Transcript of panel discussion: 'Returning the Gaze: Helmut through a Contemporary Lens', 14 August 2022 at the Jewish Museum of Australia.
Noè: Hello! Hello everyone and thank you all for joining us. Welcome to ILLUMINATE 2022, Returning the Gaze: Helmut Through a Contemporary Lens. Thank you, thank you, I won’t be very long.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land we are privileged to be on: the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present, recognising always their connection to the lands, waters and communities and their continuing stories yet to be told. And I respectfully acknowledge any First Nations people here with us today.
My name is Noè Harsel, I’m the Head of Brand & Partnerships here at the Jewish Museum of Australia: Gandel Centre of Judaica. Some may ask, what does that actually mean, Brand & Partnerships? At a place like this Jewish Museum, the answer is as long as a piece of string.
With our belief and passion to illuminate Jewish life and be a place that exists for all people, Jewish and non-Jewish to share in the uniqueness and commonality of the Australian Jewish experience, and under the inspired vision of Jess Bram, who I will introduce in a moment, this publication, ILLUMINATE, was able to be born.
ILLUMINATE was created to be an inspiring, thought-provoking and perhaps at times, challenging publication, one that only but emphasises the very reason that the Jewish Museum has been in existence for 45 or so years: as a place to share ideas and exchange perspectives. I would like to thank our contributors, Rachelle, Jade and Eleni, who you will hear from shortly as well as the incredible photographic contribution from Honey & Prue. Thank you also to all the staff here at the Jewish Museum for believing in this and working so very hard to make it happen, particularly, let me shout out to Sarah Giles!
But, let us not forget, that at the Jewish Museum what we do the very best, as you have, or will see, is create world-class exhibitions, that inspire your curiosity and engagement. We know museums can change lives, change the conversations, strengthen social cohesion and combat intolerance.
And our very beloved and esteemed Inaugural Director Dr Helen Light is the best example of all that this embodies. As many of you will know, we have recently lost Helen. We thank all of you very much for the love and support you have shown her family and us here at the Jewish Museum during this very heartbreaking time.
While this may seem quite the segue, we all know that the direction we find ourselves so enthusiastically moving, or perhaps more realistically, frantically racing, in, is one that would be nothing but wholeheartedly embraced and appreciated by Helen. Let me introduce our moderator for this afternoon’s conversation, someone I honestly don’t think the Jewish Museum could be luckier to have as Director & CEO, Jessica Bram.
With a long-held fascination and interest in cultural heritage and the arts, Jessica Bram has over 15 years’ experience working in museums and gallery spaces, across projects large and small, with a focus on strategic, creative and curatorial thinking.
Jessica is widely regarded as a leader experienced in delivering flagship projects using state-of-the-art immersive design, contemporary storytelling techniques and audience engagement tools. She has extensive local and international connections via a range of museological and cultural networks.
Jessica joined the Jewish Museum of Australia: Gandel Centre of Judaica at end 2019 from a position as Curator at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). She is proud to be leading the Jewish Museum into its next phase, working alongside a talented team to energise, embolden and envision the Museum for a new era.
Jess: I want to say thanks so much to Noè, who’s disappeared behind the wall here. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather today. The Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation and I just want to pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging. Well it’s been a week of incredible loss and sadness for us at the Jewish Museum. This does feel a very special moment, not just to have you all here, for what promises to be a rich and dynamic conversation this afternoon. But to celebrate properly the launch of issue #1 of Illuminate our newest offering, a publication that enables a different kind of exploration of Jewish life and the Australian Jewish experience and even more profoundly, another connection with you, our community.
I want to congratulate Noè Harsel, who is here, our head of Brand & Partnerships and content editor extraordinaire, who not only dreamed this project into being with the most remarkable turnaround time but assembled the most phenomenal collection of contributors and content and did so with her inimitable grace and humility. Noè if we say we can’t wait for issue #2, which we can’t, that’s due out later this year, we hope you won’t start twitching! Few contemporary photographers achieved the international recognition and acclaim of Helmut Newton. A ground-breaking artist who pushed past the idea of beauty to create bold, dimensional compositions that certainly challenged and provoked at the time and continues to do so today. His singular aesthetic of stylised black and white images, with ambiguous and sometimes controversial interpretations, alongside his personal story, and surprising two decades here in Melbourne is of course at the centre of our flagship exhibition and program this year at the Jewish Museum, Helmut Newton: In Focus. Which I’m thrilled you’ll all have the chance to experience this afternoon if you haven’t already. But before then, how perfect, to spend a little bit of time discussing Helmut’s legacy with these three ladies. Through the very brilliant interpretation of our three fabulous speakers, Eleni, Jade, and Rachelle. Let me introduce them very quickly.
