Transcript of panel discussion: "Polarising, surprising, loved and loathed: Unpacking the legacy of Helmut Newton’s photography", VAULT the Sex Issue no. 38, 12 May 2022 at the Jewish Museum of Australia.

May 25, 2022

Sophie Prince, Alison Kubler, Jessica Bram, Brendan McCleary, Justin Ridler, and Eleni Papavasileiou. 

This panel was recorded, and we invite you to listen along as you read this illuminating transcript. Click here to listen.

Sophie Prince  00:00 

Good evening. Good evening, everyone. Thanks for coming along tonight to this very special event. There’s actually a multiplicity of things we’re celebrating here tonight, the launch of VAULT‘s Sex Issue, the PHOTO 2022 Festival, which is an amazing programme that this event is part of that’s continuing until May 2022. So many twenty-two’s! And of course the Helmut Newton exhibition that is a Jewish Museum of Australia exhibition, right upstairs, and it’s part of the, it’s in partnership with PHOTO 2022 as well. I’m Sophie, I’m the Assistant Content Editor of VAULT Magazine.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land, the Yaluk-ut Weelam people of the Kulin nation, I also like to extend my respects to Elders past, present and emerging and all First Nations people.

So, today’s panel is centred on unpacking the amazing legacy of Helmut Newton. It’s called “Polarising, Surprising, Loved and Loathed”. Ali will be guiding us through the topics of censorship, photography, sex, and of course, the legacy of Helmut Newton’s beautiful photographic practice.

And insight will be gained by our amazing panellists. We’re here with Jess Bram, who is the Director of the Jewish Museum of Australia. And Eleni Papavasileiou, did I say that right? Who is the Curator of HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus. She is the Senior Curator of the of the Museum and Collections Manager. And Justin Ridler, who is an esteemed photographer. You’ve seen his work in Vogue, in ID he’s internationally renowned. Thank you all for being part of the panel.

I won’t say too much more about the panel. I’ll just quickly thank the Jewish Museum of Australia and the team here for hosting us tonight. Thank you for opening up past gallery hours and having us here and for partnering with us on this event. Thank you also to the VAULT and Heyman design team who make VAULT what it is. I’d just like to thank, especially, Lavinia Puccetti, who’s here tonight, who is the designer of VAULT’s Sex issue and the recent issues you should chat to her because she’s lovely and talented. I’d also like to thank PHOTO 2022 for partnering with VAULT for the duration of the Festival. We’ve worked on editorial content together, we’ve worked on events and some digital content creation. In the current issue, we’ve got a great piece on Helmut Newton by writer Inga Walton, who is also here tonight. And lovely and talented.

I’ll hand over to Brendan McCleary, who is curator of PHOTO 2022. Thank you for all being here and enjoy.  

Brendan McCleary  03:40 

So yeah, I’m Brendan McCleary, Associate Curator with PHOTO 2022. If you aren’t aware, there are 90 exhibitions with 123 artists all across Melbourne and regional Victoria currently one of which is the brilliant exhibition just upstairs. So, please do get up and have a look. Thank you to the Jewish Museum for having us all here today. And, on the topic of sex, like please go and see the shot at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, particularly the show called Queering, the Frame: Community, Time, Photography, that very much looks into the way in which sex and queerness is narrated by the people of their own history. So thank you again, I’ll hand over to Ali for this very brilliant and wonderful discussion.  

Alison Kubler  04:28 

Well, what an introduction, I’m gonna stand up as a stool is very precarious, and I feel like I am going to fall forward, so thank you so much for that lovely introduction. And thank you all so much for coming out. It’s so so lovely to be here. I’d like to reiterate that acknowledgement of country as well. I can [inaudiable] that. So it’s very important. Yes. PHOTO I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here. I’d like to thank the Jewish Museum and also PHOTO 2022. So fantastic to be able to partner with both of you to make this happen and to launch this issue with so many great friends, and so many of the writers who contribute to VAULT.

I just want to reiterate, we are a very small team, we do big things with a very small number of people. And, I’m very indebted to Sophie, and to Lavinia and Andrew who really make it all come together. So, I want to tell you a little bit about the Sex issue.

There’s so many funny things about this magazine that I had to tell you, not the least of which is that when I started researching it, and we were talking about all the ideas and who we wanted to have in the magazine, the minute you start typing certain names in, you can imagine what your computer algorithms start sending. So, that goes for my phone. And, I have a 10-year-old who just turned, he just turned 11, who also likes to play poker on on my phone. I think I’ve aged him considerably. And, when we were doing the magazine and sort of coming to the final stages where we had all the proofs and we’ve got it all out on my computer. And, of course, when you look at it, there’s one on your seat there, you’re gonna see this Tom of Finland and Robert Crumb, Aiko Robinson, there’s Robert Andy Coombs, there’s so many things that are difficult to explain to a 10-year-old, but I tried my best. And so it was quite interesting. I had to sort of say to him, ‘don’t go on my computer.’ Because I was travelling and eating steak, I could tell he’d been on there. I was like, ‘you really need to stop doing that.’

