Culture

Helmut Newton’s hidden past: ‘It must have been so frustrating for him – no wonder he went berserk’

When you think of high-end 1980s glamour, you probably think of legendary fashion photographer Helmut Newton, even if you don’t know it. Powerful Amazonian beauties, crisp monochrome, overt eroticism, surreal props – it’s an aesthetic that’s trickled down to a thousand editorials.

You probably don’t think of notoriously staid 1950s Melbourne. But it’s here that the German-born Jewish Newton arrived as a refugee in 1940, and it was here he spent years establishing himself as a fashion photographer of note before moving to Paris in the early 60s, dismissing his entire career in Australia as worthless, shutting the topic down, and generally being intriguingly secretive about his work in those Australian years. So why the big secret?

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

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

Newton’s Australian career starts, perhaps, in 1947, when he set up a photographic studio at 353 Flinders Lane – then the heart of Melbourne’s fashion industry. Just 26, he’d been stateless since 18, a working photographer since 16 or 17, and steeped in the garment trade since birth. By this time he’d become an Australian citizen and abandoned his birth name, Neustaedter, for something the Anglos wouldn’t find quite so intimidating. He had lived for some time in a detention camp in rural Victoria, detained as an “enemy alien” with many other German and Italian refugees, after being deported by the British from the first place he fled to, Singapore. He was ready to start a life.

“Flinders Lane and the clothing industry is such a big part of the story for so many Melbourne Jews,” says Dr Jordana Silverstein, a historian of Australian Jewish life at Melbourne University. Her own grandfather, she says, was a tailor. “So many of us have those connections.”

Photographs displayed 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 new arrivals. Catalogue work for local Jewish-owned clothing businesses like Rockmans kept Newton afloat. The work was dull – a far cry from his apprenticeship as a teenager with Jewish fashion photographer Yva in cutting-edge Berlin, who favoured double exposure and androgyny.

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

“It was the heyday of the Kadimah [a Yiddish-centred Jewish community centre],” says Silverstein. “There’d be events every day. There’s theatre, there’s music. There’d been a theatre troupe that got trapped here during the war and stayed, and so Yiddish theatre is booming at this time. All through the city, it’s this real time of refugees building community and spending time together. Sitting in the parks. Finding each other.”

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

“They were a very avant-garde pair for the time,” says Kim Kelly, a model, receptionist and general assistant for Newton for most of the 1950s. Just 17 when she started the job, now almost 90, Kelly still crackles with energy.

She was one of six from a sheltered Catholic family and still living with her parents. “Looking back, I was very naive.”

She recalls a cast party for a play where June played Salome.

“The boys were on one side or kissing and hugging and the girls are on the other side kissing and hugging … I had never experienced or considered or thought about that, because that type of life just didn’t exist openly in the 50s.”

Melbourne’s fashion world however, she says, was as conservative as its sexual norms – a source of grief for Newton.

“It was very stiff and very formal,” says Kelly. “He did very, very little work outside in the open, which he loved to do. So it was all in the studio, with the white paper down the walls, and the model standing in the one position and not moving. It must have been so frustrating for him – no wonder he went berserk!”

Berserk?

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

I have. A female model in a man’s suit leans over a woman in an alley; Isabella Rosselini, on hands and knees, wears a saddle on her back; a busty woman poses entirely nude, hand on hip, in front of a mirror.

Woman into man, Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Paris, 1979.
Woman into Man, Yves Saint Laurent, French Vogue, Paris, 1979. Photograph: Helmut Newton Foundation

“He was really the first major photographer to put that type of overt sexuality in high fashion,” says queer sex worker Greta Desgraves, whose mentor in the sex industry modelled 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 that real attention to composition – but it’ll be stuff like positioning mirrors to show arse and tits in the same picture.

“You could say Helmut Newton invented pornography chic.”

It’s clear Newton could never have taken his work in this direction in Australia. But there’s continuity with his Australian work, if you look for it – powerful women, interesting locations, natural light, whenever he could get them.

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

The reason for Newton’s secrecy, I suspect, was no secret at all – he really didn’t want people to look. His distaste for his (fascinating, intermittently beautiful) early Australian work was excessive, but it was probably sincere.

But Newton’s work isn’t only about him – 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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