Eleni Papavasileiou has been the Senior Curator and Collections Manager at the Jewish Museum since 2018. Prior to arriving in Australia, she worked for many years in the U.K. at various museums and galleries, including the award winning Brunel Institute in Bristol where she was Head of Curatorial and Library services. Eleni has worked extensively across collection management and exhibition development with a focus on visitor experience and access to archival collections. She has a master’s degree in International Museum Studies for which she wrote a thesis entitled Migration and Diversity in the Museum: The Australian Example. As well as a bachelor’s degree in Visual Communication and Photography.
Jade Niklai is a curator of contemporary art architecture and design. She commissions and produces cultural projects with an interest in memory practices and social politics, urbanism and public discourse. She is the founding director and chief curator of Blood Mountain, an independent research and curatorial platform based in Vienna, and focusing on the cultural past, present and potential of Central Europe. Jane is also associate curator at Lacuna, a London based public art agency. As Italian Jade Niklai, she works as an independent art consultant specializing in curatorial projects and cultural communications. Jade holds an M.A. in art curatorship a B.A. in art history, and she’s a member of ICOM and ICA and sits on the editorial board of Redesign.
Rachelle Unreich has been a journalist for 35 years, starting to write for publications including Rolling Stone and The Age newspaper while still a teenager and studying arts law at Monash University. She’s since lived and worked in New York, Los Angeles and Sydney, writing in the US, UK, South East Asia and Australia. She’s had columns for Elle magazine and the Sydney Morning Herald and was a former editor at WHO Weekly. She’s now a freelance journalist in Melbourne, regularly contributing to The Age newspaper and Harper’s Bazaar magazine and has a column to name a few. Welcome to you all.
Jess: What exceptional talents surround me. I’m sure I’m not the only one so looking forward to hearing from all of you today. Just a little bit by way of explanation for how we’re going to run this afternoon. We’ll have a Q&A between these phenomenal women next to me. But I want to leave room at the end, of course, for questions from all of you. And please do. Let’s keep this open and warm. If there’s something in particular that you want to respond to, while we’re mid conversation. Please shout out, be part of it. It’s very much the intent of this afternoon. And of course, after we’ve finished, we’ll head upstairs to take a preview of the exhibition.
Jess: Maybe we’ll start at the beginning, or at least the beginning for the three of you. And I’d love to know how and when Helmut Newton first figured in each of your worlds. We have to stop.
Eleni: If it’s going to work. Or is it going to be deafening for this work? Yes. Okay. Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming today. I would say that my first encounter with Helmut Newton was many, many years ago as a photography student. In the 1990s I was studying in the U.K. and he was presented as one of the greats, as an iconic photographer, as one whose work required examination and study, especially for those interested in fashion photography. Many years later, little did I know that I crossed paths with his story again here in my capacity at the Jewish Museum when Jess came up with a wonderful idea to host a show about him, and that gave me an opportunity to explore his story even further. Not just for the totality of his work within fashion, but really his early influences and his origins in Europe and the legacy that he left behind. So that’s me, in short.
Jess: For those of you who have read the pages of Illuminate already some of this will sound familiar. Jade has an incredible personal connection with Helmut and June or Alice Springs as his wife became known. Jade wants to tell us a bit about your story with Helmut.
Jade: Hi, everyone. Thank you for having me. So, my story is one of the statements in the ILLUMINATE magazine. In my early twenties, I had the privilege to indirectly work with Helmut Newton and June Newton when I worked as a very young curator at a German Museum based in Budapest in Hungary, called the Ludwig Museum, which was at the time the first Contemporary art museum in sort of central Eastern Europe after the changes. So it was significant that his work was presented and it was a travelling exhibition that was curated by June, who was of course his Australian wife.
And much of my work was not so much curating or selecting the artwork, but literally translating. First of all, June’s Australian accent, being a Hungarian born curator who was brought up in Melbourne that seemed to be a good reason to get the gig, but also sort of translating the cultural relevance and some of the nuance of how that works. I met them in passing later.
My very, very first encounter with his work probably would have been as a teenager, sort of very much interested in photography myself and looking at fashion magazines and figuring out where I wanted to go. And clearly, he was very good at making people and women look very glamorous. So we.
Jess: Rachelle you similarly suggested in your article in illuminate that your first encounter was as a teenager, too.
Rachelle: Yeah. So when I was about 13, my mother let me decorate my room. And among the things I chose was a prince. I chose a black and white photo that really appealed to me of what I thought were a couple leaning in a hotel against an elevator. Well, the woman with long hair, very Rita Hayworth, looking the man over her in a tuxedo. And to me, that was the epitome of glamour as a 14, 15 year old. It really wasn’t until about 15 years later that I walked into my bedroom, which was preserved. Like a lot of Jewish mothers of those times.
