Helmut Newton, photographer. Electricians’ faces. Shell Collection. vol. 1, no. 28. La Trobe Picture Collection.
By Guy Featherstone, originally appeared in La Trobe Journal, Spring 2005
On Thursday 10 October 1940 a twenty–year–old German Jew, Helmut Neustaedter, was formally received at the Tatura internment camp in north-eastern Victoria. He was held at number 3 Camp, C Compound (Bachelor’s Group) and was to remain there for nearly sixteen months.1 As the result of changes to government policy in 1942 he was able to volunteer for service in the (Australian Militiary Force (AMF) and so served for over four years.
After being discharged Helmut changed his surname to Newton, and with that new name eventually became known internationally as the premier fashion and portrait photographer, notorious for his provocative nudes. The historian of Australian photography, Gael Newton (no relative), claims that Newton has ‘left nothing to represent his early work in Melbourne in the 1950s’, whilst a European associate, Karl Lagerfeld, writes of the ‘unknown, mysterious Australian period’.2 The publication of Newton’s Autobiography (New York, Doubleday, 2003) has added considerably to our knowledge of his activities in 1950s Melbourne, but most of his photographs are unknown or forgotten, except for a few (mostly portraits) he has chosen to reproduce in his autobiography or other collections he has published.
Some light can now be shed on this period of his life by examining the work he undertook for the Shell Company of Australia between 1951 and 1960. A collection of approximately 300 photographs taken by Newton at the Geelong Refinery and the Newport Installation, together with a few fashion shots and various other subjects, was donated to the State Library of Victoria in August 2005. An analysis of the images allows us to gain a better understanding of his development as a photographer; closer examination of other documentary sources (service records, newspapers, archives) provides a more accurate record of his years in Melbourne.
Born in Berlin, 31 October 1920, Helmut was the son of a middle-class family that lived a comfortable existence, even enjoying total financial security during the depression. He commenced his career in photography in 1936 when he joined the studio of Else Neulander Simon (known as Yva’s Studio) as an apprentice. It was not long before he was sufficiently competent to be paid for his work. The increasingly oppressive restrictions placed on Jews through the Nuremberg laws meant that his father lost control of the factory in which he manufactured buttons and buckles; he was even briefly interned in a concentration camp. ‘Kristallnacht’ (9 November 1938) finally pushed the family into leaving Germany. Newton’s parents fled to Chile, but the self-assured Helmut went his own way. He was issued with a passport just weeks after turning 18, finally leaving Germany on 5 December 1938. At Trieste he boarded the Conte Rosso (along with about two hundred others escaping the Nazis) intending to journey to China.3
Shipboard life was a ‘ball’ and the young Helmut so impressed the older married ladies that he was persuaded by the passenger Welfare Committee to remain in Singapore. Here, after a brief and disastrous stint as a reporter for the Straits Times, he set up as a portrait photographer and lived as a ‘gigolo’ to an older woman. It was a life of pleasure, mixing easily with the European community (going ‘native’ was frowned upon). This easy-going lifestyle was to be shattered by events in Europe with the rapid escalation of the war. During a screening of Gone With the Wind in 1940 Newton learned of the collapse of the Belgian and French armies and the threatened invasion of England.