There’s loads of big lessons in this process, and one is that it is amazing what you’d type in. If you need to know where you can buy good dildos though: I can tell you. Pretty much I get all those ads now. Yes, absolutely. And then the other funny thing is that when we did actually put, we started to market the magazine, and we put a little .GIF up that Lavinia had designed so beautifully, Instagram almost immediately pulled it down. Which we sort of thought would happen. But weirdly, Facebook didn’t. Isn’t that strange, owned by the same company? Go figure. That so didn’t help. So then Lavinia had to make a censored version, which is basically just blurring out the boobs.  Which was very, it was it just a very interesting exercise, because one of the artists that you’ll see featured in this magazine, there’s an article Robert Andy Coombs, who’s a queer disabled artist, and his work is so amazing. And, he’s fighting this incredibly long running battle with Instagram that has been going on now for some time, you know, he’s been featured by Jerry Saltz. He is a fantastic young artist, and everything he puts up, just gets pulled out. And, then his whole Instagram account got pulled down. Of course, the bigger debate there is whether it’s to do with queerness, sexuality or disability. And, so it’s a very interesting dialogue. And, one of the things that he did talk about when when we did an interview is that one of the things that is sort of a big taboo is to be disabled, but queer, very interesting. So we might get to that.

But tonight, we’re here to talk about Helmut Newton. And, I think one of the things I’ve been pondering a lot. [other voices] I’m wearing a trench coat, just very on topic. It is such a great… so we’re so glad that we could partner with this exhibition particularly because I think, obviously, the legacy of Helmut Newton is so large, it’s such a… he’s such a big figure, when we think about photography or even, I think, sexuality. And, so I guess one of the questions that I wanted to ask you Eleni, is how you… Okay, this show does two things: it talks about the significance of Helmut Newton to Melbourne, his significance to the Jewish community, but then of course, it also unpacks I guess, his transition from wedding photographer, social photographer to arguably the most provocative photographer in the 20th century. So, how do you begin to tell that story? 

'I think that the response from our audience, Jewish or non-Jewish, is one of absolute curiosity. And, I think from our perspective, as a museum, all of the exhibitions and all the encounters that we provide, are ones that spark curiosity. In terms of, you know, the boobs, you can't miss the boobs out there. But, I would say, in the beautiful curation that Eleni and Cathy have done, the boobs are contextual.'

Eleni Papavasileiou  09:25 

So, thank you very much for having us tonight. And, can I just say in my career as a museum curator, and I’m sure the same goes for you Jason, I never thought that I find my name in a Sex Issue. Look, the exhibition falls within our remit initially to illuminate Jewish lives. This is what we do at the Museum, these are the stories that we explore and definitely Helmut’s life was one of those, you know, he arrived to Australia because of the circumstances of, you know, Second World War and what was happening in his life and who he was, you know, what was his cultural and religious background, even though he was not religious in any way. So, for us, that’s where the conversation starts really: in showcasing that history and showcasing how his life is relevant to Melbourne and to Australia. And, from there on progress the conversation and really show an offer to all visitors. What they came to see, you know, that, that visual feast and the excitement of seeing the real stuff here, and to demonstrate, to prove, what were the steps in his path and his career that ultimately led to this beautiful array of photographs: the provocative, controversial array of photographs. That Private Property, the body of images that we show upstairs is all about. So that’s the starting point, really. 

Alison Kubler  11:02 

So, I think that’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? Because obviously, someone like Helmut Newton, that the images are now synonymous with who we assume he is, right, who is the person that we think he is? But, it is so interesting to learn that, that is kind of immigrant history and what he had to sort of overcome. So, I wonder as well, how does, I might ask you, how the Jewish community takes it on board? Like, is it it’s something that, I mean, how are they received, those boobs upstairs? 

Jessica Bram  11:30 

The million dollar question. I would say, you know, it’s been really interesting for us the whole process, really, because I think the story that we tell is a revelation for everyone: those in the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community more broadly. I think Helmut’s, German-Jewish background is a surprise. His internment as an enemy alien and his, his kind of landing here is an even bigger surprise, that he then enlisted in the Australian Army is the next surprise, and that he is here for two decades or thereabout. So, I think that the response from our audience, Jewish or non-Jewish, is one of absolute curiosity. And, I think from our perspective, as a museum, all of the exhibitions and all the encounters that we provide, are ones that spark curiosity. In terms of, you know, the boobs, you can’t miss the boobs out there. But, I would say in the beautiful curation that Eleni and Cathy have done, the boobs are contextual. So, you’re not coming just to see large poster moves. The shock and awe, it’s not, it’s not really there in that way. I think you’re guided through what is a very personal and intimate story. And, they become part of that story. So really, phenomenally, the community has responded in the exact way we had, we had hoped with a diversity of perspectives. I don’t think we had anticipated a single response to the show, I think what we wanted was to enable people to come and see, and then come to their own conclusions or come to their own understandings of who Helmut was and the legacy that he leaves behind. 

Alison Kubler 13:13 

And, that is an interesting thing to talk about. But, that idea of legacy because I think that when you look at those images upstairs, you immediately see the influence that Helmut has had on so many photographers. So, I’m going to come to you in a minute. But, I guess one of the things that I thought would be interesting to talk about is this idea of what is the difference between eroticism, sexuality and nudity, and how we it’s, I think we’re existing in a time, you and I were just having conversation about this, where extensibly we’re very open, we live in a very accepting time, but I think what’s interesting is we’re seeing a lot of conservatism from the left now, a lot of things where, one might get cancelled for some of those images upstairs of those women. So, I did want to talk about that, because I think it’s very interesting. Um, do you think Eleni, that you could do those photographs now, and I’m talking very specifically some of those images of women? I mean, they are beautiful and extraordinary and as so said, provocative and polarising. Do you think that if Helmut Newton was making them now, would he be cancelled? Potentially? 

