Helburn was known for his desire for shock value, always making the boldest choice to sell his client’s product in a way that was perhaps ahead of his time. Helburn, himself a notorious lothario, knew sex sold. Accordingly, one of his most famous images on view in “Ad-Man” is a black and white photograph of Jean Shrimpton from 1964, her mouth pursed suggestively around a single radish, shot for Wishbone Salad Dressing. And while nudity is by no means shocking in our current visual culture, in the 1950s and 1960s it was positively gasp-worthy, if not more. Nevertheless, Helburn used nude models in his advertisement photographs from early on in his career. The exhibition actually opens with a 1967 image of model Sunny Griffin nude, save for a clear, plastic raincoat with artfully arranged silver trim, shot for Braniff Airways. A bit further along is a 1957 black and white photograph of model Dovima, all bare limbs with a giant, leopard-print handbag covering her torso, shot for Jenna Bags.
What’s interesting about Helburn’s photographs, though, is that save for models’ appearances–because there’s nothing not 1960s about Jean Shrimpton’s doe eyes and upward hair flip– the lighting and composition are actually quite timeless. An especially powerful example of this is Helburn’s photograph of model Dorian Leigh from 1955: she stands in a bathtub provocatively draped in a shower curtain, a bright flash of white behind her illuminating her curving silhouette. Today such a photograph would have a modern vintage appeal; a style that, while developed in another era, is classically not campily nostalgic. Another strong example is in Helburn’s image of model Jennifer O’Neill, whose hands are adorned with all manner of Napier rings–both Movado (watches) and David Yurman (jewelry) have used similar compositions in recent years.
All of Helburn’s work is also decidedly conscious of the geometry in each image. His 1954 photograph of a couple lying in the grass for Coke makes use of negative space and rectangles to draw the viewer’s eye downward toward the soda bottles at the base of the image, while his 1960 photograph of Deborah Dixon for cosmetics company Helene Curtis turns our attention to the waves formed by Dixon’s hair on a distinct white background and a 1967 photograph of Sharon Tate with a bow and arrow uses the lines of the weapon to highlight the actress’s curves.
But one of the most wonderful aspects of Helburn’s work is his sense of humor. He manages to find the silly and the shocking at the same time. A pretty image is a pretty image, after all, but a particularly memorable one provokes a reaction of some kind. Helburn knew many of his models quite well, so was able to put them in a variety of ridiculous situations in which they’d feel totally comfortable. His 1955 image of model Jean Patchett smoking a cigarette in Penn Station next to a man dressed as a Roman soldier was a favorite in this particular exhibition, as was the image of Linda Harper cloaked in furs, holding a pair of skis, with a flood of ticker tape spilling from her elbow.
The legendary art directors and ad men of the time knew to turn to Helburn for images that would capture the eyes of their intended audiences: images that were not just beautifully lit and composed, but ones that produced a response and creatively sold a product. Accordingly, for the length of his career, he was never without work. In “Seventh and Madison,” Robert and Lois Allen Lilly’s 2014 collection of his work, Helburn himself shares the secret to his success: “I made it because I had to always do something a little different.” It’s a perfect challenge for any photographer, a beginner or a seasoned professional.
See “William Helburn: Ad-Man” on view at New York’s Staley-Wise Gallery, until August 26.