Alice Springs: In Her Own Light 

Eyes On

Alice Springs: In Her Own Light 

Carla Susanne … , 26 Nov 2021

June Newton, a.k.a Alice Springs, died in April 2021 at the age of 97. Over several decades, she created an extensive œuvre of important portraits. She left glamorous as well as provocative productions to her husband, the prominent Helmut Newton. Her own creations bear witness to her remarkable ability to enter into dialogue with her protagonists and make them appear completely natural. Insights into the life and work of the great Australian-born photographer. 

Those who want to take a closer look at the work of June Newton, alias Alice Springs, have to stretch their feelers far and wide. Not only can traces be found in Australia, but she worked a lot professionally in Europe, mainly in Paris. There she began her transformation from an Australian actress to an impressive photographer, as the partner of Helmut Newton.

Helmut Newton: Fashion, Melbourne, 1955
© Helmut Newton Estate courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation

Arriving from Singapore in 1945, Newton had settled in Melbourne and set up a photo studio. As she writes in her autobiography Mrs Newton: June Newton a.k.a. Alice Springs (Taschen Publisher, Cologne, 2004), the then-June Browne met Newton through a friend who was modelling for him. “Sheila suggested I come and see her boss. So I rang Helmut Newton and went to his penthouse studio in Flinders Lane. (...) I sat waiting in the front office, admiring the pictures on the walls – pictures I had never ever seen before”. The prospective modelling job quickly turned into a series of dinners at which the two grew closer. “Photography will be my first love, you will be my second,” said Helmut to his fiancée, then 23 years old.

While Helmut developed his photographic career, June Newton was working in front of the camera and on stage as an actress, and also painting. When Helmut scored a contract with French Vogue, the couple moved to Paris, where June had little opportunity to be an actress. “Then by chance, I began a new career as a photographer. One Sunday morning Helmut was in bed with flu and couldn’t keep a rendezvous to photograph a model boy for a Gitanes cigarette advertisement on the Place Vendôme. […] I suggested I should go and that I should take a camera with me and shoot the picture myself, knowing that if it didn’t work, Helmut could always retake it during the week,” she recalled.

Alice Springs: Helmut Newton with Ralph Gibson, Paris, 1977
© Alice Springs Estate courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation

She had ‘Helmie’, as she always called him, explain the light meter and how to load the camera. June was in business; soon, campaign photos for the pharmaceutical industry, and for Jean Louis David, her husband’s hairstylist. The pictures appeared in Elle and Marie Claire, reaching a large audience. When Helmut asked his wife what name she intended to use, the American actress Jean Seberg and her boyfriend had a suggestion: “(He) asked for an atlas, which I produced. He opened it to the map of Australia, asked for a pin, told me to shut my eyes and aim. The pin landed in the centre of The Continent – Alice Springs. ‘There is your name,’ he said.”  

Alice Springs, photographer, had just been created. Her first assignment for the French fashion magazine Dépêche Mode soon followed, a multi-page series, and on set, she also shot portraits of stylists. Photographer and cineaste William Klein. Richard Avedon and the then-famous model Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols, director of American Vogue. Helmut Newton observed, “You know Junie, your pictures of people are better than your fashion pictures. Why don’t you concentrate on portraits for a while?” Alice Springs took his advice.

Alice Springs: Robert Mapplethorpe, Paris, 1977
© Alice Springs Estate courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation

From the 1970s to the 1990s, she photographed a Who’s Who of the jet-set, including Charlotte Rampling, Gerhard Richter, Audrey Hepburn and Jacques-Henri Lartigue. “(Alice) does not use any tricks,” Helmut reportedly said. What she had was empathy for her subjects, earning their trust. Her portraits of Nicole Kidman, Bella Freud, Sonya Rykiel, and Vivienne Westwood bear witness to June Newton’s easily overlooked, great art: allowing the person in front of the camera to be who they are. Celebrities in Alice Springs’ photographs appear human, like ordinary people, not icons.  

Alice Springs: Nicole Kidman, Hollywood, 1988
© Alice Springs Estate courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation

Helmut Newton staged his protagonists, sometimes exposed, often dramatic and provocative. He was oriented towards the outside. June Newton focused on naturalness and connection, quietly and modestly, revealing the layers beneath the surface. “I made an effort in each case not to change anything about my subject and to distract his thoughts from the fact that he was in front of the camera,” she said in a 2010 interview. 

Alice Springs: Jacques Henri Lartigue, Antibes, 1984
© Alice Springs Estate courtesy of Helmut Newton Foundation

One image gives an insight into the free yet symbiotic relationship the couple shared. In 1991, June Newton photographed herself in a mirror at the Château Marmont Hotel. In the background, Helmut looks slightly melancholy and pensive, while June’s posture is self-confident, camera at the ready and covering her face. This image was chosen as the cover for the first edition of the appropriately named Us and Them, published by Scalo Zurich in 1999. 

As well as her work as a photographer, June was Helmut’s confidante, his muse and curator. From 1976 onward, she was involved with all of her husband’s publications as art director. The two spent 55 years together, yet June Newton remained true to herself, creating a body of work entirely her own.  

Dr. Matthias Harder, Foundation Curator and Director of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, offers a perspective: “We have shown Alice Springs’ work twice retrospectively, and I am planning something new for 2023, for June’s 100th birthday.” All of June’s works are archived at the HNF. From October 31, 2021, through May 22, 2022, the HNF will honour the work of Helmut Newton (1920-2004) with a retrospective tracing the life and visual legacy of the Berlin-born photographer. Excerpts from June Newton’s work will also be on view: June’s Room will feature an exhibition of her exemplary work, including the portraits that reflect her trademark natural stye and discreet gaze. 

 

Header image: Alice Springs Self-portrait, Melbourne, 1997, © Alice Springs, courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation

 

About the author

Carla Susanne Erdmann works as a freelance writer, specialising in the field of photography. She is a freelance editor for Leica Fotografie International magazine. Her texts appear regularly in various publications and exhibition catalogues.

Photographers/Artists

June Newton aka Alice Springs b 1932, d 2021
Helmut Newton b 1920, d 2004

About the Helmut Newton Foundation

The Helmut Newton Foundation is running a retrospective “Helmut Newton. Legacy” & Alice Springs (in June’s Room); from 31 October 2021 until 22 May 2022; Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin, Germany. Find more information at helmut-newton-foundation.org/en 

 

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