HELMUT NEWTON: A life in focus

April 26, 2022

Cathy Pryor
o-curator, HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus

Among the dry grass and trees on farmland near Tatura, a small country town two and a half hours north of Melbourne, there are reminders of the lives once lived not far from the banks of the Waranga reservoir – the thousands of men, as well as women and children, who were interned as civilian enemy aliens or prisoners of war during WWII.

Here and there are the remains of concrete foundations, corrugated iron or barbed wire, or the outlines of facilities used in the more than half a dozen internment camps that were built around the waterway. Today it is just sheep and kangaroos that occupy this land, but a silo on the road into town is painted with metres-high red poppies in memory of Tatura’s wartime connections.

It was here in camp three on the Rushworth side of the basin that 19-year-old Helmut Neustädter, as Newton was then known, arrived in October 1940 after docking in Sydney on the HMT Queen Mary, alongside nearly 300 other men, women and children who had been rounded up in Singapore as enemy aliens of the British Empire. Tatura, with its flat, scrubby farmland, was a world away from his home city of Berlin. Yet Newton would spend the next 18 months at the camps, alongside thousands of others from enemy nations who were considered a danger to Australia, and the Empire’s, security.

As well as the Queen Mary internees, hundreds of other mostly German and Austrian Jews arrived at Tatura from the HMT Dunera from Britain. They became known as the Dunera Boys and the dreadful conditions and treatment they had endured on the way to Australia became infamous. The Queen Mary in comparison was a relatively comfortable journey with specially printed luncheon menus offering “codfish en souchet” and “macaroni palmero” among other dishes. Press reports of the day were headlined “’luxury’ internees arrive” and in one photograph published in the Sydney Morning Herald a young Newton can be spotted smiling on the ferry deck as it escorted the passengers to shore.

While the conditions at Tatura were far from luxurious, the camps became a place of shared ideas, culture, and ambitions. Newton, who led photography classes for other internees, shared a hut with musician and composer Walter Wurzburger. An inscription on the back of a photograph Newton is believed to have given his friend as a keepsake says in German: “In memory of the time when genius whirled around in our hut. Your Helmut, January 23, 1942”.

This same chutzpah, and determination, had been on display in Singapore where Newton had arrived after feeling Hitler’s Berlin in December 1938. His departure from Germany was one month after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when the Nazis unleashed pogroms against the Jewish population. His father Max, who owned a button factory in Berlin, had been arrested that night and spent a month imprisoned before he was released. Newton himself spent weeks in hiding in Berlin before his mother bought him a ticket to Shanghai on the Conte Rosso from Trieste. His parents would escape one month later bound for South America.

Newton never made it to Shanghai, instead disembarking in Singapore where his photography skills had caught the eye of the welfare committee for the Straits Settlement who were looking for new skills. Short lived – and ill-fated – employment as a press photographer followed; Newton would later say it took him too long to set up his shots, and the news moment passed.
Instead, he set up a studio in Robinson’s department store under the rather grandiose name Le Marquis, chosen after his mother’s maiden name. Advertisements and articles in the Singapore press described him as a “society photographer” from Berlin and “a master of his art” with clients reportedly including the Sultan of Pahang and the Regent of Jahore, as well as the English society set.

“Society photographer” from Berlin was, of course, a stretch. When he landed in Singapore he was barely 18-years-old and was financed for much of his time there by a much older lover Josette Fabien. Yet the advertisements and press mentions illustrate a soaring ambition. Newton’s desire to be a professional photographer never dimmed.

At 16 he had left school to become an apprentice with Else Neuländer-Simon, also known as Yva, one of Berlin’s leading portrait and avant-garde photographers. Yva, who tragically died in a concentration camp in 1942, had a profound effect on her young protégé and he clearly adored her. As well as portraiture, she was among the first generation of photographers working in fashion advertising. Her influence can be seen throughout Newton’s career.

At Tatura the constraints of the camps were relaxed in 1942 so the internees could pick fruit in the orchards around nearby Shepparton. Then, as workforce shortages on the home front continued to bite, many ‘aliens’ were recruited to join the Australian army in labour corps. Newton joined the 8th Employment Company which was stationed for a time along the Victorian NSW border.

Even then there were signs that a young Newton was not one to conform. One story, perhaps apocryphal, was that when parade was called, Newton would don suede shoes instead of regulation army boots as one small act of rebellion. Bern Brent, a fellow Tatura internee and army recruit, recalls one conversation in the army:

We were marching to whatever destination we were bound for when there was a discussion about ‘quislings’ [traitors who collaborate with an enemy force occupying a country].  Helmut interjected ‘we are all quislings’. He was technically correct of course.  Like many German Jews he would have thought of himself as a ‘Jewish German’ rather than ‘a German Jew’…it showed that he was an independent thinker.