Rachelle: And I saw that it was actually two women standing together and I hadn’t realised I have this fairly subversive work in my home. But I’d always been drawn to him. And later on in the nineties I lived in New York where I worked for Packer’s group at ACP and we often tried to buy photos of famous people. Helmut was pretty much out of the range of most Australian magazines, but I remember we’d be in the office and new magazines would come in and I’ll never forget when Vogue came in one year and he’d done a series of Nadia Auermann as almost as a disabled girl, so she was wearing high heels and there she was in either crutches or her leg wrapped in an iron encasement or one with a with a fake leg. And it was so outrageous at the time it was in the papers, but for us we just looked at it as this epitome of saying something and this glamour.
I think because I wrote about movies as well and I wrote about fashion. There’s no doubt when I look at his work, I realize how much he influenced fashion and movies in the eighties and nineties. And I think that of the movie stars that I grew up with, people like Daryl Hannah and Kathleen Turner, I don’t even know if their aesthetic would have been made possible without the Helmut Newton woman, a broad shouldered, buxom, tall, red lipped, powerful woman. I think he had so much influence over both film and certainly fashion photography.
Jess: It’s so interesting also because there are a lot of people have described these images themselves as having a real cinematic element to them. And, of course, they’re presented in still form. It seems an understatement, of course, to suggest that Helmut’s, life and legacy has been the subject of much interest and certainly interrogation over the past many years. Through our program, since we opened the exhibition we’ve spent a lot of time exploring and considering Helmut’s, personal story. It feels really poignant and apt that we’re at this moment now that we’re considering his life through the perspectives that we hold today. And that’s very much what we’re kind of interested in talking through this afternoon. I wonder, Eleni, from your perspective, what is it about Helmut’s story that feels so unique and so fascinating? I mean, both from a curatorial perspective, but perhaps also, you know, to illuminate, if I may, you know, from the Jewish Museum’s perspective. Why helmet and why now for us?
Eleni: I think we’ve mentioned already that the museum’s remit is to illuminate Jewish life. Helmut Newton’s story is one of those that we felt there were incredible connections to be made. Not only to Melbourne but to the existing collecting stream that the museum is focusing on into the existing exhibition narrative that we’ve touched upon in the past. His influences, his upbringing in Berlin. They all echo to stories that are familiar within the community here in Melbourne, in Australia. But specifically he’s very arrival in this country as an enemy alien. But so he’s very arrival here as an enemy alien in 1940 is a story that the museum has focused greatly over the years, because obviously there’s a story that echoes very deeply with so many of the arrivals of people from Germany, Austria, that came right under the mirror of the Queen Mary, that Helmut did. Another major part of his early life and years in the city has to do with his fashion work and his involvement with the Schmatte business, the fashion industry. It was an industry that was heavily influenced, dominated almost by Jewish people that work within it. And he was one of those. His career was on Flinders Lane a little bit further down in the heart of the city. That’s probably what he could afford when he first opened that studio up. But we felt how incredible! This man that has this significant career, this status and this way upon his work, that’s admired and is followed by so many people around the world for all that he contributed to photography and actually created an entity right here in this city. And the circumstances of his arrival all had to do with the fact that he was actually Jewish and he had to flee Germany and ultimately end up here. So that was really the beginning of our story. And of course, we wanted to also tell, or make those connections rather to how his early years and influences his family life, even and his early photographic years in Berlin, have a connection through his Melbourne activity to the work that made him famous later on.
So I won’t, I won’t hold on.
Eleni: To much longer. But the private property volume series that we exhibit in the exhibition upstairs, for those that have seen or will see, it makes a direct reference and shows how his work evolved over the years and how much of that actually happened here. The portraiture. The fashion. The performing art. That it all took place in this City.
Jess: Jade you make an interesting observation, I think, more than an observation, in your musings, in your article. You kind of query whether it feels right to be labelling kind of additions of interpretation and discourse onto his works. I suppose this many years after their production and certainly that’s something that we’ve done here by way of the curatorial exploration. I wonder if it’s something you have to kind of extend upon in conversation now.
Jade: Are you referring to the Jewish connection?
Jess: Yeah. And, and I suppose the Australian, you know, the Australian aspect. We feel enormously, enormously proud that revealing his Australian chapter has landed with such surprise for many people here, it’s not well known abroad either, but that’s certainly something that we have added to the telling of his story. And we’ve kind of, you know, made a significant aspect of it, I guess.
