Defining Fashion and Advertising Photography in the 1950s and 60s
William Helburn was an American fashion photographer whose work helped define the look of fashion and advertising photography in the 1950s and 60s. Born in 1924 in Manhattan, Helburn attended the Art Students League and worked briefly as an illustrator but didn’t see photography in his future. That began to change after Helburn joined the US Army Air Force in 1942, washed out of flight school and was trained instead as a photo technician. Helburn served in the South Pacific, where he and future partner Ted Croner learned how to operate cameras, make contact prints and aerial maps and load and develop film – including the first pictures of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Top Models and Future Hollywood Stars
Back in New York and frustrated at their failure to launch an aerial photography business, Croner went on a weekend skiing trip where he saw an unusual sight for 1949 – a naked woman in the snow. The woman proved to be top model Lisa Fonssagrives, posing for test shots for her photographer-husband Ferdinand. Invited to visit Fonssagrives Manhattan studio, Croner brought Helburn and with the established photographer’s encouragement, the young men bought camera equipment, built a make-shift studio and began photographing aspiring young models – including future Hollywood stars Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren.
The Design Laboratory
Encounters with other aspiring photographers led Helburn and Croner to the Design Laboratory, weekly seminars run by Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovich. The two began attending Brodovitch’s classes along with contemporaries including Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, Milton Greene and Diane Arbus. Working to create himself as a photographer, Helburn’s drive to “do it different” soon caught the art director’s eye, leading to a ten page assignment for Bazaar that launched his career.
Ford Top Models
Helburn also developed a strong friendship with Eileen Ford, who had begun building what would soon become the most powerful and influential agency for fashion models in the world. Over the decades, Ford sent Helburn her top models, including Dovima, Jean Patchett and Barbara Mullen in the 1950s and Sunny Griffin and Jean Shrimpton in the 60s. And models liked shooting with Helburn. His fun, charming persona won many hearts – as did his mastery of technique, understated direction and unmatched ability to quickly conceptualize and create a unique image.
To Sunny Griffin, the world’s highest-paid fashion model in the mid-60s,
“He really knew how to make the model look wonderful. I didn’t have to worry about lighting with Bill. Many photographers – they wanted to see the wide wale on the corduroy and your face could look like hell, they didn’t really care. And the model had to be extremely aware.
With Bill I could let myself come through. I really feel like – he got me, he understood who I was. I could have a communication with him, just through the lens, that was fun and titillating and sexy and neat.”
1950s modeling star Barbara Mullen, recalled how easy Helburn could be to work with.
“He was quite quiet. He didn’t give you many instructions. At least with me and I’m sure this was the case with other models, he would let you do your thing. And if it wasn’t right he wasn’t temperamental or anything like that. He’d say no that’s not too good, put your arm further out or further in.”
Gracing the Pages of Magazines
Wherever a model’s arm might finally rest in a picture, the flirtatious, humorous aura Helburn created as he worked with his models illuminated the images they made. Working constantly, Helburn’s bold, often elegant pictures soon graced the pages of magazines including, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Charm, Town and Country, McCall’s and Esquire. Most were found in the full page ads that filled the magazines – starting in the late 1940s, Helburn shot some of the most playful, inventive advertising campaigns of the 20th century, seeding ideas as he worked with creative art directors including Robert Gage, Gene Federico, Helmut Krone and George Lois.
“Like the girl under the 3rd Avenue El,” said Helburn, “those were my ideas. And then they were drawn up by the art director to get my approval.”
Helburn described his aesthetic as ‘shock value’ as many of his images juxtaposed the sublime with the bizarre, presented in bold colors and dynamic compositions. Others expressed elegance, refined through his personality and taste. Success meant working for competitors – so Helburn often kept his name off his work.
“I didn’t want any identification, actually” said Helburn. “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.”
Startling, Unexpected Pictures
William Helburn’s talent for making startling, unexpected pictures helped define image-making in America during the 50s and 60s. His work embodied both the glamour and sophistication of Manhattan and the youthful spirit of postwar America. His beloved New York streets were adjuncts to his studio, in such classic pictures as Dovima Under the El, Dior Creates Cosmopolitan Drama (1955), Barbara Mullen Red Canoe (1957) and Bus Top, Dovima and Jean Patchett for Harper’s Bazaar (1958). Helburn’s dazzling imagination capture the optimism and possibility of the period.
Shifting Towards Film and Video
As magazine advertising gave way to television in the 1970s, Helburn gradually shifted towards film and video and began directing commercials, while still creating fashion and advertising photographs. Helburn won more than 46 professional awards over a 30-year period. He also raced Ferraris at Nassau, Sebring, Watkins Glenn and Havana, both for Team Ferrari and as an independent, though his teams never came in first. “I wasn’t a fast driver,” said Helburn. “I was a fast photographer-driver.” William Helburn died in Connecticut in 2022, age 96.