This sense of loss, and torn loyalties for a home country which had forced him to flee to another, is all the more poignant when you consider how much Newton loved Berlin, the city where he was born in October 1920. According to Newton his mother’s father had been a “travelling journeyman” who had sailed to America and enlisted in the Union Army in the American Civil War. He became an American citizen and changed his name from Markiewicz to Marquis but would later return to Berlin where he made his fortune in advertising.

His mother Klara, according to Newton, “was a bit of a snob” but Helmut’s father Max came from different stock. He was a poor solider who had just come back from the Russian front when he married Klara in 1918. Max took over the button factory once owned by Klara’s first husband.

In his autobiography, Newton paints a picture of a well to do childhood in bourgeois Berlin but also at times a solitary one. He was sent out of the house with the nanny each day, rain or shine, so his mother could calm her “nerves”, and he was also a sickly child, who used to faint and who was “scared of everything and everyone”. He also had a sometimes strained relationship with his half-brother Hans who was ten years older, but it was also Hans who introduced a young Helmut to sex and girls, and the allure of the red light districts and seedier side of Berlin. By the time he was in his teens, Newton had shrugged off his earlier illnesses, becoming a strong swimmer and spending many a languid day with girlfriends among bronzed bodies at the pool.

Newton used his pocket money to buy his first camera when he was 12-years-old, taking his first roll of film in the dwindling light of the Berlin underground. In his early teens Newton would watch the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi park his car near his house, haul cameras from his boot and disappear into the street, and would consume photographic magazines such as the Berliner Illustrirtre Zeitung and Das Magazin. Newton would later name European photographers Brassaï, Munkácsi and Erich Salomon as among his greatest inspirations.

The rise of Hitler marked a seismic shift in Newton’s young life. Berlin, an artistic and Bohemian city under the Weimar Republic, would be transformed by the war but decades later the grand hotels, the red-light districts, the dark and light of its city streets that Newton remembered from his youth would become the source of inspiration for so much of his photography.

Many of my fashion photos have been taken in places that remind me of my childhood,” Newton wrote in his autobiography. If he was ever stuck for inspiration he would wait until the sun went down. “I love to photograph at night… Everything becomes more mysterious, and all the ugliness is hidden.

1946 was a transformative year for Newton. It was the year he was discharged from the Australian army and, with his army back pay, opened a photographic studio on the top floor of 353 Flinders Lane in Melbourne. It was also the year he became an Australian citizen and officially changed his name from Neustädter to Newton.

In his autobiography he wrote: “Neustädter didn’t sound right for the new personage I had in mind. It was like shedding a skin, a project that sounded adventurous to me, like leaving the Foreign Legion with a new identity.” Newton said he kept his first name Helmut as “this person would still have ties to his early youth” and he would later say “my past was to become real but also somewhat contradictory.

From the archival material held by the National Archives of Australia, we get a picture of Newton’s life during this time. He was jumping through bureaucratic hoops applying for naturalisation and he showed a determination to remain in Australia. It is notable that on all his forms he is already describing his occupation as “photographer” and it was while still in the army that his first cover photograph had been published: a bucolic scene of a woman holding a bucket of grapes in The Australasian in June 1945.

Privately it was a tumultuous time, as archival material held in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows. A letter from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York to the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund in Melbourne asked for assistance on behalf of Newton in January 1946. It stated that he wished to “establish himself as an independent photographer, preferably in Melbourne which place he considers especially promising. He is very anxious to accomplish these two things because he has no alternative and does not want under any circumstances to be sent back to Europe…“.

A letter addressed to Newton from what is possibly the relief fund in Melbourne outlined the difficulty his father and mother were having in Santiago, Chile. It states his father is in ill health and his parents “are in need of funds and parcels of food and clothing, and you should therefore take immediate steps to do everything within your power to help them alleviate their suffering…”. It must have been a difficult letter to receive when Newton himself had barely any means to assist.

Newton recounts that after his father’s death, his mother wrote to ask him to join her and his brother in The Argentine. In his autobiography he says he wrote back and said, “It’s out of the question. I love Australia. I wouldn’t dream of going to South America. I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. I want to stay here. I’m happy here. I adore the people. I love the country.

In 1947, Newton met June Browne, an actress working under the name June Brunell, who had come to his studio to seek extra modelling work. Helmut and June would marry one year later in 1948 in a Catholic ceremony. June would be a constant in Newton’s life, and they would share a creative journey; June would become a photographer in her own right in the 1970s, taking on the pseudonym Alice Springs.

