake? Once, when Helmut asked me if I would like to start assisting June, I declined. It wasn't until much later I started to appreciate June's work and realize what a great portraitist she is.

I think my inspiration is constantly evolving. Each time I'm ending one series and starting the next, there is a transition in the way I start to look at things. In the middle of my 'In and out of Focus' series, I was walking around the streets of Paris, squinting my eyes to imagine any subject out of focus."

"Before the digital age, photographers were magicians. We would go off to an island with a team of models, makeup/hair artists, and a fashion editor and shoot 30 pages of fashion editorial work without seeing one picture developed (we did have Polaroids to give everyone an idea of what we were doing). But now with digital, the photographer has lost a lot of his power. You have four people staring into your computer as you're shooting.

Most of my work I shot with a medium format Pentax 6x7 camera. For personal work, I had a 4x5 Super-D Graflex camera. Today, I have a Rolleiflex wide-angle camera and a few stereo cameras I'm beginning to use. I bought a Deardorff 8x10 camera to work on my Hawaiian series and have shot hundreds of sheets of film. For commercial work, I've been working with a Phase One camera for the past 12 years and I've never stopped using Canon for editorial.

When I told Helmut I loved shooting with a wide-angle lens, telling a big story, he responded, 'Back yourself up using a normal lens. If you can learn to shoot with a normal [focal length] lens, you can do anything.'"

"Usually, everything is prepared beforehand, whether it's a fashion shoot or celebrity portrait. I'll have visited the location in advance and have an idea of which place works best for each outfit. It's great when you work with a team you know well. That way there are no surprises. But another thing I learned from Helmut is to still stay fickle: if you come up with a better idea, don't be afraid to change.
At times I get so deep into concentrating on a shoot, I don't hear a thing around me. It's a state of meditation. If a feeling comes over me that I'm shooting something really original, I get goosebumps."

"I still love fashion. It's another form of art. I love materials, design, and the artisanal aspect of making fashion and shoes. I was fortunate to see quite a bit of this living in Milan and Paris.
When I was younger, especially as I was developing my style, I looked at magazines a lot. Now I mainly look at magazines to see trends in fashion, hair, and makeup."

"I do have a feet/shoe fetish. Women's shoes are sculptures. One period living in Paris, I was photographing all the Étoile ballet dancers from the Paris Opera. I was awed by how their love for ballet and the dedication to their art was all concentrated in their feet. Feet tell me so much about a woman.

Nowadays, I also love shooting male celebrities. The guys are usually cooler and the bigger the star, the more confident and down-to-earth. You can make them look strong and tough, show every line in their face. With actresses, it's all about beauty and the best lighting and styling."

"The most emotional moment in my life was seeing my wife giving birth to our son. I met her and her daughter for the first time in Paris. My wife is a Thai chef and I was invited to a private dinner where she and her aunt were cooking."
Mark Arbeit has always felt connected to the Hawaiian Islands and has lived there on and off for the past 50 years. He currently lives with his wife, Pattariya, and their son, Ocean, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Their daughter, Jariya, is 28 and lives in Paris.

"There is a place on the Big Island of Hawaii where I love going to hike and take pictures with my 8x10 camera. It's called Waipio Valley. It's as if time has stopped. Global warming is our greatest threat. If everyone did their part in using cleaner energy and recycling, it could be good for all of us." — Mark Arbeit

Image credits: [1] Fashion editorial for French Cosmopolitan magazine in Thailand showing Newton's influence in use of location and props, 1991. Mark Arbeit [2] Mark Arbeit with Helmut and June Newton after lunch at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, 1990. Mark Arbeit [3] Portrait of Helmut shooting a YSL campaign in Paris telling the model 'bouche pas' (don't move). Behind the scenes for Femme Magazine, 1996. Mark Arbeit [4] Nudes in Atelier Alain Bonnefoit, Paris, 2002. Mark Arbeit [5] Tearsheet signed for Mark by Helmut, 1983. Helmut Newton [6] Halona Beach Cove, Oahu, Hawaii, 8x10 Deardorff, 2012. Mark Arbeit [7] Ernest Hemingway fashion story at the Le Dôme Café, Paris for Harper’s Bazaar Australia, 1988. Mark Arbeit [8] Charlotte Rampling at her home outside Paris, 1989. Mark Arbeit [9] Fashion shoot, Sydney Australia, 1995. Mark Arbeit [10] Bikers in Hilo, Hawaii, 8x10 Deardorff, 2001. Mark Arbeit [11] Claire, Kawela Bay, Hawaii, 8x10 Deardorff, 2002. Mark Arbeit [12] June and Helmut Newton in Monte Carlo, 1990. Mark Arbeit [13] June Newton reading Patrick Suskind's Perfume at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, 1990. Mark Arbeit [14] Atelier Antoine Bourdelle, Paris, 1993. Mark Arbeit [15] Man Ray fashion story in Paris for GQ Japan, 1997. Mark Arbeit [16] Fashion editorial for Harper's Bazaar Australia at the Chrysler Building showing Newton's influence in use of location, NYC, 1988. Mark Arbeit [17] Jenny, Helmut, and June for Mark, 1984. Helmut Newton