On the same day that France capitulated, 25 June 1940, the British government introduced more stringent measures to deal with the refugee aliens who had fled to England prior to the commencement of hostilities. In an atmosphere of impending invasion and fear of fifth columnists, an increasing number of refugees were interned, even C class refugees who were regarded as friendly and reliable and could remain free. As the number of internees grew to about 12,000, the British High Commissioner in Australia wrote to Prime Minister Menzies asking if Australia would relieve Britain of the ‘serious burden’ of managing some of them. By 1 July, Canberra had agreed to accept 6,000 internees, and on 10 July 1940 the first shipment of 2,542 men left Liverpool on the Dunera. The internees disembarked at Sydney on 7 September.4
This was not the only group of refugees brought to Australia as the result of British policy. Those who had left Germany for Singapore, including Newton, were ‘removed to Australia because of the special circumstances existing in the fortress of Singapore and Penang’.5 A party of 266 men, women and children (some of them babies in prams) were brought to Sydney in the Queen Mary.6 A liner built for the transatlantic route, since March 1940 she had been requisitioned for use as a troopship. She was prepared for this duty in Sydney in April 1940, being stripped and refitted to carry 5,500 personnel. On 5 May she embarked 5,000 Australian troops for England and eventual Middle East service. After reaching the Clyde with these troops on 16 June, she went on to Singapore, via the Cape, with reinforcements for the garrison there. At the completion of dry-docking and cleaning, the refugees, some of who had been briefly interned on St John’s Island at the mouth of the Singapore River, were taken on board on 17 September. The party arrived in Sydney Harbour on the morning of Wednesday, 25 September.7
This was no repeat of the Dunera voyage. Newton tells of the orderly departure from Singapore and living in luxury on the Queen Mary. ‘We were treated beautifully. We had printed menus with the ship on them, just like proper passengers’.8 On arrival in Sydney, the ‘passengers’ were described as smartly dressed, the men in ‘linen suits… or heavy tweed sports kit’. A reporter remarked that both guards and internees looked as though they had ‘thoroughly enjoyed their journey’.9 Searching and documenting the internees began that afternoon and continued into the next morning until they were finally disembarked. They were then conveyed from Sydney by special train to Tocumwal, there changing at the break of gauge to a Victorian Railways service to Murchison East and dispersal by trucks to the various camps. Sustenance in the form of two cases of apples, two tins of biscuits and cut lunches had been provided by the Queen Mary.10 The internees’ baggage was forwarded by a separate goods train; during that journey many cases and trunks were broken into or otherwise interfered with, resulting in many claims for restitution or compensation. Newton claimed for the loss of a heavy winter overcoat.11
At Tatura the internees entertained themselves as best they could – the food was good and plentiful, the guards ‘kindness personified’, but after the daily two hours duty cleaning latrines, Newton was free to sit in the sun, read and generally amuse himself. ‘Time seemed to drag on forever and ever, monotonously’.12 The tedium of internment was relieved after nearly eighteen months when the internees were released for war work as ‘refugee aliens’. This new policy, a reflection of the gravity of manpower shortages after the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, was announced by the Army Minister (Forde) on 21 January 1942. Within a week Newton and 122 other volunteers had left camp to work as fruit pickers near Bendigo, Shepparton, Kyabram and other country towns. The volunteers were allotted to rural employers who assumed responsibilities for their living conditions and rates of pay set down by the Victorian government.13
One group of the volunteers was trucked to Shepparton Canning factory where, in a ‘slave auction’ scenario, about fifty local orchardists selected teams to work on their properties. Newton was one of five or six who worked happily and, apparently, profitably, even establishing a close relationship with their host and entertaining the farmer and his daughter ‘Sunshine’ at sing-songs in the farmhouse. There was sufficient trust for an empty house on the property to be made available as living quarters, with occasional Saturday nights being spent at the Shepparton Hotel with the luxury of hot baths and a ‘real bed’.14
This civilian service was shortly replaced by a military regime when the Eighth Australian Labor Company was formed, 7 April 1942, as part of the AMF.15 On that day the initial intake of 407 men from Shepparton arrived at the Reception Camp at Caulfield Racecourse. Newton took the oath, was photographed and taken ‘on strength’ the following day.16 Another internee who had joined the Company described the atmosphere that prevailed:
Everybody was gay, smiling, in the best of spirits, we jumped to the roll calls willingly. The Singapore refugees were with us, with a jazz band with instruments, that used to play at a night club in Singapore. There was no barbed wire, no guards, officers and soldiers, nothing but friendliness.17
The tone of the company was nurtured by its remarkable commander, Captain Edward Broughton (1884–1955). A Maori, he had fought in the Boer War (under age), at Gallipoli and France, and then attempted to join the AIF in 1940 by reducing his age by sixteen years. Instead he was given command of the Employment Company in May 1942. He produced an effective working force from diverse resources and endeared himself to his men by learning their names, German phrases, and the names of Jewish holidays for use in his parade addresses.18
Helmut Newton, photographer. Railway underpass. Shell Collection. no. 209. La Trobe Picture Collection.