Together Newton and June moved in the cultural circles of Melbourne, getting mentions in the press at the opening of theatre shows and social events in the post war years. It was through June that Newton would embrace the actors, ballet dancers and Tivoli performers of Melbourne’s artistic scene, and his first exhibition in the Rowden White Library at Melbourne University in 1950 showcased a series of theatrical photographs. Interviewed in the student newspaper Farrago, he reportedly said he enjoyed this work as “most actors were unselfconscious” and able to adopt a pose he thought “appropriate for their particular personalities”. The curves and lines he so artfully captured in his theatre work would be qualities replicated in his work in fashion.

Flinders Lane was the heart of Melbourne’s rag trade, and Newton soon became a go-to photographer for the fashion industry. His photographs appeared in magazines such as New Idea, Fashion, and Flair. He also built connections with other photographers at this time, giving talks at local photographic societies about his use of natural light, and putting on a joint exhibition with fellow photographer Wolfgang Sievers at the Hotel Federal in 1953. Featuring a mix of industrial, architectural and fashion photographs, it was called New Visions in Photography, taking its name from the 1920s Bauhaus movement in photography which celebrated the nexus between art and technological culture.

Newton also received an extensive commission with Shell Australia to take photographs of its refinery at Geelong, and later Newport. The images were of the pipelines and buildings, the workers and the machinery, as well as for catalogues promoting Shell’s products and on the covers of the company’s staff journal. In the collection of photographs now held by the State Library Victoria, we can see a particular Newton sensibility in this artistic output. In one photograph used to promote terylene polyester, a housewife stands in an immaculate 50s dress, proudly holding a raw fish.

This slightly peculiar prop is a precursor of things to come. As his career as a fashion photographer progressed, these props would become even more outlandish and his photographs pushed the boundaries of what fashion photography could achieve. Even during the Melbourne years, a Newton model could just as easily be found in an empty car park, re-enacting a heist, or stepping out of a helicopter, as in a pretty location.

In 1956, Newton formed a partnership with Jewish émigré and Dunera internee Henry Talbot whom he had met while both had been in the Australian army. When Newton was offered a 12-month contract to work on British Vogue in London it was Talbot who managed the Flinders Lane studio in his absence. Newton hated his time at British Vogue and felt his work was worthless and bland, so one month before the contract is up, he left for Paris. It’s a city he instantly fell in love with.

He and June returned to Australia in 1959 and Newton’s photographs appeared in the launch issue of Vogue Australia in the Spring of that year. Over the next two years he would make his mark on the magazine, shooting models behind animal cages, or on ski lifts, or other creative locations. As well as Newton’s work for Vogue Australia, Newton and Talbot’s studio, now in Bourke Street, obtained major clients including Sportscraft, Fibremakers and the Australian Wool Bureau. Yet Newton, frustrated by what he could achieve here, declared Australia was no place for a photographer with ambition. He and June again left for Paris in 1961 where Newton started work with Vogue Paris.

Paris suited Newton’s sensibilities and allowed him to indulge his photographic fantasies. Over the coming decades he would become one of the most sought-after fashion photographers both in Europe and across the Atlantic. He would also become one of the most provocative and controversial. Arriving on the international scene in the midst of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s – decades which were followed by the excesses of the ‘80s – Newton’s interest in eroticism and sexually charged photographs became his raison d’être. And the fashion houses and magazines revelled in the shock factor he delivered.

Although Newton always believed his photographs empowered rather than exploited women, he attracted critics who saw his photographs as the epitome of the objectification of women in a society blind to the power dynamic at play behind the lens. It is a debate about Newton’s work that continues to this day.

As we explore Newton’s legacy almost two decades after his death, it is timely to ask how much of Newton’s life and career was shaped by the two decades he lived in Australia before his return to Europe. Newton himself spoke only sparingly about his experiences in interviews. In The Australian Magazine in 1990 he said:

I didn’t pick Australia, it picked me.”

When asked what he learned here, he said, “Absolutely nothing! That’s one thing I regret. They were formative years, but they didn’t form me.”

Yet several years later it appears he may have become more reflective. Gero von Boehm, a German filmmaker and friend of Newton who directed a documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, in 2020 to coincide with the 100-year-anniversary of Newton’s birth, says Newton had plans to delve more deeply into his Australian years with a trip back to Australia and a focus on these years in the works. It was an idea that never eventuated. Before the project began, Newton had a heart attack behind the wheel of his car in Los Angeles and died in 2004.

When we explore the trajectory of Newton’s life from Berlin to Singapore, to Australia and beyond, it is clear photography was a path towards reinvention, both personally and professionally.

Despite the controversies and continued debate about his work, Newton’s place in the development of contemporary fashion photography, and photography more broadly, is assured. It was an enduring love that would see him create an astonishing collection of work.

Image: Helmut Newton and wife at Castlecrag (23 The Scarp), January 1955 / photographed by Max Dupain, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, ON 609/Box 04/nos. 391-414, FL19408721.