Jade: Yes. I mean, in the article, I think as well, there’s two points that are new for the rest of the world. One, that he had a connection to Australia and he had an Australian wife and a life for 20 years in Melbourne. And clearly an Australian passport that allowed him to function and, sort of, conquer the world. But also, playing the devil’s advocate, I’d also suggest that whether we have the right to claim someone of a certain background when he didn’t identify as Jewish and people ask, do we have a right to claim his Jewish after death? And this is an interesting proposition for lots of artists of the 20th century. Many who didn’t clearly identify but we’re clearly affected by the events in Europe. Where their legacy lies and whose story is it to write, and who can lay claim to it.
So, in Helmut’s case, he was brought up a very secular, very open in Berlin. In fact, he went to a Catholic School. Many years later when he came to Melbourne and met Kim Newton, who was actually someone brought up in the Church of England household. In fact, it was Helmut who insisted on a Roman Catholic wedding in Melbourne. And it’s just something that he hid. His history, his work itself, is not something that he directly addressed. So I think that’s one question about generally coming out of the 20th century, specifically from Germany as well. Who’s writing it? The history. But I would also propose that I don’t think his legacy overall has been written. And I think this is a really interesting moment for an exhibition, like the one you’ve got upstairs, on where do we position his story in the realm of the history of photography and 20th and 21st century culture. Because, he’s really very well known in photography, in film, in popular culture. But I think in terms of the history of art and photography I think this is what’s happening at the moment. So this exhibition, in a way, is connecting part of history, whether that’s correcting his Jewish connection or whether that’s connecting the Australian connection or realigning that. ….
Jess: What do you think, Rachelle?
Rachelle: To me, his legacy is really one of storytelling. I especially think of it in the context of current popular media and social media platforms, where you can take a pretty photo and you’re suddenly an influencer. And he was someone that did so much more than take a pretty photo. He had beautiful women, for sure, everything was lit beautifully. But what he does in so many of his photos and you can see as he moves past the fashion stuff in the exhibition, especially, is he left stuff up to your imagination, the audience, and he told a story. So that might have been, not a lot of fun here, but I saw a photo where Claudia Schiffer is walking through a hotel door and the doors open, but behind the door is what looks to be her husband kissing a maid. So there’s always something there. Grace Jones spoke about being photographed by him. She’s nude, lying down, and she’s holding a knife. You don’t know what the story is about the knife. You just know there’s a story. He did a series for Prada where the bag is on display sure. But behind the bag is a woman only seen from the waist down, lying down, so perhaps dead, perhaps unconscious, and all the contents of her bag splayed out. So there was always this sense of story, which I think is so important. And he was provocative, but he was also so humorous in his storytelling. One of the things I love is he took a photo of a chicken, and a woman sort of spread opening this chicken in a fairly crude way, a cooked roast chicken. And she’s wearing $1,000,000 worth of Bulgari rings. All you see is her hands. It was a story about I think about jewellery that ran in Vogue. And I just think that sense of playfulness he had really pushing the boundaries. It’s so much it’s so important more than ever that we allow our artists to push the envelope a bit and to make a statement and not tell us what they’re thinking. We’re left to decide that ourselves.
Jess: I think that’s really interesting, and I’d love for you to touch a little bit on the kind of the curatorial framing upstairs without too many spoilers or giveaways, because that idea of storytelling and storytelling without being too didactic is certainly something that that was used as an interpretive mechanism.
Eleni: But that storytelling quality, as you rightly identify, is really what intrigued us in his work as well. Does that that mission or that hunt to find where those early influences lie and how they inform his work later on. And so much of it happens in his early formative years within photography in Berlin. Eric Solomon, who he was familiar with, or him absorbing all the person photography magazines in those early days as a teenager while he was doing his apprentice. Photojournalism really captivated him. He loved it as a medium, as a way to capture a scene and do exactly that, capture this moment in time in order to show what’s happened before or what’s going to happen after. Which intrigues, that ambiguity, you know, gives a sense of mystery as opposed to existing. So that is something that we also wanted to incorporate within our storytelling upstairs and connect those dots as you’ll find when you wander through the exhibition. It’s not a linear experience. You won’t come into the early years. What happened next and so forth. It’s these thematic groupings that offer this historical, loosely chronological explanation of his life. But it’s a layered approach. We started the exhibition with some of his most famous pieces, the portrait of Sigourney Weaver and David Bowie.
But also, you turn the corner, and you see Helmut as a little boy during the piece with his father and his mother. And then you move a little bit further into the show and you stand at a point in the exhibition where you suddenly are in the Schmatte business, his fashion years in Melbourne. One eye will glance at the ‘burger’ girls from 1954 and another eye will glance at Saddle the work that he did, the very famous provocative work that he did for her with the girl bent in the saddle on her back. So it’s about making those connections in his own story through the storytelling quality of his photography. So this is where he started. This is what he’s doing while he’s here and this is where he’s about to take that leap into. Did he know that he was going to create? Was he taking this journey with intention to create those really provocative works, perhaps did that develop along the way? But yes that’s really the reveal that we’re coming to the show.