Initially, Newton was employed in duties at the Caulfield base and soon after at Camp Pell (Royal Park). From here he was detached to Albury, September – November 1942, before returning to base. In November 1943 he was moved to the 6th Employment Company at Tocumwal, where he remained until late September 1945, working on shifting goods between trains because of the change of gauge. Here, as the result of a fall, he was briefly hospitalised at No.5 RAAF Hospital until returning to his unit late in November. By mid–1946 he was back at Camp Pell where he was assigned duties at the Footscray Canning Factory, Colonial Sugar Refinery and at the Docks.19 But the duties were light and it was not even necessary to reside at the Camp; instead a small hut at the rear of an apartment house at 3 Bromby Street, South Yarra, became his residence. This allowed considerable freedom and considerably more female companionship. The war over, he was eventually discharged on 6 August 1946, his release sweetened by £100 deferred pay. He formally changed his name to Helmut Newton by deed poll on 4 December 1946.20
Now driven by the ambition to become a famous photographer, he had already taken the initial step in that direction. Newton’s first cover photograph, of which he was incredibly proud, had been published in the Australasian of 2 June 1945. It shows a smiling young lady holding a bucket of grapes on her shoulder; the photographer is named as Helmut Newton. It was not a particularly auspicious beginning for a famous career but it was an opportunity to demonstrate his skills and let his name become known.21 To achieve his ambition the search for photographic assignments became all-important. A small studio on the fifth floor of 353 Flinders Lane (‘Pioneer House’) was rented at £5 per month, while the Bromby Street hut was retained as a residence. From his studio Newton would walk down Flinders Lane, hub of the rag trade, showing his work, ‘hoping for a break as a fashion photographer’.22
That break was slow in coming. Portraits and Saturday afternoon wedding photographs (no prior booking, just taking shots in competition with others who arrived at the church) paid the rent; the closest to fashion work was photographs of frocks for mail-order catalogues produced for the three Rockman brothers (Abraham, Hyman and David). This was the one job that ‘kept my head above water’.23 When June Browne was first employed in 1947 she was hoping for work as a model but instead was given the job of saleslady in the studio, allowing Newton to concentrate on portraiture and fashion work (wedding photography was dropped). Nevertheless, many assignments were hardly glamorous – photographs of hampers from the Mutual Store in Flinders Street, of Mantons and Sons (drapers) windows in Bourke Street, of radio-gramophone sets built into cabinets, and static snaps of baby clothes and layettes for publication in New Idea. The closest to fashion photography were ‘Hat of the Week’ advertisements for the Myer Emporium, with June as model. When June and Helmut were married, 13 May 1948, the work for Rockman’s was lost because of their objections to Newton marrying a ‘shiksa’.24
The relationship with June opened new avenues for work. Not only was she suitable as a part-time model, but as an actress she introduced Newton to the field of theatrical photography. Attracted to the stage from an early age, June Brunell (her stage name) was learning theatre arts at the Little Theatre, South Yarra, from the late 1940s. Here she came into contact with Brett and Peter Randell and received tuition from Erik Kuttner, a refugee German actor who had arrived in Melbourne in the 1930s. The range of the roles she played was considerable: Sorel in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever(1947), the lead in Young Wive’s Tales that toured country Victoria under Council of Adult Education auspices (1950), the lead in Shaw’s Saint Joan for the National Theatre at the Princess (1951) and later that year in Wilde’s Salome opposite Frank Thring as Herod. The peak of her career came late in 1956 when, as ‘the pretty girl upstairs’ in The Seven Year Itch (Fred Parslow was the lonely male), she won an ‘Erik’ for the best actress for the year (it was the third of these annual awards).25
