William Helburn (1924–2020) was an American fashion and advertising photographer. He is best known for his contributions to advertising’s creative revolution in the 1950s and 1960s and his editorial work for magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Town and Country, Esquire and Charm. Helburn was a first-call photographer for Mad Ave agencies including Doyle Dane Bernbach, where he was praised by art director Helmut Krone for battling the “limits and style of the studio and the slowness of Kodachrome” to realize “a revolution in visual methods.” His photographs depict the era’s most important models, including Dorian Leigh, Dovima, Suzy Parker, Jean Shrimpton, Angela Howard, Jean Patchett and Lauren Hutton.
Helburn was born in New York City in 1924. He attended public and private schools in Manhattan and classes at The Art Students League of New York before joining the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942. Helburn served in the Pacific theater, where he and future partner Ted Croner learned to make develop film, including the first pictures of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. After the war, Helburn and Croner resolved to become fashion photographers. The two enrolled in Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory, which sometimes included Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Milton Greene, and Diane and Doone Arbus. Studying with Brodovitch led to Helburn’s first major assignment, a 10-page editorial shoot in the March 1949 edition of Junior Bazaar.
I was surprised I had been ignorant of his Midcentury Modern photography until being recently introduced through the 2014 book William Helburn: Seventh and Madison Mid-Century Fashion and Advertising Photography by Robert Lilly and Lois Allen Lilly. It was unforgivable to not have even heard his name since he worked with some of the ’50s and ’60s most famous modern art directors—Brodovitich, Cipe Pineles, Bob Gage, Henry Wolf, Gene Federico and others, as well as important clients. I was given the book almost a decade after publication. So I asked Robert Lilly to tell me more about Helburn’s career, the monograph, and how he and Lois helped revivify the photographer’s legacy.
What did you find appealing in William Helburn’s work?
In 2008 my wife Lois was working at Getty Images and was drawn to a Life magazine cover of a model (in “cancan lingerie”) that needed clearance for a Tommy Hilfiger campaign.
Clearing the picture led to Bill—and Bill’s eldest son, who told us, “No one knows who my father is anymore. Can you change that?”
Once we saw more of Bill’s pictures we were drawn to his sense of humor and the feel for the absurd he used to such great effect in pictures like Bus Top (“The Skirt’s the Thing,” Harper’s Bazaar, December 1958) and Let Them Eat Cake (“Salon Permanent Waves”—for Helene Curtis, 1962). We also loved the elegant images he created, including “Mad Hats for New Fall Outfits” (Life, 1956) and Dovima Under the El (“Dior Creates Cosmopolitan Drama,” 1955), and the more provocative, sexy images, including some we discovered later, such as Jean Patchett Primitif (for Max Factor, 1956) and Lauren Hutton (for Van Heusen, 1964). As story-oriented journalists we also appreciated Bill’s tales of his years working and living the high life in Midcentury Manhattan—not to mention racing Ferraris (Sebring, Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, Nassau, Havana) and other pleasant diversions.
What is it that gives his work the standout quality from others in the field at his period?
Bill’s images fall into several categories. His editorial images for Bazaar typify what he called his “shock value” aesthetic, tied to his drive to “do it different.” He told us, “Girls on tops of buses (Bus Top) was for Harper’s Bazaar. If she’s standing on a lamppost, standing on the roof of a bus—anything that’s out of the ordinary, that’s my persona or style.”
For Charm—“the magazine for women who work”—Bill shot quickly, generally in office or “work” settings, and produced some charming pictures with a documentary quality unusual for fashion photography of the era. He also turned out elegant pictures for Town and Country, Life and McCall’s.
In advertising, Bill worked closely with Bob Gage, Helmut Krone, Gene Federico, Joe Nissen and other art directors he considered the equal, in advertising, of Alexander Lieberman at Vogue and Alexey Brodovitch at Bazaar in editorial (though Bill revered Brodovich, whom he studied with and who gave him his first big break). Bill’s ads can be sexy, elegant or funny—sometimes all three. They’re bright with bold imaginative imagery that makes you look twice or three times—that is, if you can look away at all. Both advertising and fashion photography are collaborative but even in advertising, Bill told us the idea was often his—along with the model, location and, of course, execution.
Whoever he was shooting for, Bill’s pictures stand out. They get your attention. We interviewed Joe Nissen (Altman-Stoller Van Heusen From the Famous Shirtmaker for Men) for Seventh and Madison, who had this to say about working with Bill:
“Bill was a working photographer in a time of many great photographers—Avedon, Lillian Bassman and Irving Penn and half a dozen others. But they were primarily editorial photographers and working editorially gave these people a lot of latitude, a lot of cooperation from the publications, and they were strictly style photography or styled by the publications.
“Bill had all of the discipline; he had all the understanding. He had all of the style and the taste and the imagination but he was interested in the advertising business and he brought all those faculties to taking the photograph that would express the idea that was in the advertising. He combined the best of all those qualitie,s and because he was interested in both advertising and expressing ideas, he was a much better choice for me as an advertising photographer.
“If you’re set loose in Bulgaria with half a dozen models, an infinite amount of money and background, you can do interesting photographs. It’s much harder in the studio to take the kind of picture that impressed people in the two hours that you had to do the job. Bill was, in that world, the best of them.”
Why is he not as well known today as other high-end advertising photographers?
Bill liked to work and worked a lot. Midcentury photographers’ names rarely appeared on their magazine ads—Richard Avedon was a clear exception—but even when his name could have been included, Bill often left it off. Working a lot meant working for competitors—so far, we’ve logged 10 cosmetics/perfume firms and 15 automobile brands he shot for. Not being associated with any one firm made it easier to work for all of them.
The book is beautiful. What was your goal with it?
We appreciate that very much! The book was published in 2014. Its publication was part of our effort, with Bill very much involved, to make his pictures and his extraordinary life known—and by so doing, reestablish his name and establish a market for his fine art photography.
As such, it was one step in our campaign that included getting Bill’s pictures into a photo agency (first Corbis, now Getty) so he would have an online presence, writing and producing Seventh and Madison, signing Bill with a gallery, producing fine art prints and having the gallery hang the prints in a show.
All of that has been accomplished. Bill’s work is now for sale in five fine art photography galleries in the U.S. along with two in Europe (and more to come). His pictures have appeared in gallery shows as well as the Brooklyn Museum, the Norton Museum in Palm Beach and at art fairs in Europe and the U.S. Seventh and Madison put Bill in context as a photographer who made artful pictures for editorial and advertising pages. It did its job.