Jess: It’s interesting. The element of provocation. I think. We certainly from the museum side return to again and again from the moment that the exhibition was lopped off and to be part of the programme. And it’s something that we’ve heard our audience respond to also those that are feeling challenged or uncomfortable by what they’re seeing upstairs.
Jade I wonder from your perspective, you know, how does one negotiate his legacy and the remnants of the body of works that we have here in a socio political, cultural context that is so markedly different now to the time when Helmut was producing his works? Well, I mean, one big question.
Jade: I don’t think I can answer that. All of us perhaps. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Well, the discourse is changing. In terms of cultural discourse. During a supposedly post me-too movement which got some recognition. There is a move towards plurality and intersectionality. But that means looking at things not just in the cases of the Jewish boy, Nasser. When asked if someone with photography was looking at him as an obstacle stop. We’ll be working in the discipline of photography, but we’re looking at things in a very different way into the cultural discourse. And there is a reckoning that’s going on. And certainly, his work because of the nature of it, that he’s a male artist. Very provocative and voyeuristic and clearly uses the female body in the very explicit way. There’s a negotiation going on at the moment, and it’s something that we’ve been a little bit talking about in general and going on in the professional and public realm to engage with cancel culture and to actually engage with the work and then think about an event like today and actually talk about them. So, I think in many ways his work is very poignant at the moment, for us to think about and converse with.
Rachelle: I mean, to me, context is everything. And with Helmut, you could look at his work now and say he could be demeaning women because there’s a woman on a bed with a saddle on her. You could say that he’s objectifying women, but if you actually spend time listening to any of his subjects, they neither felt objectified or demeaned. They actually felt really empowered. So, you’ve got people like Charlotte Rampling saying, I never was photographed like this before, and I felt strong. You have a model like Sylvia Goebel who said until Helmut shot her – she was six foot tall, blonde – she felt like a deer. She felt like she was always hunted. Finally, with these shots in the nude, she felt like she was on the same level as the Hunter. So, I think that it is one thing for us to put our gaze on it and put our interpretation on it. But Helmut, according to hundreds of people, interviewed, loved women. The women he photographed had no objection to the way they were being portrayed. And so, I do think that is relevant. I think it’s quite relevant, actually. Do we dismiss that or are we just missing the person who took the art? And I think there’s almost I think if he had if we later found out that these women had been abused in some way or mistreated, I think we would be seeing it with a different lens. But I think it’s important that these women, if you look you can see in their gaze in the pictures upstairs, they felt strong. And he definitely showed women as not being weak, as being strong. And I myself, growing up with that image, didn’t feel like I had to live up to something. I felt that there was power. That was, I think, thematically really interested in power, whether it was power of sexuality, power of wealth, power of eroticism.
Jess: I mean, it’s interesting to think that that idea around categorisation. There is often binaries when we think of Helmut and people even call him and I’m quoting here, an exploiter of women and others refer to him as champion. And I wonder, Eleni, if the binary is useful at all in setting up the conversation, perhaps? Or do they lead us to kind of being to too kind of reductive and kind of forcing us into one or the other?
Eleni: I think it’s always useful to have context, but also a serenity and balance, I guess, in in addressing the work any work. I actually see his work as a very useful step in all the wonderful and optimistic and encouraging progress that lies ahead of us in the future. I think if you see Eva’s work, who inspired him on this side of the wall and then his own creations from the fifties, which are, you know, very tame and demure and elegant and glamorous, however you want to describe them. There is great limitation within these very beautiful, elegant images of, well, particularly the time when those women were photographed.
Then we go into those years of sexual liberation and confidence and empowerment, but yet there are problematic parameters within that as well. Most of the women are white or the industry was mostly male dominated, but I think that is probably a stepping stone, I would say, in being able to allow us to accept that work, criticise it, analyse it, and then give us the weapons or the tools to create better interpretations, more diverse interpretations, better work in the future. And I think ILLUMINATE, actually just to put that plug in, there is a really great example of how we can have those conversations today with the work of taking a stance on how can we depict the female body and what can we say to the female body? Is it male? Is it female? Is there kind of this poetic ambiguity, as well, within the depiction of ourselves through the photographic lens? So, I think that openness, but also a sense of, I don’t know, just being so, what’s the word, somewhere, I guess, in analysing and viewing the past. In calmer, more serene eyes, and approaches, I would say. Yeah, I think the future is definitely brighter for photographers and for artists, for creators, for those that want to use Helmut Newton’s work as inspiration and bring something new to the table. And that’s where the optimism lies to me. Connection to his work.
