Extract from Senior Curator & Collection Manager Eleni Papavasileiou's opening address at the launch of HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus

April 29, 2022

Eleni Papavasileiou
Senior Curator & Collection Manager, Jewish Museum of Australia

Welcome all and thank you for joining us tonight to celebrate and to share the creative journey that brings Helmut Newton’s story to the Jewish Museum of Australia.

In a sense Helmut Newton is back, back to Melbourne. He leans comfortably against our building in a photograph taken in this city in 1958 by his beloved wife and lifelong creative partner, June, aka Alice Springs.

Every exhibition opportunity for us is a full immersion into a world, into the past and into the challenge of making contemporary connections to how we understand art and life around us. HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus is no exception.

We delved into a life that was so full and rich, that left an extraordinary photographic legacy and certainly one that will fuel conversations for years to come.

Within our remit to illuminate Jewish lives, we dug deep into Newton’s story.

Born in Berlin into a comfortable secular Jewish family, Helmut Neustädter consumed all that his beloved city had to offer. The busy and bustling German capital was a hub of great social contrasts, but also of expressionism, modern architecture, the BAUHAUS, theatre and cinema, technological innovation, fashion, photography and of course thriving, raunchy and dazzling nightlife.

All this fuelled Newton’s imagination, his aesthetic and photographic vocabulary. He absorbed images and sensations, he observed and experienced the openness and freedom of a new moral code.

He was a keen swimmer, he dressed well and carried The Times around to look like he was American or English. His autobiography suggests that he had an air of confidence, a strong sense of himself – he knew what he liked, he enjoyed making an impression and had high aspirations.

Not quite for his father’s button and buckle factory, but for photography instead.

And indeed, his photographic foundation was solid and utterly inspiring. Working under the wing of photographic pioneer Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon, known as Yva, in the later inter war years, as an apprentice and then assistant, Newton would gain first-hand experience into the making of the daring, sensual imagery and the androgynous ambiguity of Yva ’s depictions of the fashionable modern woman.

Newton’s years in pre-WWII Europe saw notable Jewish presence in photography’s history. Martin Munkácsi and Erich Salomon also influenced Newton greatly. Photojournalism excited him and indeed Newton found an inimitable way to use and incorporate it to fashion work, adding a further dimension of narrative and mystery.

Understanding those early formative years is important as Newton returned to Berlin and to those influences through his photography. The Private Property series of 45 original prints from the 1970s and 1980s, shown in our exhibition, is a generous loan from the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, and is a testament to the erotic, bold and playful aesthetic but also to the provocation, ambiguity and voyeurism that is emblematic of his work.

Significant also to note that photography was always his preferred medium, but in Hitler’s Germany it was also a useful and adaptable trade. One that would allow those discriminated against or persecuted to still make a living through adverse conditions or relocation.

In the 1930s, Newton would see his glamorous and erotic city shrink to intolerance, hate and intimidation, his Berlin transformed to a shadow of his wonderful childhood memories and early adulthood years.

In 1938, a month after Kristallnacht, he escaped and found his way to Singapore. He was only 18. After two years, in September 1940, a month shy of his 20th birthday he boarded the HMT Queen Mary.

Arriving in Sydney with almost 300 internees – 232 of which were Jewish refugees – they were all sent by train to the camp in Tatura, which that same month had received internees from Britain aboard the HMT Dunera.

Following his release and after some years in the Australian Army, Newton was free.

In 1946, he changed his name – he became Helmut Newton in Melbourne.

Also, it was here that he met the love of his life, June Browne.

Together they moved within the most exciting performing arts and fashion circles and were very much a part of Melbourne’s thriving Schmatte Business. Newton’s clientele included House of Lucas, Hartnell of Melbourne, Fashion Magazine, George’s Department Store, the Australian Wool Board, and surprisingly Shell Oil Company among others, while his work on Sportscraft featured in the very first Australian Vogue in 1959, founded by a fellow Jewish German, Bernard Leser.

Newton’s story as a detained refugee, enemy alien, but also a contributor to the thriving Melbourne fashion scene is at the heart of our exhibition, it is also a story shared by so many within the Jewish Australian community.

Newton was in Australia for 20 years, he created an entity here, formed strong personal and professional ties. His Australian years paved the way for the refinement and evolution of his work in Paris and New York and the iconic, world famous, celebrated and much discussed campaigns for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Givenchy found within the covers and pages of French and American Vogue, following his departure in the early 1960s.

Helmut Newton’s life had everything: success, failure, love and loss, glamour and controversy. Passion, provocation and an undeniable drive that saw Newton forge his unique path no matter what life threw at him.

Newton’s work is unique; it is at the cusp of fascination and provocation, of curiosity and ambiguity, an invitation to a world that is very much his own. He created incredibly powerful photographs that marked a generation and shaped visual culture. While being very much a man of his time and within the context of the historical and cultural framework that shaped his life and work, Newton’s photography poses questions that are entirely relevant for a 21st century audience. We hope that our exhibition sheds light to his influences and Australian years, that it sparks curiosity and promotes conversation around the male gaze, representation, diversity and power.

Image: Jewish Museum of Australia facade,  featuring: Alice Springs, Helmut Newton, Melbourne, 1958, copyright Helmut Newton Estate, courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation