ISSN: 1705-6411
                                   
Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)

Preserving the Enigma – Mrs. Newton’s Photography

A review of June Newton. Mrs. Newton: June Newton a.k.a Alice Springs. Köln: Taschen (2004).

Victoria Z. Alexander
(Strasbourg, France)

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1. June Newton as Joan of Arc in G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan. Melbourne (1954)

I first saw Mrs. Newton in a Paris restaurant. She was lighting a cigarette, her eyes closed, head turned to the right, her dress open to reveal two ample and attractive breasts. This memory is of an image taken by her husband Helmut Newton who was then well on his way to being (deservedly) recognized as one of the world’s greatest photographers (Alexander, 2009). In this one image we find a good deal of the attitude which informed the life of June Newton [a.k.a. Alice Springs] as she tells it to us in this illustrated autobiography. There are at least two reasons to read this book: It will be of interest to anyone who would like to gain a better glimpse of the life of Helmut through his wife’s eyes as it makes a nice compliment to Helmut’s (2003) autobiography. The main reason to read the book is that it allows us to see the emergence of June as a very significant portrait photographer (under the name Alice springs). The book takes us through her life from an interesting childhood in Kangaroo Grounds, Australia to her successes on stage, time with the BBC in London, and her life with Helmut in Paris, Ramatuelle, Monaco and Los Angeles.

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2. Helmut Newton. June Newton, Paris (1973)

June’s childhood was somewhat difficult as were her later trials and tribulations dating men during wartime (the 1940s) as well as dealing with stalkers and exhibitionists as an actress on tour in Australia (her stage name was June Brunnel). She nearly married once before meeting Helmut, who’s immediate interest in her she found surprising, and who struck her so differently from the men she had known as he was “a man of the world” (34). June and Helmut were to remain together and quite in love (despite many difficult years) until his death in 2004. Life with him was not an easy one as he was, by his own admission, self-centred and given to moody periods (Newton, 2003). Like many great women of the twentieth century June did not allow her creative horizons to be limited by her husband or any man – indeed, Helmut was very supportive of her photographic work and provided important mentorship. Neither June nor Helmut ever considered her to be a housewife. Helmut’s status also opened doors that would normally have remained closed to a budding photographer and in her portraits June took every advantage of this access. She adopted her professional name by closing her eyes and aiming a pin at a map of Australia.

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3. Alice Springs. Publicity Photo for Salon David (1971)

Her first work as a professional was for Gitanes Cigarettes in 1970 when Helmut, too ill to get out of bed, sent June in his place. She also worked for the Paris hair stylist Jean Louis David, the magazine Dépêche Mode, and before long (1974-75) was doing covers for Elle. As a fashion photographer she showed the wit and flare that Newton himself possessed. While June makes no reference to this aspect of her work it may well be that Helmut learned important lessons from her. It is quite possible that they remained together through some very difficult times in their marriage because they fed off of one another’s creativity. For Helmut to leave June, as he surely must have contemplated, also meant leaving his sharp-eyed editor.

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4. Alice Springs. Cover number 1541, Elle Magazine (1974)

By the late 1970s June had turned her attention to portrait photography and the first results showed great promise [her portraits of Hubert de Givenchy (1978), Gore Vidal (1979), and Yves Saint Laurent (1983) are outstanding]. Among her best early works were portraits of Olga Havel [wife of Vaclav] and Diane Vreeland.

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5. Alice Springs. Olga Havel (1992)


In her portraits of Havel and Vreeland [as well as those of Sting, Dennis Hopper,

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6. Alice Springs. Diana Vreeland (1984)

Raquel Welch, and Timothy Leary] Springs operates as an artist. The art of portraiture in our time is to realize the object qualities of a human subject beyond sentimentalism and identity. When she is at her best the portraits show the subject is absent from his/her own life – the  body is present but thoughts are elsewhere (see especially her portrait of Raquel Welch). What remains is a mask. When we attempt to photograph what is behind the mask all we record is another mask – the one we would prefer the sitter wear for us. June did not do this.