Jess: Okay. To all of you, I suppose the title of this conversation, I think, so beautifully and so brilliantly has been enunciated is returning the gaze, thinking profoundly about the conversation that exists around the male gaze when it comes to Helmut’s work. I wonder what returning the gaze might mean for you when we think about Helmut’s, life and legacy or the body works as we hold them now.
Jade: Well, in terms of art history and cultural discourse, the gaze is, I would argue, almost always male. It’s understood to be only a heteronormative and probably white in a historical context. So, this idea of being looked at by a male eye or voyeur and being objectified or fetishised as a female subject would be my understanding of what the gaze is, in a way. But I just a comment to continue from the previous point as well is that most of this work was actually done on the commission for the commercial genre. So, most of the work here is actually advertising their products. So, if you take that image out of context, I mean, it’s beautiful and they become art, but they can exist without that neuschwanstein or that Bulgari ring or whatever the work continues to be without it. But it is this kind of recognition in the commercial and maybe not profit world that you are sort of realism that back. So I think the game is very much in that cultural context is very much gender and binary. And I think we like to do this breaking down in the community in different ways.
Jess: Thank you, we have a comment.
Audience member: I was very interested in what you’re saying about the amount of white women that Helmut Newton photographed with the and you speak about the gaze with the approach. How much of his body of work would be photographing non-white women like and what backgrounds were they? Were they African? Were they Indonesian or what? With the amount of women, he photographed do you know much percentage of their target…
Jade: I can make the answer because I actually tried to work.
He passed away and June Newton passed away, leaving the estate that is run by the Helumt’s and now the remains of Helmut Newton Foundation that they will be talking about it. But his face is really into private space and is very much controlling the narrative, including access to the artworks. So he’s actually not, as a curator trying to do a show, I contacted them to see what’s in there and they’ve not been very cooperative to give me access to it. Did he even take photographs that were not on commission? Did he do them privately? I think what we see predominantly, I think you might know better. I think Grace Jones is the most.
Rachelle: Yeah, he did a quite a few series with Grace Jones and some with Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren. But he also did a whole series later on with he and June taking each other’s photos where they are revealing themselves, where they’re naked or they’re in private settings. And so, I think this idea that he just took a certain type of photo is a little bit out of context, would you say?
Jade: Yes, you’re talking about the Us and Them book. Yeah, you have to pick it up. Yes. So they made this beautiful court, which I love. And Treasure is one of my favourite books, but it’s the Us and Them photographs that they both took of each other and then obviously like, it’s very intimate. One of them going to surgery and just waking up in a hotel room. Very private shots. That’s, I think the answer is you don’t know.
Audience member: I’m just wondering, did he actually risk thinking about the African people, the Afro-American or Jamaican, or did he photograph any Asian women?
Eleni: I would suggest that from what I’ve seen it is predominantly white Caucasian women. Yes, Grace Jones is one of the famous people. For French Vogue there are some black models. But he, I would say that he certainly had a type, and he was not shy about sharing that. As a matter of fact, in his autobiography, as much as it can be trusted because it’s full of, you know, embellishment and things. He does talk about his memories of having, you know, Prussian women helping around the house, you know, and his impression of them or how he would look at them or admire them. So it could be that there is some early influence in his upbringing as well that is making him call the shots. But also, I think even today, the conversation around diversity within the fashion world is one that’s dominant. I mean, you know, how many, precisely speaking to that point on his work being commercial and being product driven. How many fashion houses would employ women other than white, you know, French or Scandinavian or whatever? I think that he was not his personal reference alone, but it was the way that the industry worked at the time.
Jade: I think have to remember that until recently women models were all white across the board and having women of colour, women of different sizes is a very recent thing.
Eleni: That’s right!
Jade: The last good example I would have come up with. Naomi Campbell. A based on. But also, we need to remember that he’s castings and actually his photo shoots. And this is not such a well-known fact that I hope we’ll get into this. June Newton She was actually divine in many ways and was there for all the. Some of the most provocative positions were initiated by her. She was there for all of it. Who’s gaze and who’s eyes?
Rachelle: And, in fact, that’s one you should look out for upstairs is that great photo of him photographing a nude and June sitting on the side.
Eleni: Yeah. Also, it’s the conversation about who is driving, which is the driving force here. Is he driving the fashion industry or is it the industry taking him along with him as somebody that they know can create this really robust, powerful, provocative body of work and really utilising it. Utilising his eye to the to the greatest extent. I’m not sure whether he’s the one that’s pushing the conversation or whether he is a part of that massive industry that dictates the way that we understand ourselves or, you know, what beauty is or what looks good or what doesn’t.