In view of June’s acting career it is not surprising that Newton’s first solo exhibition was of theatre photography, held in the Rowden White Library (Union House, University of Melbourne), 9–15 September 1950. It was arranged by the Melbourne University, Dramatic Club and opened by Lady Medley, wife of the Vice-Chancellor, on the afternoon of 8 September.26 Farrago, the student newspaper, quoted Newton as saying, ingenuously, ‘This is my first and probably my last exhibition’; the reporter noted that Newton’s ‘first love’ and main field of work was in fashion photography.27
A catalogue of the exhibition has not been located, but photographs in Farrago for June, July and September 1950 (some of them repeated in the Melbourne University Magazine for 1950 and 1951), indicate the quality of Newton’s work and the assuredness with which his portraits capture the nature of a character in a play and not that of the actor.28 As well as these photographs associated with the University of Melbourne, the State Library of Victoria holds three images of female Tivoli performers from the Folies Bergere tour of 1953; the large size of these photographs indicates that they were intended for display in the theatre lobby.29 June Brunell, as actress, is the subject of several portraits from this time, including those of her as Saint Joan and Salome, both from 1951.30 The National Library of Australia holds portraits of ballet dancer Laurel Martyn and set designer Robin Lovejoy, both dated 1952.31
Another field of work presented itself in 1951, and from an unlikely source. In a period of rapid economic growth, stimulated by postwar development, the Shell Company of Australia decided to construct its second Australian refinery on 132 acres of land at Corio Bay, 64 kilometres south-west of Melbourne. The new refinery was to be constructed from components left at a Shell site in Sumatra, their assembly interrupted by the outbreak of war. Rather than build in a politically uncertain Indonesia and in order to protect its capital asset, Royal Dutch Shell gave the Geelong project the go-ahead. Surveying the site began in June and the first shipment of materials arrived from Indonesia 30 July. The construction process needed to be recorded, and Newton was chosen to undertake this work. He was occupied at the Geelong site almost from the start of construction, in mid-1951, until about June 1956. In February 1957 he left for England to fulfill a contract for fashion photography for British Vogue, although several cover illustrations for the Shell House Journal appeared between April 1957 – June 1958 while he was still overseas. On his return to Melbourne, a smaller assignment was completed at the Newport Installation and Melbourne Head Office in 1960.
The result of Newton’s work is captured in 217 silver gelatin images depicting construction work at Geelong, and another 34 relating to Newport and Head Office. Nine cover illustrations for the Shell House Journal, 1956 – 1958 are available only as issues of the journal.32 The collection has remained virtually unknown. Fifteen items were used as illustrations in the commemorative booklet, More Power to Australia, published at the time of the opening of the refinery in 1954, but only recently have a few of them re-appeared, some in Robert Murray, Go Well: One Hundred Years of Shell in Australia (2001) and others in Marcella Hunter, Shell Geelong Refinery: 50 Years in Geelong (2004).
The most striking feature of the collection as a whole is the obvious care and attention to detail given to each image. At a later date, June Newton said that ‘Helmut never takes a quick picture… He controls everything in the minutest detail’.33 Thus the Shell collection contains images in which light and shadow, the position and placement of the human figure and the angle of vision all contribute to the final result. The circumstances in which most of the photographs were taken – work was in progress, often with heavy components being manoeuvred or lifted – precluded the use of the contrivances that Wolfgang Sievers (photographer friend of Newton’s) employed. For some of his photographs, Sievers might ask a worker to change his clothes, wash his hands; ‘an entire factory floor might have been artfully re-arranged’.34 Nonetheless, such clutter and untidiness that is apparent in Newton’s photographs is there because such is the reality of a construction site.