Eleni Papavasileiou  14:27 

You know, I think his appeal is not as broad everywhere. There is still a lot of conversation and there will be a lot of conversation about his work. I think that there’s a lot of fans in Europe, perhaps less so in America, it’s probably reflected by who is collecting the work and where the work is featured. So, that conversation is ongoing. I think that those photographs would probably be made, not by a white male photographer, now. It would probably be somebody else behind the lens. And, the models would perhaps represent the moment in time that we are right now. And, there’s no denying that Newton had a type. It has to do with his upbringing: Germany that he grew up in, what was happening in Germany at the time, and what, you know, excited him and what, you know, got him going and what, you know, particularly he’s done or you know, fantasy. No, I think that the gaze would be someone else’s. Yeah, not his so. So I think that is, I don’t know we might just get to that. I don’t want to be premature for the conversation. But, I think that’s probably where the conversation lies. And, perhaps that is what we see as problematic in the work, you know, that he was in an industry, because, of course, he was not a sole agent, you know, he serves a large commercial industry, a large enterprise, a production line, if you will, that operated in a very similar way, and under their specific gaze, and his work was welcomed. His work was provocative and, you know, he attracted the clientele, but he did precisely because of that. So yeah, I think we are, and I think that’s also part of his legacy. The hindsight you know, that retrospectively, we’re able to now have this conversation. So that’s a mirror, I guess, on ourselves, and how far we’ve come in that discussion to be able to analyse them today. 

Alison Kubler  16:30 

And, I wonder in terms of that, you know, because we were talking about Terry Richardson, for example, or Bruce Weaver, and obviously, there’s, there’s a whole lot of anecdotal information about their behaviour, etc. But, it’s interesting how, now, those things are not separated out at all. And, so we cease to be able to see the art or the form, aside from these things, you know, like these things have transpired, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. But, it is interesting, isn’t it? Because, we come to those Helmut Newton images, and as you said, he had type: they’re Amazonian for want of a better word, aren’t they, and sort of Teutonic goddesses. It’s very interesting. Yeah.  

Eleni Papavasileiou  17:13 

And, I think that also there was another conversation that we had in the lead up to the exhibition that there was, there was enough evidence, actually, that Newton worked very professionally and very respectfully with his clients and with the models that were in front of the lens. And, I guess, you know, where controversy lies, and some of the other names, you mentioned, is precisely because of the fact that they didn’t, and that they crossed the line, you know, and also the fact that he stated in an interview that he didn’t care, I’m not, you know, this probably sounds even more objectifying, you know, but he didn’t care about the model. You know, about her story, about where she come from, or what she looked like, or whatever. But, the model serves his own fantasy, you know, is there to be a part of that cinematic view that he’s creating when he’s behind the lens. So the model is part of the story, is part of the narrative. So, that’s the relationship that he had with, with all the other women that he worked with. And, you will be useful somewhere in the conversation as well to mention the women that influenced him. 

Alison Kubler  18:27 

Yes, yes. 

Eleni Papavasileiou  18:28 

Yes, you may turn your gaze to the three images here. And, of course, you’ll see some more further up in the exhibition, original images by Yva, who was the fashion photographer, a Jewish German fashion photographer, that Newton did his apprenticeship with and later was promoted to assistant, in Berlin. You know, you’ll explore this as you go upstairs. But, he started photographing at the age of 12. He knew from a very young age that his path was in photography, that’s really you know, where his heart was. He was super excited about cinema, but he knew that anything to do with cinema would take too long. And, he didn’t have the patience or the, or the stamina. So, photography was for him. And actually, I think he said that anything over three days of projects, anything over three days is not worth doing. So. But anyway, I digress. Yva, was a great influence on him. She was herself, a prolific fashion photographer, masterful technically what she did in Berlin. And he spent many years there with her honing his craft and understanding the work that she did. And, he says in his autobiography, that he worshipped the ground that she walked on. So, a major influence and I think one of the great losses in his life in that after he fled Berlin in 1938, Yva was too late to respond to the exodus and she believed that things would change, you know, it couldn’t happen to her. And, then she ended up being murdered in one of the concentration camps in 1942. And, he always acknowledged Yva, even later on in his career. And, actually, it’s interesting to think about photography in Melbourne and what it is that he brings here in terms of his photographic practice, because everything that he learns in her studio, there was a photography work at the time, you know, all those analogue processes, the darkroom everything that you would have done as a young boy, he brings to Melbourne, and you know, that same methodology, that same work. And, of course, later in his life, June Newton, his wife, who he met while she was modelling, she was a young actor, she becomes his lifelong creative partner, his, you know, his life partner. And she was, she was there: at all the projects, behind the scenes. 

Alison Kubler  20:57 

That’s one of the best images upstairs, actually, their iconic image of the model looking at herself, and June sitting there watching him photograph, it’s, it’s such an extraordinary image. Yeah, yeah. 

Eleni Papavasileiou  21:08 

So, you know, starting from his mother, I guess, from his early years, you know, a female force that really shaped him and gave him this early sense of personality, his aesthetic, you know, the world that he lived in was very much, you know, shaped by her, you know, that haircut that he hated, or the velvet little suits that he despised, and he was grateful for his father, when he gave him a haircut, to all those other aesthetic and cultural influences that were to come further down his life, you know, there was, there was women there every step of the way. 

