Interview by Filep Motwary
My first attempt to interview June Newton was back in 2010. Unfortunately, she was busy at the time and we were informed that finally she could not do the interview for Dapper Dan—information that came as sad news. She rarely talks to journalists anyway. Six years later, I decide to send a letter requesting an interview again. Today, June Newton, known as a photographer under her pseudonym Alice Springs, spends her time in Monte Carlo while her photography shines in a three-part show along with work by her late husband Helmut and Mart Engelen at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. Her part in the show is titled The MEP Show and it was initially presented at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris in 2015, as a smaller retrospective of her photography works accompanied by a book by TASCHEN.
The MEP Show features powerful images of an extensive street photography series that she shot along Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles: a documentation of California’s punk and hip-hop scene during the 1980s, the anarchic youth culture, marked by radical hairstyles and body piercings; along with her many portraits of fellow photographers, such as Richard Avedon, Brassaï, Ralph Gibson and, of course, Helmut Newton, and of celebrities including Nicole Kidman, Audrey Hepburn, Christopher Lambert and Claude Chabrol. These photographs serve as testament to Alice Springs’ incredible ability to capture both their outer appearance and their aura while they look curious and sincere. There is undeniably a mystery around the woman who spent her life as the other half of the notorious Helmut Newton. He photographed; she directed, produced the shoots, or advised: a synergy between two friends who were also a married couple. To begin with, he was the reason she became a photographer. It was in 1970 that her photographic career was sparked when Helmut became bed-ridden with the flu. June Newton had her husband instruct her on how to handle the camera and light metre and took his place photographing a promotional image for the French cigarette brand Gitanes. Her portrait of a model smoking signalled the start of a new vocation for the woman who originally trained as a theatre actress and who had few work prospects in France, especially due to the language barrier. Ten days after my letter to her, I receive a phone call. June Newton! Her voice is full of authority yet very polite. She thanks me but she is hesitant about the interview, yet she leaves a window open for me by saying I can call her anytime. The next morning I do call her and unexpectedly she wants to answer my questions. The interview is divided into three short phone conversations. She is 93 years old.
JUNE NEWTON: Filep!
FILEP MOTWARY: June, good morning.
JN: Good morning. It’s a little bit early!
FM: Would you like me to call later?
JN: Yes, please, oh yes, please! I am working with Angelo on emails and things.
FM: What time do you want me to call?
JN: In an hour’s time, or more, okay?
FM: Thank you very much!
JN: Bye, Filep!
FM: Good morning again!
JN: Good morning! I was trying to get in touch with you but there was no one answering.
FM: I was giving a class.
JN: Ah, okay. Listen, I was looking at the questionnaire—it’s so good. Why don’t I talk to a friend tonight?
FM: I would like to speak to you…
JN: You can speak to me anytime you like. I mean I just had a look at them; you got a copy of them in front of you?
JN: Well, hold on, I’m going to get mine.
FM: Many of your pictures are very personal: they look as if you’re stealing the moment from your subject. How did your approach evolve?
JN: I never asked myself, so I don’t really know the answer to that.
FM: There’s one picture specifically that is very silent yet so intense—it hits you like an electrical storm: the portrait of your sister Peggy in 1973. How difficult was it for you to capture those moments?
JN: She was just lying there like that and I photographed her. It wasn’t difficult at all. It only felt necessary for me to put it on camera. We were never close; we became close later when it was too late. The picture I like more than that is a shot I did of Helmut on his deathbed. There’s a little story to that because I didn’t have a camera and he was just lying there dead and I said to a friend, “I wish I had a camera—it’s back at the Chateau Marmont.” And he said, “I’ll go get it, June—he’s not going anywhere.” So that’s how I got that picture and I like that much more than the one with my sister, but then I liked Helmut better than my sister. I wasn’t a photographer; I just took a camera and shot a few pictures. Helmut didn’t want to become famous either but he did!
FM: They way you portray people is very honest. Your portraits look like X-rays. I wonder if it is a matter of trust, based on tested relationships or just your natural talent with people revealing themselves to you?
JN: But they don’t reveal themselves to me; we revealed to each other. I just take pictures, Filep. It’s as simple as that.
