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 advertising agencies including Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), where art director Helmut Krone praised the photographer for battling the “limits and style of the studio and the slowness of Kodachrome” in order to realize “a revolution in visual methods.”
“I think fashion photography is, singularly, the most creative form of photography...The fashion photographer always has so much of his inner self, contributing. His taste. His inner being ... I don’t think I thought of myself as other than that.”
- Bill Helburn
William (Bill) Dwight Helburn was born in New York City. His childhood was divided between his mother’s apartment in Manhattan and her mother’s home in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he once photographed aviator Amelia Earhart at a local airport. Helburn attended a string of public and private schools in Manhattan and also took classes at The Art Students League of New York.
Helburn joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 but failed pilot training because of a medical issue. Given a choice of becoming a mechanic or a photo technician, Helburn joined the 949th Engineer Aviation Topographic Company, where he learned how to load and operate cameras, develop film and make contact prints and aerial maps. While in training, Helburn became friends with Ted Croner (who later became a noteworthy photographer as well). Helburn says he and Croner developed the first pictures from the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.
BECOMING A PHOTOGRAPHER
Following the war, Helburn and Croner went to New York where they tried but failed to launch an aerial mapping business. Both visited photographer Fernand Fonssagrives studio and resolved to become fashion photographers after Croner, on a weekend ski trip to Stowe, Vermont, encountered Fonssagrives taking nude pictures of his wife, model Lisa Fonssagrives, in the snow.
Helburn and Croner opened a small studio over a stable on New York’s West Side and began a brief partnership, learning the trade by taking test shots of models supplied by a new agency, Society of Models. They quickly learned from other photographers that Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch was holding regular workshop classes, which he called the Design Laboratory, for aspiring photographers and graphic designers. Studying with Brodovitch proved to be critical for both men’s careers, as it was for many of their peers. According to Helburn, their class at times included Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Milton Greene and Diane and Doone Arbus. Helburn received a major boost when Brodovitch assigned him work for Junior Bazaar (a supplement to Harper’s Bazaar) including a nine-page editorial shoot in the March 1949 edition.
HELBURN AND THE CREATIVE REVOLUTION IN ADVERTISING
1949 brought both the start of Helburn’s career, with his first published images in Harper’s Bazaar and Charm, and the launch of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the agency that would spark advertising’s creative revolution. DDB founder Bill Bernbach’s goal of presenting a client’s message “in a fresh and original way” meshed with Helburn’s “shock value” aesthetic, defined by images that used humor, often juxtaposing the sublime with the absurd. Helburn became a fixture at DDB, working with art directors including Robert Gage, Helmut Krone, George Lois, Bill Taubin and Gene Federico. Helburn’s talents were also prized by other ad agencies, including Altman-Stoller, where art director Joseph Nissen claimed Helburn was peerless in his ability to quickly compose images that expressed “the idea that was in the advertising” in a compelling way.
Helburn won more than 46 professional awards over a 30-year period, including 13 American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) ‘Certificates of Excellence/Fifty Advertisements of the Year’, 13 Art Directors Club ‘Awards (or) Certificates of Merit’, 4 Advertising Club of New York ‘Andy Awards’ and 3 ‘Clio Awards for Advertising Excellence Worldwide.’
Helburn befriended improvident Spanish marquis and race car driver Alfonso de Portago and with his involvement, purchased a Ferrari Testarossa and began racing for Ferrari (or as an independent) in events sanctioned by the National Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and the Cuban Sport Commission. Helburn raced from 1956 through 1958 and again in 1961. In 1957, his most active year, Helburn raced eight times, finishing second at the SCCA Regional Thompson, fifth in the Cuban Grand Prix and ninth in the Nassau Trophy Race. Over the course of his racing career, Helburn’s driving partners included Portago, fellow fashion photographer Gleb Derujinsky, Belgian driver Olivier Gendebien and Dominican diplomat and playboy, Porfirio Rubirosa. Helburn raced just once in 1961, finishing ninth in the Sebring 12-Hour Florida International Grand Prix. View his incredible cars HERE.
Helburn continued to work as a fashion and advertising photographer through the early 1980s, producing award winning ads for Napier Jewelry (in collaboration with art director Gene Federico) as late as 1983. Helburn also developed a substantial business directing and shooting television commercials, working with many of the same art directors whom he’d collaborated with in his still photography career. Helburn began selling fine art prints of his photography in 2011. He is represented by the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York City, the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, California, Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, and the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts.
William Helburn died in Connecticut on November 3, 2020.
He was 96 years old.