“When he proposed to me, he did say that I would always be his second love, that photography would be his first and he would never ever give it up, I thought that was marvelous. I could never be jealous of his photography.” -June Newton
Flu starts her career
June Newton, wife of renowned fashion photographer Helmut Newton worked as a professional photographer using the name Alice Springs. Her career began when her husband came down with influenza in Paris in 1970. Helmut was to do a shoot for Gitanes cigarettes. June had him show her how to use his camera and light meter.
“I’ll go let him know that you’re not coming. Give me the camera and I’ll take a few pictures. It’s just a portrait, a head shot, you’ll never know what I’ll get.” She said recalling her husband’s reply, “Alright, I can always do it next week if it doesn’t come off.”
“In those days, there were no automatic cameras. It was with the exposure meter and the camera. And he showed me what to do, very quickly. I went out and took the picture,” Mrs. Newton said. “And it was good enough to send to the English client, and I got the cheque, but in Helmut’s name. I said, ‘That’s what I’ll do.’ And that’s how I started.”
Becoming Alice Springs
Her husband Helmut, did not want her to ride on his fame so she came up with a “nom de camera.” June closed her eyes and stuck a pin into a map of her native Australia. It stuck in Alice Springs.
She began shooting a lot of fashion for magazines. She appraised her skills at this work saying, “But I wasn’t very good at it,” she said. “I was photographing people all the time – make-up people, models waiting for the clothes to arrive – and Helmut said, ‘You know, you should let everything go and just concentrate on people and portraits.’ I thought: ‘If I do that, I’ll just do portraits, and it will never go anywhere.’ But, little by little, people realized I was doing portraits and I started getting assignments.”
An opposite style
The Alice Springs style of photography was the opposite of her husband’s tough, contrived, erotic and inspired by his decadent youth growing up in Berlin before World War II. She worked to capture the guarded and personal side of celebrities. Her portraits of Charlotte Rampling, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nicole Kidman, Yves St. Laurent and Angelica Huston (opening photo, top row L-R.) She shows their softness, their unexpected humanity in sometimes hard people.
Alice Springs describes her session with the famous actress whose portrait became one of her most famous portraits. “I took a lot of pictures of her – I think three rolls of film,” June remembered. “She was giving me what she would give everybody because actors can do that – they can turn it on. And you think, ‘Oh, God, that looks wonderful’. But you don’t realize that they’ve been doing it forever, for everyone. I couldn’t get her to relax, just to be natural. She was really getting fed up. And she exhaled, and then I took the picture. Helmut says I’m very fast. But I do get it. When they exhale.”
During the 1970s, 80s and 90s Alice Springs captured photographs of the world she shared with Helmut. She was in the upper crust of European art, society, royalty and of course, fashion. Her portraits of these famous and often gorgeous people depicted them as approachable human beings.
Dana Thomas, writing about Alice Springs when she had her own experience of the photographer. “I would eventually learn what she meant. In 2006, two years after Helmut died, I rang June to ask her if she would shoot my author portrait for my first book, ‘Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.’ ‘Of course,’ she told me. ‘But you’ll have to come to Monte Carlo.’ I agreed, and the following week, I flew down from Paris and called on her in the tower apartment. She instructed me to sit at the table on her terrace, my back to the Mediterranean, and she took the seat across from me. She raised the camera to her eye, and chatted with me as she snapped. Ten frames in, I started to relax — to exhale. She clicked once more.
“I’ve got it,” she said. “Let’s go to lunch.”
Read more inspirational photographers in On Photography.