FM: What was it like living with Helmut?
JN: It was great being with him. It was life, it was living the life! I would never have become a photographer if he hadn’t been one. I’ve got to go now—someone is waiting to take me for a walk. Can I call you back in 20 minutes?
JN: Thanks, Filep. Am I getting your name right?
FM: Yes, precisely.
JN: Okay, we’ll speak later. Bye for now.
FM: Hello, June, it’s me.
JN: Yes, Filep. I am just having my lunch but go ahead, talk!
FM: Throughout your career, you photographed people who were constantly in the spotlight, each for different reasons, leading glamorous lives, many of them constantly in the tabloids. Your life, however, was always somehow resistant to being revealed out in the open. Two opposites…
JN: But my personal life was different! Listen, I love listening to you, but I have to go. [she pauses for a few seconds] Helmut was my husband. It’s different when you know somebody and you trust them. He could do what he liked, same as with me I suppose. And it wasn’t my fault nor his that these pictures got a different meaning through the years. They weren’t photographed to be iconic and I didn’t mind having them published. I didn’t mind anything by Helmut.
FM: What about your portrait photograph by Helmut that I have chosen to illustrate our conversation?
JN: He did that picture while we were just having dinner. He said, “Stay like this!” And he got his camera and shot me.
FM: You are probably the only photographer who was at ease with her body to be shown, to be revealed or become someone else for the sake of a good picture. Where did this freedom come from?
JN: It wasn’t about freedom or revealing myself. If Helmut said, “Take your shirt off”, I simply took it off. It’s a matter of trust between two people.
FM: Two people who love and trust each other.
JN: Trust. Not love. Love is just a four-letter word.
FM: What has been your most precious possession throughout your career?
JN: I had a lot of them and now I have none! Nothing is more precious than life itself. I used to go everywhere, but I can’t travel anymore. It’s too late.
FM: What has this life taught you?
JN: To just enjoy it while it’s there. I hope I made some sense to you as I don’t make sense to me anymore. Bye for now.
FM: Bye, June.
1923: Born June Browne in Melbourne; Training as actress, numerous engagements under the artist name June Brunell. 1947: Meets Helmut Newton, who had recently opened a photo studio in Melbourne; and marries him a year later. 1956: They travel through Europe and live in London and Paris, later again in Melbourne. Acting engagements for BBC and receives “Erik Kuttner Award” for best theatre actress. 1961: They move from Melbourne for the last time to Paris, first residing in Rue Aubriot, later in Rue de L’Abbé de l’Epée. June’s acting career ends due to the language barriers. She begins to study painting. 1964: The Newtons buy a house in Ramatuelle in the south of France near the Cote d’Azur, where they will always spend several months of the year. 1970: June stands in for Helmut Newton who is incapacitated by illness, for a commercial photo shoot in Paris. Thus begins her career as commercial photographer under the pseudonym Alice Springs. Her work includes advertisements such as Jean-Louis David as well as editorials in magazines like Dépêche Mode, Elle, Marie-Claire, Vogue, Nova, Mode Internationale and Fashion Magazine. 1976: She begins to dedicate her work to portrait photography, publishing images in renowned magazines like Egoïste, Vanity Fair, Interview, Stern, Photo and Passion. In addition, she oversees production of all books and exhibition catalogues of Helmut Newton as Art Director for almost three decades. 1978: First solo exhibition of her portraits in Amsterdam – the first of many to follow worldwide. 1981: The couple leave France and move to Monaco. Winter months are regularly spent in California, where June Newton photographs numerous Hollywood actors, directors as well as the Hell’s Angels. 1983: French publication of a volume of portrait photography. The volume is published three years later in the USA and five years later in Germany. 1995: Production of the documentary film “Helmut by June” for the French television channel Canal Plus. 1998: Swiss publication of the volume “Us and Them” by Helmut and June Newton, accompanied by an exhibition tour in several countries. 2004: June Newton’s autobiography is released by a German publishing house. 2004: Opening of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin which features their joint exhibition “Us and Them,” including June Newton’s portraits of her husband on his deathbed in Los Angeles. The new museum for photography will serve as a significant forum for her work as well.