Alison Kubler  21:40 

And, you’re very right about that. And, he’s always, he was always very acknowledging of the women in his life. And, I always, I remember seeing those Helmut Newton images as a young girl, and thinking and knowing instinctively, that they were powerful, and not feeling, like you know, when you because it was different to looking at Playboy, which I encountered as a young person. But there is a difference, right? Like, I knew there was a difference, even as a young person. And looking at those images, I was aware that those women were extraordinary and powerful and strong. And, I didn’t feel weird about it, I just want to know more about who they were. And, so it’s so interesting, that idea of the gaze and how we, how early I guess that settles on you, and how you think about it. So, I want to come to you, Justin as the photographer in the room, and somebody [who] also teaches photography, you are an active photographer, you’re working and thinking and making, but you’re teaching as well. So, can you talk about what Helmut Newton has meant to you, or also other photographers, who I guess in the same realm, and want you to how you think about that idea of the gaze? 

Justin Ridler  22:53 

Sure, um, I think, what Helmut Newton meant to me, I think, as I was growing up, I think I share a similar story, you know, I am, I came to fashion photography, when I was very, very young, probably eight or nine years old. My aunties actually used to collect old Italian Vogues and French Vogues, and we would sit on my grandmother’s staircase with my other cousins, and I would pour over them and they were fabulous, make your own dresses, and all that stuff. But, I think I came very early into this notion of I didn’t really know that it was fashion photography, I thought it was just a fun thing to do for a living, you know, these beautiful women in Vogue magazine. So, that was sort of my first entry point. And, then later, I think when I realised that I wanted to be a photographer, and entered into university and started studying, Helmut Newton, to me, was sort of seen as the the old guard really, you know. I finished university in 2001, I think. And, so for me, it was like, sort of Helmut Newton, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, names like that, that everyone in this room probably know quite well. But we saw them as being kind of almost like the proto-photographers, you know, we were looking at their work as being kind of the, the formula, if you will, of how to craft images. Later on my viewpoint on my craft became far more textural, and I started looking outside of those initial kind of, you know, entry points, but I think, in the formative, I guess, stages of my career, it was really quite siloed, in terms of what we were looking at. And, also potentially unfortunate as well, because there were a lot of voices that were uncovered that were cut away from, that dark, that obviously quite textured dialogue that could have happened. But we didn’t really look, sort of, outside of that.

And then later on, I fell in love with Sally Mann and Sarah Moon, and they just took my breath away, and really kind of the rest is history, really. So, I think that’s sort of what Helmut represented to me, then. What he represents to me now, somewhat differently, I think, like everyone in this room, have kind of graduated past the kind of particular way of representing women that seemed to occur at that stage in, in the photographic canon. And, I sort of see his work lens by the time that he wasn’t an operator. You know, I think, like you said earlier, it would be very, very difficult for Helmut to create the types of images that he’s creating, now, without crafting an extremely specific narrative around it. And, I think that really is the clincher. You can create work. You create that work, absolutely. People are still creating that work. But, the way that they’re creating that work is also the crafting narrative and dialogue. And, they’ve been very open about their practices. And, they’ve been very open about the way that they’re engaging with that sort of that area of subject matter. So, sex is definitely not off the table, not by a long shot. But, but I think the conversation around crafting sexual images requires specificity. And, it really requires dialogue. And, we were talking about this upstairs, but the way you solve problems is through talking. 

Alison Kubler  26:17 

So, we were talking about the thorny thing about getting cancelled. It really sucks to cancel anyone, because it’s stupid. Have a conversation instead. So, anyway, my point is, it’s great that you mentioned Sally Mann, because those are extraordinary, they’re incredible images. And, Sally Mann is someone who, you know, really has been cancelled, so many times: before cancelling was a thing. And isn’t that interesting? Because one of the things that when we were putting this magazine together, we had been talking about sex, which was funny to say as well, all the time. Oh, let’s talk about sex again. And, we were thinking very much about the issue and how we wanted to think about, how we want to think about nudity and beauty and sex and eroticism, and what all those things are, and how they’re different, and how they may or may not be the same thing, and why we confuse nudity with sexuality. And, that’s a really big one, isn’t it? And that’s the case, with Sally Mann too? 

Justin Ridler  27:23 

Yeah, I think it’s also like, the way that you inherently witness and engage with a photograph is textured by your own life experience. And also, by the times. It’s kind of this two-way mirror: there’s you and all of your life experiences, the photograph and the artist on the other side. And also, to a certain extent, the moment, you know, like the images that we’re looking at today, or hopefully later, today, lends by this moment in time are characteristically so different to, to walking into the same gallery if it was curated exactly the same way, you know, 20-30 years ago, vastly different experience and will be again, I’m sure, we were talking about this just now. But like, with every culture that comes a counterculture. And one thing that I have seen evidence of is that there are photographers working in, I’d imagine you would kind of describe them as being relatively dangerous practices, but contemporary kind of ethical standards. And that voice is, well that type of work is definitely a sub-current now, potentially, we’ll see a time where it flips its head and we start seeing much more erotic work or we start seeing the counterpoint of whatever today’s is aesthetics and ethics because they’re quite similar or kept kind of bound together. That might end up happening. Yeah, the Sally Mann thing is kind of an interesting tangential conversation on its own, because I mean, that the children that she photographed, and personally, I mean, I saw those, those photographs and just completely fell in love with this, this presentation of family that she had kind of curated and the work that she creates, is this so textured in its nuance. It’s very, very beautiful work. If you haven’t seen her work, please, please do check it out, Sally Mann. But yeah, it’s different to Helmut’s. 

