Jun 18, 2012 12:13PM

Oyster #99: June Newton

"He never ceased to surprise me." — June on her husband, Helmut.

As the saying goes, 'Behind every man there is a great woman.' While it might sound a little archaic, it was certainly true of Helmut Newton and his wife, June. Undoubtedly one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, Helmut made his name with June by his side for almost 60 years. After meeting Helmut in Melbourne in the late forties, June began modelling for him, later working on the production and art direction of his shoots. She then became a successful photographer in her own right, shooting for titles such as Vogue, Elle and Vanity Fair under the name Alice Springs. While her husband's work was highly stylised and conceptual, June's portraits were intimate and honest — she once told The Guardian, "He wasn't interested in people; 'I'm not interested in soul,' he said. But I was, and I tried to steal them." 

My grandfather lives in the same building in Monaco that June and Helmut once lived in. When I was very young he would tell me about the famous photographer with the Australian wife, and I would watch out for them by the pool. It wasn't until I was older that it dawned on me who Helmut really was, and I became equally fascinated by his wife, especially after I discovered her photographs. Although we never crossed paths poolside, I was able to conduct an interview with June — now 89 years old — ahead of the opening of an extensive Helmut Newton retrospective in Paris. What follows is our correspondence. 

Dear June,

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I have admired your work for a long time and it is an honour to have this opportunity to speak with you.

This issue we are featuring inspirational women and I could not think of anyone more appropriate than you — not only because of the contribution you have made to the arts, but also because of the support and collaboration you offered your husband. We would like to celebrate you as an artist, as the partner of an artist, and as a woman who has known great love — almost 60 years of marriage is no mean feat. As such these questions are varied, and some are personal. You appear to be a candid person, though, so I hope that you are comfortable answering them.  

Thank you again, 

Alice Cavanagh

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Dear Alice Cavanagh,

I am very flattered to be included in your forthcoming magazine.

I am pressed for time. I hope these brief answers will be satisfactory, as I leave for Paris tomorrow to attend the opening of the exhibition of Helmut's work in the Grand Palais.

Yours sincerely,

June

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Alice Cavanagh: How would you describe your childhood growing up in Melbourne?
June Newton: As a happy one.

What were your first impressions of Helmut?
I imagined him to be an old man. I was not prepared to meet the young, dynamic, charismatic creature who opened the door to his studio and said, "Come in."

What drew you to him?
His work.

Helmut always described you as a strong woman. How would you describe yourself?
I must be kind of strong to have lived as long as I have.

In the early years you worked as an actress while he took photos. When did you first pick up a camera?
It was in Paris. Helmut was unable to keep a rendezvous with a model, so he showed me how to load a camera and read the light meter, and I went off and kept the rendezvous — I photographed a boy for an advertisement for Gitanes cigarettes. I knew I had a new career when I received a cheque in the mail addressed to Helmut Newton.

Was he supportive of your interest in photography?
Most supportive; we kept our own identities as photographers.

The two of you had such different approaches to photography. What drew you to taking photographs?
Boredom, having given up my career as an actress when we left Australia.

The women in Helmut's pictures play a very particular role. Did he have certain ideas about the role a woman should play in real life?
If he did, he never told me.

What about the role a wife should play?
Same as the answer above. [During the press conference at the Grand Palais, June did say, "When he came home he'd ring a little bell saying, 'Junie, I'm here!' And that, of course, meant I had to make the dinner!"]

The film Helmut by June captured the fun the two of you had together. Helmut had such a great sense of humour, yet his images could be quite dark. Did he have a dark side?
Yes, he had a dark side and a moody side and many other sides. He never ceased to surprise me. As the poet said, "We shall never see the likes of him again."

In the film you mentioned that feminists called Helmut an "exploiter of women". Can you remember the first time you had to defend him?
I first defended Helmut in a restaurant in Paris, when he was about to be attacked by a woman who suddenly realised who was sitting opposite her. I gave her a good shove.

What do you think the secret of a long and happy marriage is?
As Khalil Gibran wrote in a marriage manual book, "Let the wind blow between the cypress and the oak."

You once said that a woman could never photograph another woman the way a man can. Why do you think that is?
I think men and women see one another differently; that's all.

What makes a woman beautiful to you?
I have been surrounded by beautiful-looking women most of my life. I've never thought about their beauty, so I'm unable to answer your question.

What makes a person fascinating to you?
Not their looks. 

What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Marrying Helmut.

What do you think Helmut would have considered to be his greatest achievement?
Marrying me. 

What is your greatest regret?
I have no regrets.

When were you happiest, and why?
When I was on stage or on camera. The reason? Because I loved acting — but I must have loved Helmut more, for I gave it up to be with him.

If you could offer young women one piece of advice, what would it be?
Never to listen to other women's advice in times of crisis.  

Photography: Alice Springs courtesy of the Galleria Carla Sozzani, Milan

Alice Cavanagh

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