The comparison with Sievers is much more complex than just their attention to detail, for both were trained in the New Photography movement that had originated in Europe in the 1920s. Helen Ennis describes its main features as ‘the choice of everyday subject matter, the use of sharp focus, the arrangement of bold, simplified forms, and the favouring of dramatic vantage points’.35 These features can all be found in individual images in the collection now in the State Library of Victoria, or those used in Go Well and Shell Geelong Refinery. A worker is visible in most, but not all of the photographs, to give scale and comprehension to the industrial plant that is being erected. The worker masters the machine, even though he might be dwarfed by it – an image of workmen placing packing timbers under an absorber tower shows their mastery of a mighty piece of equipment. A less striking relationship between man and work is shown in images of painters working at the nearly completed administration building or pick and shovel work at the railway underpass. Other portrait-like photographs of workers emphasise their concentration on the task at hand – a welder hunched over large ducts, electricians framed by apertures for meters in a control panel, a female teleprinter operator checking the print-out (one of the few females photographed in an otherwise very male world). The ‘dignity of labour’ is very evident.36
Not all the photographs in the collection can be described in such terms. Those taken at the opening ceremony are purely for record purposes; a few are static views of recording machinery at Newport; yet others are views of empty administration buildings. Eight photographs used as cover illustrations for the Shell House Journal are (apart from the first, which shows a derrick in use at Geelong) pictorial images of Melbourne scenes (Queens Bridge, Fitzroy Gardens, Albert Park) or rural subjects (horses, trees, an ‘old-timer’ sitting outside his shack). They are not particularly remarkable and represent the last work for Shell that Newton completed before leaving Melbourne in February 1957 for an assignment with Vogue in London.37
Whilst the work for Shell was continuing, Newton shared his first joint exhibition with Wolfgang Sievers (b, 1913), a German refugee like himself who had also served in the AMF Employment Company (where, perhaps, they had first met). The exhibition of ‘New Visions in Photography’ was held at the Federal Hotel in Collins Street, 23 – 30 May 1953. Claimed to be the first of its kind in Melbourne, the aim of the exhibition was to show ‘the potential of industrial and fashion photography as a means of better promotion and bigger sales’.38 Apart from this general statement, we have few details of Newton’s contribution. Calado claims that Sievers showed advertising work, industrial and architectural studies while Newton ‘concentrated on portraits, fashion and theatre’.39
Lacking both a catalogue of the exhibition and a detailed review, we can only speak generally of Newton’s photographs – the theatrical work previously noted, and portraits and fashion shots such as those included in the article, ‘Ace Fashion Photographer of Melbourne’, that appeared in the popular magazine People, 6 October 1954.40 One model known to feature in the exhibition was Bambi Shmith, reputedly the subject of the only nude study; another was Gretta Miers.41 The photographs about which we can be definite are those of his work for Shell at the Geelong Refinery. A brief notice of the exhibition appearing in the Age (21 May 1953, page 2), mentions that pictures relating to the oil industry were on display, a clear indication that some of Newton’s earliest images of work at the refinery were shown.
Fashion photography from the early 1950s is entirely lacking in Newton’s published work – the first images in his Pages from the Glossies collection date from January 1956 – but it is clear he was actively working in the field from an earlier date. Three photographs of handbags from the Cartner Bag Company of Melbourne appear in ‘The Argus Fashion Show Supplement’ of 1950, with Newton clearly named as photographer. None of the other photographs in the supplement are given attributions.42 His fashion work displayed in the 1953 exhibition has been noted above. The 1954 interview appearing in People mentions that he ‘discovered’ Denise French, Maggy Edwards and teenager Marie-Grace Pellicone, and that he had worked with Jeanette Elphick of Sydney and Gretta Miers. He and his wife had even sifted through more than three hundred photographs forwarded by hopeful models responding to a newspaper story about his search for fresh faces. Afraid that he might go ‘stale’ if he photographed only models, he was ‘photographing stark oil plants and construction work for variety’.43
Helmut Newton, 1957, by Athol Shmith, Australia 1914–1990
As the assignment at Geelong was nearing its end (the last photographs depict the butane bullets completed by mid–1956), Newton’s work was increasingly directed towards fashion photography. In this he was assisted by Henry Talbot (1920–1999), another German Jew who had been interned at Tatura as an alien refugee after being brought here on the Dunera. He, too, had served in an AMF Employment Company. In 1956 he formed an association with Newton, so that photographs from that date bear the endorsement ‘Helmut Newton and Associates’; the business was still based in Flinders Lane.44
Newton’s perseverance and his growing reputation as an inspired fashion photographer was rewarded when he secured a commission to illustrate fashions in a special Australian supplement for Vogue, published in January 1956. The supplement was one of ‘firsts’, depicting fashions ‘created by Australian designers, worn by Australian models and photographed by an Australian photographer on Australian soil’.45 Newton was now visible to an international audience and enthused by the exposure: ‘the printed page was my dynamo… the most important factor would be to be published, with a by-line’.46 The humble cover page of the Australasian of 1945 had led to a prestigious glossy and a twelve-month contract with British Vogue. In February 1957 he and June left for London late in February, leaving Talbot to manage the business.