Alison Kubler  27:37 

You were saying something upstairs about your students and how you have found that they either go one way or the other, do you want to talk about that a little bit because it’s really interesting that we live in this, this quite confusing time, I would say. 

Justin Ridler  29:25 

Yeah, of course. Um, some my students are here tonight, which is really heartening. So thank you. 

Alison Kubler  29:31 

See, he is a nice guy. 

'You know, I think, like you said earlier, it would be very, very difficult for Helmut to create the types of images that he's creating, now, without crafting an extremely specific narrative around it. And, I think that really is the clincher.'

Justin Ridler  29:32 

It’s very lovely to see you. Yeah, I see quite a lot of, quite an array, I guess of photographic opinions come through the door. I teach at RMIT and in the BA, and sometimes in the Masters. And by and large, there’ll be a dominant idea or a dominant kind of rhetoric in the classroom every semester and sometimes it’s particular for example, post George Floyd’s murder, it was very much discussing race, recently, or more recently, it’s been discussing gender. And those things are really the centre of the conversation, which is marvellous to see people that are young, ignited and brilliant, creating work that is, you know, that has that has faced the discourse. But the counterpoint of that is also true. And what I have also seen is, occasionally, you see someone come through, I guess, the pack, if you want to describe it like that, and their vision, and their voice will be laser sharp, and so precise, and, and vastly different to the aesthetic principles and ideas that have been kind of discussed more kind of, in, in a more kind of tribal way, I guess, by the rest of the group. So, that I find really fascinating, and it’s, they’re always kind of an outlier, but, but typically speaking, their vision is really, really sharp. So, that’s kind of an interesting thing. More of an observation, really,  

Alison Kubler  31:00 

You had an idea about how you could avoid, well, we were talking about how you set up, like a safe space, as it were, and you had a great suggestion about that. 

Justin Ridler  31:17 

So part of the issue of creating ethical representations of people in a photographic sense, revolves around the conversation of consent. I think we can all kind of agree with where that sort of concept stems from. There have been, there are instances that there’s evidence to suggest that people that work in other industries deal with this situation all the time. And also, various sexual practices also deal with this issue all the time. So my, like, just like, I’ll say, like, if your work discussion discusses sexuality, then you should take a cue from, like the kink situation and have a safe word, or have an array of safe words, you know, maybe you have maybe your, you know, it’s stop, it’s, you know, green, yellow, red or pineapple, raspberry. 

Alison Kubler  32:18 

I like it, I think it’s a very simple idea that we’ve got to put in play. 

Justin Ridler  32:21 

It’s a simple idea, it’s probably not well thought out. There’s nuance to it. But I mean, why not give something a go, because, you know, I think that, certainly, it requires a more textured dialogue between artists and subjects. And I think that having devices like that would potentially help the situation going forward. But it’s also often, when you’re crafting images with a person, there’s the excitement of the moment, and you’re putting your ideas and your energy and your enthusiasm as well as all your technical expertise into the scenario, whatever that might be. And the person that you’re photographing brings their narrative and their expressiveness and their beauty and their, potentially, their performance to that as well. And people kind of get caught up in this like wonderful little dance that occurs. But then it can sometimes go a little bit too far. So discussing those boundaries early on in the in the piece, or at least having solutions that you can use in real time would be a really useful tool on both sides of the equation. 

Alison Kubler  33:26 

It’s a really good point, because if you think about Helmut Newton, I think what is interesting about those images upstairs is they’re still images. And we are living in a world where we’re very used to moving images. And so we think about Nick Knight who really pioneered with Show Studio, pioneering those moving images, and how that’s part of, I guess, the vernacular now, that’s how we understand a lot of fashion photography is fashion film now. But perhaps the potency of those images upstairs is because they’re still and also quite small aren’t they? What do you, what do you think, Eleni? Like, there’s something about that scale, that is so intimate, what is interesting about it, is that you do lean quite close to it and then you’re really close to the boobs. But that’s, that’s quite powerful, isn’t it? That sort of motion. 

Eleni Papavasileiou  34:10 

It is. Although, I was talking with someone earlier who has a collection of the Sumo books. I don’t know, you can put your hand up, if you want. So you know, it is, you know, Newton did play with scale as well. And those, the series of works with a clothed women and the naked women see a common, became big, life size. But there is definitely something about the cinematic quality of the work and the ambiguity that comes with that. And, the fact that you know, the viewers’ gaze is invited into a scene where you’re not sure is it the beginning; is it the middle, you’re not sure where you’ve actually walked in? And and this, you know, am I comfortable looking at this? Am I not comfortable? And I think it’s worth thinking about where those works also initially appeared. That they appeared in magazines. And you know, that your, you know, beautiful comment about how, what is the relationship between the photographer and the, you know, subject? How does that all fit in within the super fast-pace fashion industry, you know, where the client wants very specific, yeah, a very specific look, and only the boy, the girl, the person that has that look, gets the job, you know. That was very much the industry that Helmut worked in. So yeah, I mean, I love the scale of those prints, you know, they’re wonderful, the textural quality as well, you know, the analogue photography world, you know, all of that, that, you know, he allows us to, you know, to explore with them with that body of work. But, there is also a number of issues that are worth discussing, and analysing as a result of those ’70s and ’80s photographs.  

