Born in 1924, Helburn studied drawing at The Art Students League of New York before joining a US Army Air Force Photo Unit during the Second World War. In the South Pacific, Helburn learned to operate cameras and develop film with friend and future partner Ted Croner, before returning to New York.
Enticed by the notion of a career in fashion photography, Helburn soon joined legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory. Helburn studied alongside such photography legends such as Richard Avedon, Milt Greene, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus and ultimately developed his creative credo “Do it different”. Brodovich rewarded Helburn with his first editorial consignment for Junior Bazaar in 1949.
He soon became recognized for his creative gifts, both as an editorial photographer and within an advertising industry that worshipped creativity. Helburn’s “do it different” and “shock value” aesthetic was in demand for decades. Combining elements of humour, luxury, sex, great style and the absurd, his images appeared frequently in ads and editorial pages in magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, LIFE and Town & Country.
Helburn developed close relationships with many of reigning models of the day, including Dovima and Jean Patchett in the 50s and Jean Shrimpton in the 60s. He enjoyed a special friendship with actress Sharon Tate, who he described as “a fabulous, wonderful girl.
Along with a passion for beautiful women and the high life, Helburn loved fast cars – particularly Ferraris. He raced, either independently or for Team Ferrari, at tracks including Watkins Glenn, Havana, and Sebring in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Helburn admitted that while he loved the scene, “I wasn’t a fast driver. I was a fast photographer-driver.” Auto-makers reciprocated - Helburn photographed for major American and European firms, from Chrysler, Ford and Cadillac to Jaguar and Triumph.
Helburn remained active into the 80’s, both continuing his work as a fashion and advertising photographer and directing and shooting commercials. His work has been exhibited in London, Paris, and across the US, with his first book being published in 2014. He has won more than 46 awards over the span of his career. William Helburn passed away in 2020 at the age of 96.