The work in London was not a success. Newton found it difficult to work harmoniously with the editor and the English reserve depressed his flamboyance. Consequently his photographs were ‘terrible and got steadily worse… nothing like the pictures which I had taken in Australia, which were much better.’ He left Vogue with a month of his contract uncompleted and moved to Paris – ‘every little particle of Paris life was a joy’. He celebrated his return to Europe, on which he had turned his back with such conviction in 1938 (‘I will never, ever return to Europe’), by purchasing a white Porsche with red leather upholstery. Whilst here he secured short-term assignments with Jardin des Modes and the German Constanze, before returning to Melbourne in March 1959.47
Newton was returning to a contract with Australian Vogue and an increased volume of fashion photography. In Melbourne he was now regarded as the doyen of fashion photographers, one who could instinctively select a suitable model – a Herald reporter interviewed him in Collins Street looking for ‘the right girls to photograph’.48 The last of the work for the Shell Company (at Newport) was completed shortly after his return. By now the business was known as ‘Helmut Newton & Henry Talbot’, reflecting Talbot’s increased managerial role. To accommodate an expanding business, the studio at 353 Flinders Lane was given up and by 1961 much larger premises were secured in the basement of ‘Wool House’, 578 Bourke Street; ten people were now working for the partners.49
Work for Vogue Australia is Newton’s most significant output between 1959 and 1961. Photographing was done in Melbourne (at Black Rock beach, outside Shell House in William Street), at Walhalla in Gippsland (colour was used) and in Sydney (on the Eastern Suburbs Expressway, or near the Harbour Bridge); a few images are still-life compositions of shoes, bags and gloves, reminiscent of the 1950 Fashion Show images.50 And assignments from overseas followed him to Melbourne. Constanze sent two consignments of swimwear and fashion gowns to be photographed in Melbourne. The first batch was photographed at Portsea beach and the Botanic Gardens in November 1959 for the Spring issue of 1960; the second batch followed a year later. In both cases Helen Homewood and Janice Wakely were employed as models. The journal Professional Photography in Australiaenthused that ‘Mr Newton can be truly called our overseas ambassador’.51
Newton was not so enthusiastic. The business in Bourke Street was doing well and the contract with Vogue ‘gave me good standing’, even though he considered most of the pictures were ‘dreadful’, a sudden and confusing contradiction of his estimate of his earlier work of 1956–1957.52 Having secured contracts with fashion magazines in France and Germany and thus assured of further engagements, he took out a mortgage on the East Melbourne house he had purchased in 1959 and bought an apartment in Paris where he and June were to live for fourteen years.53 Both left on a high note – he with a strengthening reputation in Europe, she with acclaim for her live-to-air television performances in Shadow of Heroes, as Hecate in Macbeth, and in the lead role of Hedda Gabbler.54 Newton opted out of the informal partnership with Talbot (paid out with ‘two thousand dollars and two cameras’) and, with June, left Australia permanently in May 1961.55 He visited Melbourne briefly on two later occasions – in 1969 to see friends and relatives and in 1974 when, from New York, he joined June who had returned to be with her dying sister Peggy.56
At the end of the war Newton had written to his mother about his love of Australia: ‘I adore the people. I love the country’, but by 1961 this opinion had changed, apparently as a result of his success.57 His European roots had a stronger hold than Australian associations. Though he did appreciate the nuances of the Australian light and colour, some of his work was applauded because of its ‘Parisian background’, achieved by using the Melbourne Town Hall portico as a setting, complete with flower-seller.58 Furthermore, overseas he could be himself, a glittering figure in front of a larger audience, where there were printing businesses capable of producing fine photographic books and where there were chances of being offered worthwhile exhibitions.59 His claim that Australia was isolated overlooked the fact that he had completed assignments for Constanze in Melbourne.