Alison Kubler  36:00 

And so, as Director of the Museum, I’m interested, too, in how we look at how we can, I guess, reframe these images for contemporary audiences. Because what’s so, I think what is so amazing when you go upstairs, if you haven’t seen it already, to see those early fashion photographs, which are so polite, and, and staid and, but even so, you and I were talking, they’re quite polite, but then there’s one, you know, she’s holding like a sword. It’s like a weapon, he’s always playing, isn’t he, with those things. So, I’m just wondering, as, as the director of the Museum was it sort of a no-brainer, you’re like, we have to do this show, because it’s going to explode expectations or…? 

Jessica Bram  36:41 

I feel like you’re in the inner workings of my brain. And, then there was there was the conversation that you have with the team. And, then there’s a conversation you have at a board level, and then there’s a conversation you have in a room like this. And, all of those conversations are very different. But yes, the initial thought was, this is a show that we have to have, and we have to bring to audiences here. And, I think the primary question for us is why? Why is this a show that the Jewish Museum needs to present? And, I think kind of goes back to that earlier point of the unique story that we can tell because we are the Jewish Museum and all the layers in Helmet’s kind-of personal life that lead him to become the icon and the provocateur that we know him to be. And, were you to see the show anywhere else would you would you have that layer in? Would you be able to delve that deep into, into his personal history and come up with the context that we’ve given upstairs? But yes, we certainly played and played again, and play is not the right word, because it’s significant and substantial thinking around: is a museum a place for these works? And the answer that we came to was, yes, for a contemporary museum, it is. You know, we consider ourselves a space for, for coming and exploring and viewing, but much more than that, now, you know, we’re a surface for, or springboard for conversation and dialogue. And, if that conversation is hard and challenging, then we’re doing, we’re doing our job. You know, it’s hard to be confronted with images that through a contemporary lens, make us feel uncomfortable. And, they do. And, you know, I was thinking about that point that we all come to looking at these images with our own personal kind of nuance and perspective. And I would say that for our team, on any given day, at any given hour, we might have a different thought when we’re up there in the gallery. I think I keep going kind of back and forth in terms of my interpretation, but the fact that there is space to have those interpretations and for those interpretations to be flipped on their head, that’s, I think, what I’m proud of for bringing it to the Museum and to Melbourne. 

Alison Kubler  38:51 

And yeah, congratulations on that. Because I think there is that thing that I mean, I’ve written quite a lot about art and fashion. And I think it’s always very interesting because, you know, people like to preclude fashion and sort of say it’s, you know, a folly, but I think when you look at like the legacy of Helmut Newton, you can see there’s so much going on. It’s very much an engagement with feminism in the ’70s. Like, he’s thinking, like, he arguably was a feminist, and a lot of people disagree with that. But, I think he was engaging and thinking. I also think it’s so interesting, too, that we, we talked about him being polarising. Sophie and I were trying to think about how we would describe this talk. And, but it is so interesting, isn’t it? What offends people? Like, it’s such an interesting concept, because one thing that offends someone does not offend another person. And, so these are the questions that one has to ask as a Director of a museum, you have to think about what could be offensive or not be offensive, and it does it even matter? You know, it doesn’t matter? I kind of want to exist in a world where my buttons are pushed, but not everyone does. Right? 

Jessica Bram  39:52 

I mean, I think we’ve gotten to the point, and the terminology is really important, we would never want to, we are not out to offend anyone. But, I think more importantly, we don’t want to alienate anyone. So how do we create an experience and a journey that we know, deep inside is open and inclusive and warm? And, you know, that kind of, that script around museums being safe spaces? I believe in it to a point, because you come here to look and to interrogate. And, there is a safety and doing it in this kind of context. But, I think more than that the scaffolding that we’ve provided through the curatorial lens provides that safety in a way, because it’s giving context to it. So, you’re not looking at these images in isolation. But yes, we will have people that come and see the show that feel deeply offended by the content. And, that’s okay. And, I think that’s a great shift too, in kind-of contemporary practice for museums and galleries. It’s okay that you don’t love the show. It’s okay that you feel deeply offended. And it’s okay that you tell us. Because we want to hear.  

Alison Kubler  41:04 

You know, I think that’s the best takeaway. No, you’re not meant to like everything. So again, this is a really big question, and any of you can answer it: but why do you think we do confuse sexuality with nudity, or nudity with sexuality? I think it’s a really interesting thing. I’m married to an artist who frequently paints our children, has painted them when they were young and nude. It’s a big thing, you know, and similar to Sally Mann has received a lot of negative thing, but it’s such a it’s so easy. I’m just curious, what do you think? Why do we do that? Why is that our first reaction, is to assume that if something is nude, it’s sexual? 