Jess: We have so many raised hands, which I’m so thrilled about. Why don’t we start here.
Audience member: Yeah. I was just wondering when he started going into the provocative period, if you want to call it that, it seems to be the same time as when the world was hit with HIV AIDS. We’re talking about sex and sexuality a lot. For the first time, he started photographing same sex, women, couples. I was just wondering what influence culturally that had on his photography at the time.
Eleni: I would suggest that he’s he’s toying with the idea of this kind of hyper-sexual or provocative images much earlier. From our exhibition even you’ll see that he’s photographing the theatre of the girls. He’s doing these double spread, these fashion double spreads. One of the photoshoots has a heist as a theme where there’s machine guns and a pocket weapon coming out of a very elegant purse, the beautiful lady with pearls and fur and everything. So, again, he’s challenging the viewer there. There’s another piece of work that he did here in Melbourne where he’s placing the models in cages and male models surround the cages, taking photographs of the women inside. So I think that he’s always wanted to push the conversation and push his storytelling, and that’s really the reason why he left Australia. He couldn’t do it to the full extent here. He had to go to Europe, London, Paris, I suppose to be able to be himself, I think, and, and have more sex enter into his work in the way that he imagined. But certainly times changed and he was very much in decades where the pill became available, you know, and people could talk about sex. There were more sexual imagery within press and magazines. So he was creating during that time and of course the social context influenced him and he was able to ride it and continue to work in such a way.
Jess: Yes. Yes.
Audience member: During his heyday and also his Tatura years, the internment, did he take photographs?
Eleni: Not in Tatura. Actually, that’s such a good question because we were wondering whether he would have had access in the internment camps to cameras. What did happen at Tatura is that there were these really beautiful, informal learning circles where people with artistic backgrounds, academic, whatever else, they would educate each other. So they had university, informal university circles and photography was one of the subjects that Newton taught at Tatura. With or without the equipment, I’m not really sure how the lesson would turn out, but it was one of the things that he was teaching
Audience member: I think the other internees were actually painting too.
Eleni: Oh yeah, absolutely! By whichever means they could!
Eleni: Yeah. I think the technical difficulties were a little bit greater there, yeah. But after his internment, during the Army years, he was photographing and there are photographs of him by others as well. So small handheld cameras …
Audience member: Does he write about that experience in internment?
Eleni: Yes. Well, in his autobiography, he goes to great lengths discussing what it was like and, you know, he’s quite crude about it all, but also writing retrospectively about those years. I’m not sure that his memory served him very well in everything that happened or whether some of it or embellished or changed. The impression that we got, you know, going through those materials and also trying to find mentions of him in other testimonies and other accounts is that he was very much somebody, that he was an individual, he would keep a distance when he wanted to or he would become a part of a group if he felt like it. He, I don’t know, maybe he was a bit of a snob or maybe he was spoiled. I don’t know, whatever, whatever it was that that drove him during those years. But he kept a distance. And certainly in later years, when others were getting together and having reunions, he was not interested in being a part of that commemoration of those years. He was somebody who was always looking ahead. And in the autobiography, he mentioned that, you know too June’s great sorrow, he decided to burn everything the night before they left Melbourne. Papers and photographs and so forth. So he just didn’t care. So it’s amazing that the archival material that exists.
Jess: The sorrow is ours too! The burning of burning of all of that. It’s kind of it’s heartbreaking from a from a historical or especially physiological perspective. A couple of comments here, or questions for us.
Audience Member: Oh, thank you. I’d just like to suggest that with respect to the fashion photography, it’s directed at women and on site at the time of the photography, there will have been a representative of the company who is probably a woman and that maybe we’ve got the wrong perspective saying this is Helmut. Helmet and his view. Maybe we should be saying what appeals to women and makes them buy the clothes that he photographs. And was he not, at least in significant part, a servant of that.
Rachelle: So, I think you’re right in saying that at a shoot there wouldn’t have been any men, certainly. How many straight men there? I mean, of most magazines I’ve worked for, I was you know, there were no men on staff, so they were really heavily, female heavy. And I think that is true that and I think a lot of his models talk about that they felt that they were part of it, too. That they were somewhat a vessel for him. But they also got to put in what their gaze was, what their opinion was, too. So I think that’s really true.