Above all, however, Europe offered him almost unfettered scope to express sexuality through his photographs. In the 60s his intention was ‘to push the sexiest fashion photos… cutting against the terrible blandness of the time’ in order to escape the possibility of endless repetition of fashion photographs.60 His erstwhile partner, Henry Talbot, would have agreed, to some extent. In 1977 he commented on Australia’s ‘ultra’ conservatism, noting that in the 60s it was difficult to find a model willing to be photographed in a slip, bra or panty hose, and that it was not until the 70s that models looked like ‘real flesh and blood women… and not anaemic clothes horses’. However, he also remarked obliquely (but perceptively) that ‘some overseas photographers are putting their fantasy life into their work’, suggesting that this distracted from the realism that should be paramount in fashion photography. One of Newton’s former models, Patricia Harewood (who had featured in the 1953 joint exhibition under the name Bambi Shmith) simply ‘hated the way his career went’.61
In an interview with Susan Wyndham in 1990, Newton claimed that he learned nothing in Australia, ‘Absolutely nothing!… They were formative years, but they didn’t form me’.62 They were, of course, formative years, restarting a career that had been interrupted by Nazi persecution and war service. Suggesting that his Australian work is of no significance ignores the world of difference between the cover photograph of 1945 and the fashion work for Vogue between 1956 and 1961. It also ignores his mastery of scale, light and shade, dramatic vantage-points and bold shapes that is exemplified repeatedly in his photographs of the Geelong Refinery. The workmen photographed in their working environment are just as much ‘models’ as the mannequins and nudes are ‘models’ in environments which give point to their poses or nudity.
Is there any purpose behind the deliberate secretiveness of Newton and his attempt to negate his Australian output? Newton himself points to an answer in his autobiography, where he writes of his ego being ‘fanned’ by clients and friends and working where there was ‘no competition to speak of’.63 This is clearly forgetfulness, not borne out by details in his autobiography, or exaggeration aimed at diminishing the work of contemporary photographers active in Melbourne during his time there. Athol Shmith (1914–1990) is dismissed as a ‘very chic society photographer’, despite the fact that he, too, had work published in Vogue, sometimes in the same issue as Newton. Henry Talbot is a ‘friend and partner’ whose business acumen contributed considerably to the financial success of the partnership. But there is no mention that he was a successful fashion photographer, who was awarded ‘Fashion Photographer of the Year’ by Australian Fashion News in 1958 and, in 1960, undertook a very successful five month tour of India, London, Berlin and Paris where he gained privileged access to new fashion.64
And there was Wolfgang Sievers, with whom Newton had jointly exhibited in 1953 – he is not mentioned anywhere in Newton’s autobiography. Sievers tells of the abuse he received from Newton who was telephoned in Monte Carlo; Sievers was attempting to borrow $16,000 in order to speed-up the publication of a monograph on Talbot’s work so that it would be in print before Talbot’s death from cancer, estimated to be less than six months away. Newton’s escape was to claim that he had left Australia ‘a long time ago, that he had nothing to do with it now’. On being pressed that time was short and that a loan, not a gift, was asked for, the abuse started, ‘saying that I was blackmailing him, and all that. I hang [sic] up on him. That was the end of my friendship with Helmut Newton’.65
The falling-out is suggestive of Newton’s wariness of sharing the limelight with another photographer who was an accomplished exponent of the New Photography and who was to become the supreme practitioner of industrial photography in Australia. The assignment for Shell, undertaken merely for ‘variety’, might be considered to be of inferior quality. Hence Newton was to make fashion work his priority, whilst Sievers remained with architectural and industrial work, exploiting it to its fullest by using colour and by photographing unusual locations such as underground mines or offshore drilling rigs.
It is not surprising, then, that Newton sought to further his career in Europe (later the United States) where he could find ‘fine printing businesses’, and a large ‘audience’ willing to purchase his books and to attend his imposing exhibitions. Sievers remained in Australia, content with trade displays and annual reports as outlets for his commitment to modern industry and its place in society.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Guy Featherstone, Images @ the Helmut Newton Foundation)