Eleni Papavasileiou  41:52 

Don’t think that it’s a product of one thing, or a product of only one person’s instinct, or imagination. I think we’re trained to just see the world in the way that we do. You know, I think every image you look at, every painting, and perhaps that’s why Newton’s work is even more shocking, because of the medium that it’s that is used, you know, if it was paintings, or if it was lithography or anything else, maybe we would have a different reaction to it, you know, but it is photography that plays with reality, or that plays with our understanding of what happened, or what did not happen, or what was behind the scenes, or what wasn’t or what was outside of the frame that wasn’t photographed. But I guess, you know, we look at a body and our reaction is probably the training and education that we’ve had, from our early years, from our formative years, you know, where some things were good, some things were bad. Some things were accepted, and it’s each person’s own moral code and response to life. I think that’s one side of it. Just to go back to and sort of actually, maybe you want to take it. 

Justin Ridler  43:03 

Yeah, yes. And also, though, I think, if I take into a personal experience, perspective, when I have crafted images of, of bodies, and the forces that act upon them, sometimes you don’t think about them being bodies at all. Sometimes you’re really only just looking at form and colour, and momentum and impact and, and then, and that can be a moment where you’re working on composition, and then you kind of go up a level and then you’re like, Oh, these are people now we need to sort of engage with them on that level. So the process I think, is, is certainly as textured as life is textured, you know, you’re, you’re in multiple layers of it simultaneously, and trying to make incremental decisions based on like, how things are feeling from a composition point-of-view, and then you kind of lift out of that and go is it reading well? So sometimes, the people, are people, and sometimes they’re really just not. 

Eleni Papavasileiou  44:01 

Just go back to the point that we were making about, you know, that Jess made about the curation of the photography, over the course of the exhibition, you know, both Cathy Pryor, our curator, and myself, we looked at so many images, we became, you know, very familiar with Private Property, which, you know, came to us as that provocative body of word and all of that, but I found myself and I can just stay within the room, I find myself quite, I don’t know, sick of, or disturbed or annoyed by the 1950s images, you know, but you know, all those, all those images that we so easily and readily call as glamorous, you know, elegant, beautiful. And, it was a time that was really hard for women, you know, like it was very hard to escape from that ideal, you know, for what, you know, you had to have the little waist, the beautiful dress, everything. You know, your home had to be just so, the kids clean and ready, you know. Whereas, at least, you know if there’s any comfort, you know, the imagery that he takes later on in the ’70s and ’80s, accepting that it is all white women and you know, women are very much at the centre of you know, the photograph, at least you accept that it is a time where women are out in the workforce, to have a say for themselves. There’s a lot of battles to be fought as they are today, no doubt, but there were options. Yes. You know, there were options.  

Alison Kubler  45:33 

So, that’s actually good. Because when you say that, when you go upstairs, you do you start seeing those vivid images almost perverse or something. It is. There’s a perversity there because we’ve moved on so much from from that kind of trope, I guess. Yeah, very interesting. And, you said that thing about painting and drawing and it is interesting, because in this issue, we’ve got Tom of Finland, of course, and they are like Instagram do not like Tom of Finland, we had to blur out a lot. Again, and then also, Robert Crumb and such this is the funny anecdote, but I have to share it because we were so so excited that Robert Crumb said, yeah, yeah, sure. We were like, wow, this is incredible. And the most elegant and formal and polite email to our to the writer who I had engaged: ‘Dear Mr. Dow, I’d very much like to be part of that. I’d like to send you some images. So I’m scanning my notebooks for you, and I’m going to send them to you. If possible, please do send me a copy to this address. Warmest regards, R. Crumb.’ And we were link, ‘Look at this email!‘. The most, you know, quite out-there images, Robert Crumb is fantastic and so delightful to deal with. He’s going into my big book, that Sophie knows I have, of nice artists. 

So anyway, I would like to open it to questions. Now, if you guys are happy with that, because I feel like people have things they want to say about sex and they want to ask questions, or they just want to point something out. So, would anybody like to ask you a question? This is a friendly space right now. So yeah, hit us with a question. 

Audience member 47:34 

I just wanted to talk about cancelled culture. Yes. Particularly with Helmut’s work, and also a quote that he made, famous quote, I think it goes something like: all photographers, are voyeurs, if they deny it, they’re either liars, or they are idiots. And, I simply posted that on my Instagram site just recently, and was totally challenged. Are you saying that’s what you think? Because, I’m a photographer. Are you saying that’s your genre? And, are you saying that’s what you agree with? And, are you objectifying women? And I said, ‘No, all I’m doing is posting history. This is what he physically said.’ And, so it’s meant to be challenging, all art is meant to be challenging and yet I had to remove it, otherwise I was at risk of losing my account. 

Alison Kubler  48:25 

I got hit with that, it was so shocking. My sixteen-year-old daughter was like ‘Mum!‘ That’s why I am wearing a trench coat [laughter and unclear talking]. That’s a very interesting point that you make. It is extremely interesting. And so yeah, so I got this like terrifying message from Instagram saying we will take down your account. I was like, wow, that’s so crazy. And, I think it takes like one person to complain. And, that’s so crazy. So, sorry to come back to Robert Andy Coombs who’s in this issue. The poor guy has had like three different accounts and they keep cancelling him and I, and as he said he’s 99% sure it’s because he’s disabled, not because of the content, which is so so interesting. Would someone else like to asks a question? Right at the back there. And just shout it out. 

Audience member 49:30 

It’s not so much a question, but I wanted to throw an idea or concept out to the panel. Censorship and nudity, and nudity and transparency. I was looking at images on a wall but we know all the images go so much further. We have Instagram, we have NFT’s and the proliferation of imagery across the, the digital ether means that nudity and taking one image, one nude image, rather than just being in a gallery and being sold to a person, part of an edition, it no longer is that or wasn’t that in the time that it was created. And now, we have to think about this. Think about this when we’re dealing with models that have personalities and presentations that are beyond the actual creation of art. What do you think about this? How does this affect you as a creator? How do you think about this as a collective? 