Audience member: Just to that, it’s the same conversation. That the Model House would have directed who the models were, I’d imagine not so much Helmut, the fashion house probably had a brief around models …
Jade: I think he chose the models himself. So, he had favourites that he liked. I know he worked a lot with Nadia Auermann and he would go see and pick them. So I think that was one thing, he liked that part. But I also think they were very much a part of how the picture worked out as well. And no one ever seemed like they were forced into something everyone felt really part of the storyline as well. And he often said that things came to him at the last minute. But to the point of women choosing how the shoes would go, Anna Wintour from Vogue hired him because he was provocative. She called his pages a stopper in the magazine necessary to break up just pure fashion fluff. So he was hired for a reason, and it’s presumably because that did appeal to women as well. But she would say he delighted in getting bad letters from the people who read the magazine. And he would always say, make sure you tell me what all the terrible letters said. So I think he was part of it. He had a humour about it, too, and she obviously did as well.
Jess: The humour and that kind of the cheekiness I suppose, certainly feels visible in the works upstairs. I was going to ask if anyone’s got any other questions, comments, questions.
If we think about his significance. And again, this feels much more than a question to each of you. But obviously, he has an enormous impact across the form of photography, but his influence elsewhere, you know, where does it feel most keenly felt for the three of you?
Rachelle: I mean, for me, I look at the way we viewed women for a long time in the public eye. I think of all the 90 supermodels, I’m not sure that any of them the Lindy Evangelista’s, the Christy Turlington’s, the Cindy Crawford’s. Cindy Crawford, who he worked with a lot, would have really been as popular without his kind of gaze. And I think apart from the fact that they were very beautiful and they did subscribe, I guess, to a typical kind of beauty through them. They did also represent something strong that paved the way for future generations. But I think more than anything, he allowed artists to be artists within pages of magazines. He changed the definition of what it was to be in a fashion magazine, and that, to me, had an influence as a writer, too. If he can push the envelope with a photo, then I can do the same with writing. I think it opens up that boundary really well.
Jess: I love that idea of his inspiration carrying a cross forms not being restricted just to photography or visual arts. But what about you jade? What do you think?
Jade: I think his legacy in popular culture and visual culture is definitely there. You said it beautifully, he basically paved the way for so many other artists and photographers and models and representation of the female, not just the body but the psyche. I’m not sure.
That that makes me happy quite yet. And. Crossed over to museum world or to the art collecting yet. I don’t I’m not sure that it’s necessarily seen the same way as high art as such, yet. It might happen. I feel like the structure that Helmut and June set up with this estate that I mentioned before is not necessarily going to help his legacy. I might be wrong about that. I think generally an artist shouldn’t and cannot control their legacy.
So, in a way the work is so amazing. It speaks for itself. I think containing it is not necessarily good for the future, but I think certainly in terms of culture, cultural influence. Literally just cannot here this last bit or
Eleni: What I would add to those beautiful statements is just something that echoes through our whole exploration of his life. The way that he is presented, his work here at the museum is as somebody that was so committed to his craft and to the photographic medium that he adored photography from a young boy. And he stuck to that medium of his heart for the rest of his life. And also somebody that forged his own path within the world of magazines and advertising and fashion and whatever it was that he was photographing at that time that he was able to reinvent himself, start anew from nothing. A number of times. And really to remain loyal to himself, to his vision of what he wanted to achieve. And I think that’s the overriding story of what we’re telling upstairs. When we go from these very beginnings as a young boy in Berlin up until the very end to his provocative images, that’s where his heart was. And that’s what that was the vision that you want to share.
Jess: Steadfast in that sense of ambition, but also resilience, which is something that we encounter so much in the storytelling that we do here at the Jewish Museum, which, of course, feels a perfect note to suggest that you all spend some time upstairs exploring the exhibition. And if there aren’t any final questions for our phenomenal three panellist’s this afternoon, I want to encourage all of you to head on upstairs. Unfortunately, there’s no drinks up there. So if you’re finishing off a glass, you’ll have to do so down here. But we’ll be around also if you’ve got any questions or comments. I want to thank you all for joining us this afternoon and for coming out on such a cold winter’s day! Please do, of course, keep your eye on our web page. There’s a snapshot of the program in Illuminate of upcoming events, conversations, and experiences. Continue to engage with us on site at the Jewish Museum and online. And we look forward to seeing you back at the Museum very soon after today. Thanks so much.
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In our first edition, for Winter 2022, we highlight the uniqueness and diversity of voices we encounter around our exciting and thought-provoking ﬂagship, HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus.
Within these pages, photographers Honey Long and Prue Stent respond to Helmut Newton‘s work, and as you will see, their response is at once singular and striking, where, as they say, ‘the roles of the muse and photographer become interchangeable.’
And, writer Rachelle Unreich and curator Jade Niklai both hold deep memories of Helmut Newton, although for each, while quite personally affected by Helmut’s work, their interrogation of the “why” holds a different reason.