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7. Alice Springs. Raquel Welch (1984)

Springs does not provide us with a narrative in her portraits and it is up to us to provide one. In many of her images the mistrust between the famous person and the photographer is allowed to simmer to the surface and for Springs this is the moment she closes the shutter (see her portraits of Sting, Nicole Kidman, Dennis Hopper,

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8. Alice Springs. Sting (1983)

and David Hockney). What Springs masters in my view is a bridging of the gulf between intimacy and complete detachment on the faces of her object-subjects. Springs does not take us past the mask toward the soul in a search for some truth as she realizes that all any photographer can do is to record the person a little less at ease, a little more self conscious, fully hidden behind their mask. While there is a softness to her portraiture the unknowable mystery of the subject remains in tact. They are photographed as people – enigmatic and unknowable whatever their level of fame. To impose a search for identity (an illusion) on her work is to destroy it.

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9. Alice Springs. Dennis Hopper (1985)

Springs' portraits, in a way I think Baudrillard would understand, do not make the world more clear or knowable but, through stressing the enigma of her subjects, make it all the more unknowable. They are portraits of people standing still but not at rest, not at all at ease before the lens. They are seldom shown as happy figures but they are rarely outwardly angry or sad. Mostly they are masks.

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10. Alice Springs. Timothy Leary (2001)

Does Springs ever penetrate Helmut Newton’s mask? No, like the rest of us he never took it off. Helmut’s enigma remains fixed even in June’s diaries although we certainly learn what life with “Hel” was like. In her photographs she came close to penetrating his mask only once, as he was waking from a nap at their apartment on Rue Aubriot in the Marais in the early 1970s. It is only in death and sleep that we are identical to ourselves (Baudrillard, 1997:50). This image is one of the transition between sleep and waking.

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11. Alice Springs. Helmut at Rue Aubriot Apartment (early 1970s)

The great silence in this book [and its greatest strength] is that June does not take us into her process as a portraitist nor does she provide any sense of what she is seeking. The parts of the text which might have engaged with these matters was taken up by diary entries which will be of more interest to those seeking to peek inside the later years of Helmut’s life than of June’s work. This of course makes us probe the secret of her work. For me her secret resides in the photographer’s long and difficult relationship to the mask which is also an insurmountable problem for the object-subject of a photographic portrait.

The book ends (2003) with the story of the founding of the Helmut Newton Foundation (and museum) in Berlin in an old palace built by Emperor Wilhelm II in 1909. It stands across from the “Zoo Rail Station” where Helmut boarded the train which would take him away from the approaching Holocaust in which his family were to perish. The photographs of June (Alice) will have their own proud place in this museum as she did in the life of Newton and will continue to hold in the history of photography. Perhaps some day it will be more appropriately named the Newton-Springs Foundation because neither of these photographers seems possible to consider as an entirely independent entity from the other. June’s autobiography (like Helmut’s) is an important document in the history of photography. In his, Helmut wrote: “There is something about a camera. I find it can act as a barrier between me and reality” (Newton, 2003:203). June’s portraits point to this enigmatic and as yet difficult to name ‘something’ which resides in our mask. Any secret identity we may be said to possess resides just there, as the real always does, just out of sight, under appearances. This is the enigmatic zone which June Newton (a.k.a. Alice Springs) photographed so well in many of her portraits.

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12. Alice Springs. With Helmut at Chateau Marmont, Hollywood (1991)

 

References

Victoria Alexander (2009). "Helmut Newton: Reclaiming The Female Nude Photograph From Pornography". In Euro Art Online Magazine, Number 10 (Fall 2009): http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=17&page=1&content=211

Jean Baudrillard (1997). Art and Artefact. New York: SAGE. Edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg.

Helmut Newton (2003). Autobiography. New York: Doubleday.


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2010)

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