Justin Ridler  50:28 

Very great question. Think about that. I mean, certainly, it’s, it’s sort of target territory isn’t a like to craft images in today’s landscape, today’s technological landscape. And I think that it’s definitely a valid point, and certainly something that we as creators need to address and keep front of mind when we’re, when we’re crafting these images. I wonder whether that’s again, solved by more intricate dialogue at the beginning of the creative process, particularly if you’re working with images that could be construed as being sensitive in any way, saying, ‘Where would you like these to live? Is it appropriate for me to post these to my Instagram?‘ And, then being fairly explicit about that. ‘If I post them to the, to the, to the ‘gram, that’s forever. Is that okay with you?‘ Is that a choice that you would like to, for me to go ahead with, and I understand that sometimes people make decisions, and then later on, they could regret them, but at least the dialogue was being had, you know. I’d say, probably, if, you know, if you’re a creative person, and you’re making images of sensitivity, and you know, if you’re a creative person, that those images are going to be sensitive, you should double-down on that conversation, it’s sort of something that you need to have with yourself as well, like, how will I use these pictures? And what are they? What’s the intention behind them? And where’s the projected outcome? Like, what’s the predicted outcome of this project? So that I think these are all again, problems that are solvable with with like, nuanced conversation with the people that you work with. That would be my stance on it. 

Alison Kubler  52:08 

And the irony being that, you know, we are talking about Helmut Newton, but as we speak, there’s like the most hardcore porn just freely available on the web. And that again, this is something I mean, that’s horrendous, and terrifying as a parent, which is very interesting. And, we’d just like to talk briefly about Madonna and beeple. Hands up if anyone’s seen Madonn’s NFT? Some of you, you’re all gonna have to Google it, right now. It’s quite intense. I don’t know why I wanted to talk about that. But it just seems shocking and terrible and way more offensive than Helmet Newton. 

Justin Ridler  52:49 

I was, I was halfway through eating my eggs and polenta this morning. When I’m sorry, it has to be said, I just saw a tree growing out of Madonna’s vagina, my Instagram. 

 Alison Kubler  53:00 

Google that people. But I digress. Would somebody else like to have a question. One more question, then we might shoot upstairs and see the show. 

Audience member 53:13 

This is more to Eleni and Jess, but the choice to not have extended labels as part of the offering is that to do with the interpretation of Helmet’s work. And obviously, you’ve done a lot of work towards opening the dialogue as we are today, but I suppose as a museum versus a gallery space, where the logic comes from to not explain the story of Helmet, in your artefacts of you know, the Queen Mary and his very Melbourne experience and his struggle as a migrant coming from Austria and Germany and, and that settling into his life in Melbourne and beyond? 

Eleni Papavasileiou  53:55 

I think with every exhibition, our intention is to create an immersive environment. So the intention with Helmut, which actually has a lot more tech than our previous exhibition, to open admission, was to allow for the visitor to come in and read the imagery. And, develop a relationship if you will, with what’s in front of them in a visual sense. And, use the information use the digital room sheet that’s available through the QR code as a reference point when they need to rely upon you know the, the geography or the date or the specific detail around each work. That was our intention. And I guess it’s that added layer of inviting people to read an image, decide upon themselves where they are, where they sit with it, without having our voice behind it or any sense of kind of a didactic text that steers them in one way or another, but give the art and give the necessary information, obviously with it as a couple of the object labels. I hope I’ve answered that. 

Jessica Bram  55:19 

One other, one other kind of comment for me, and I guess it’s always good to have a shout out. The accompaniment to the exhibition, which sits in the digital realm, which is Spotlight on Helmut Newton, then becomes an exploration of a number of those extended themes and framings and conversations. So, while you won’t necessarily read a kind of an encyclopaedia out there extended labels that gesture toward the kind of the broader narrative around Helmet’s life, the idea is that we hope, you’ll all go home and explore a little more on our webpage and then come back and be part of the programmes like these. So, the exhibition itself isn’t intended to do, I often say to our team, and it’s such a strange phrase, but it’s not intended to do all the heavy lifting. That the exhibition sits alongside a really profound and meaningful programme that starts to join the dots between the number of the things that you see upstairs. 

Alison Kubler  56:14 

Well, thank you, I think we’re going leave it there. I know, you probably all want to talk a lot more about sex. I can just tell you all do. But, what we would like to do is invite you to come up and see the exhibition now. And, I just want to thank our panellists again, tonight, and thank you again to the Jewish Museum and PHOTO 2022 and Justin Ridler for being on this panel. We’re very grateful. It’s so it’s such an honour to launch this issue. It’s been such fun working on this issue. And like I said, it’s not a one to focus on what sex is, it’s everything. We hope, we tried to cover off a lot. And we hope it’ll get you thinking and talking. I just wanted to say on behalf of all, thank you for supporting independent publishing. We’re very grateful for that. And, what a beautiful audience. Now go and look at those boobs!

HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus is showing from 29 April—29 January 2023.

Book your tickets today.

Exhibition Images: Marie-Luise Skibbe, installation view of HELMUT NEWTON: In Focus, Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, 2022