Helmut Newton’s Hidden Past: ‘It must have been so frustrating for him – no wonder he went crazy’ | Photography

Ohen you think of high-end glamor of the 1980s, you probably think of legendary fashion photographer Helmut Newton, even if you don’t know him. Powerful Amazonian beauties, sharp monochromes, overt eroticism, surreal accessories – it’s an aesthetic that can be found in thousands of editorials.

You probably don’t think of the notoriously stuffy 1950s Melbourne. But it was here that German-born Jew Newton arrived as a refugee in 1940, and it was here that he spent years establishing himself as a renowned fashion photographer before moving to Paris in the early 1960s, dismissing his entire career in Australia as worthless, closing the subject, and being generally intriguing secret about his work in those Australian years. So why the big secret?

Elsa Peretti, New York, 1975. Photography: Helmut Newton Foundation

A new exhibition of Newton’s work at the Australian Jewish Museum in Melbourne (open until January 29, 2023) attempts to shed light on the mystery of his early life and his work, including many pieces recently rediscovered and unseen for decades.

Newton’s Australian career may have started in 1947, when he set up a photographic studio at 353 Flinders Lane, then the heart of Melbourne’s fashion industry. At just 26 years old, he had been stateless for 18 years, an active photographer for 16 or 17 years and immersed in the clothing trade since birth. By then he had become an Australian citizen and dropped his birth name, Neustaedter, for something Anglos wouldn’t find as intimidating. He had lived for a time in a detention camp in rural Victoria, held as an “enemy alien” with many other German and Italian refugees, after being expelled by the British from the first place he fled to, Singapore. He was ready to start a life.

“Flinders Lane and the garment industry are such a big part of the history of so many Melbourne Jews,” says Dr Jordana Silverstein, a historian of Australian Jewish life at the University of Melbourne. Her own grandfather, she says, was a tailor. “A lot of us have those connections.”

Photographs on display at the Helmut Newton: In Focus exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne.
The Helmut Newton: In Focus exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne. Photograph: Con Chronis/EPA

Melbourne’s established Jewish community did what they could to support the newcomers. Catalog work for local Jewish-owned clothing companies like Rockmans kept Newton afloat. The work was boring — a far cry from his teenage apprenticeship with Jewish fashion photographer Yva in avant-garde Berlin, who favored double exposure and androgyny.

But Yva was dead and Newton’s family was far away. Newton found a community with other exiles, working with photographers such as Henry Talbot and Wolfgang Sievers.

“It was the height of the Kadima [a Yiddish-centred Jewish community centre]says Silverstein. “There would be events every day. There is theater, there is music. There had been a theater troupe that got trapped here during the war and stayed, and so Yiddish theater was thriving at that time. All over the city, it’s that real time where refugees are building community and spending time together. Sitting in parks. Be located. »

In 1948, Newton married Australian-born actress June Browne in a Catholic ceremony. June would become his life partner in life and work, and eventually an accomplished portrait photographer in her own right under the name Alice Springs.

“They were a very fashion-forward pair for the time,” says Kim Kelly, model, receptionist and general assistant to Newton for most of the 1950s. At just 17 when she started work, now nearly 90 , Kelly is still crackling with energy.

She was one of six in a protected Catholic family and still lived with her parents. “Looking back, I was very naive.”

She remembers an evening of actors for a play where June played Salome.

“The boys were on one side or kissing and hugging and the girls were on the other side kissing and hugging… I had never experienced or contemplated or thought about that, because that kind of life just didn’t openly exist in the 1950s.”

However, Melbourne’s fashion world, she said, was as conservative as its sexual standards – a source of grief for Newton.

“It was very stiff and very formal,” Kelly explains. “He did very, very little outside work, which he loved to do. So everything was in the studio, with the white paper on the walls, and the model standing in the same position and not moving. It must have been so frustrating for him – no wonder he went crazy!


“Well, if you’ve seen the pictures he took when he was overseas…”

I have. A female model in a men’s suit bends over a woman in an alley; Isabelle Rossellini, on all fours, carries a saddle on its back; busty woman posing fully nakedhand on hip, in front of a mirror.

The woman in the man, Yves Saint Laurent, Vogue France, Paris, 1979.
The woman in the man, Yves Saint Laurent, Vogue France, Paris, 1979. Photography: Helmut Newton Foundation

“He was really the first major photographer to make this kind of open sexuality fashionable,” says queer sex worker Greta Desgraves, whose mentor in the sex industry modeled for Newton in the 1970s.

“He’s shooting for Vogue, and he’s shooting for Playboy, and there’s no clear line between the two. It’s all so tightly composed and controlled, with real attention to composition – but it’ll be like positioning mirrors for show ass and boobs in the same picture.

“You could say that Helmut Newton invented chic pornography.”

It is clear that Newton could never have oriented his work in this direction in Australia. But there’s continuity with his Australian work, if you’re looking for it – powerful women, interesting places, natural light, whenever he could get it.

A photo of Helmut Newton.
Melbourne’s fashion world was as conservative as its sexual norms – a source of heartache for photographer Helmut Newton. Photography: Con Chronis/AAP

The reason for Newton’s secrecy, I guess, wasn’t a secret at all – he really didn’t want people watching. His distaste for his (fascinating, intermittently beautiful) early Australian work was excessive, but it was probably sincere.

But Newton’s work is not just about himself, it tells us about a whole community of artists, models, workers and refugees. And, in the hands of the Jewish Museum, it shows us the creativity and tenacity of Jewish communities across the Diaspora.

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