The late photographer June Newton experienced different, creative lives under a mix of names, but somehow they all served a broader purpose. Born June Browne in 1923, she was a decorated theater actor under the stage name June Brunell–active during the 1940s in her homeland of Australia. She was also a model who posed for celebrity “King of Kink” photographer, Helmut Newton, before marrying him and taking on yet another name. Later in life, as Alice Springs, she refined her own style of portrait photography, settling into the guise that would become yet another identity. No mere muse, she possessed a natural talent for capturing the unedited essence of anyone who stood before her camera.
“June portrayed the souls of her protagonists,” says Matthias Harder, curator of Alice Springs. Retrospective at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, which runs from now until November 19 and celebrates what would have been her 100th birthday. How she came to portray those souls, according to June Newton herself, involved a random event—plus a bold proposition involving her husband’s commercial work in Paris.
“One Sunday morning, Helmut was in bed with flu and couldn’t keep a rendezvous to photograph a model boy for a Gitanes cigarette advertisement on the Place Vendome,” she wrote in her book, Mrs. Newton. “Seeing that someone had to let the boy know, I suggested I should go and take a camera with me and shoot the picture myself, knowing that if it didn’t work Helmut could always retake it during the week. Helmut showed me how to use the light meter and how to load the camera and I set off and took the picture. We sent it to the client and I knew I was in business when a cheque arrived in the mail addressed to Helmut.”
How June Newton became Alice Springs was similarly random. “It was apparent he didn’t want me to call myself by his name, because he thought one Newton in the family was enough,” she told Orange Coast Magazine in a 1987 interview. So Newton shut her eyes, dropped a pin on a map of the country of her birth and gained a new identity: professional photographer.
Starting in the 1970s, June-Newton-as-Alice-Springs made a name for herself in the photography world with her distinctive three-quarter portraiture and high fashion photography. Her star subjects included Nicole Kidman, Vivienne Westwood, Karl Lagerfeld, Liam Neeson, Robert Mapplethorpe and her husband Helmut. But June’s creative interests extended beyond the realm of celebrity and the fashion elite. She photographed members of Los Angeles motorcycle gangs and documented the Californian punk and hip-hop scenes in the 80s, among other projects, and had a talent for capturing people as they were, unguarded and real.
“June always approached people openly, and this openness is reflected in her portraits of people, whether they were world-famous artists and actors or the Hells Angels,” Harder tells Observer. “She was curious and had no fear of contact. One of her mottos was: astonish me. And that’s what we’ve tried again and again in our intensive collaboration over the years.”
Likewise, she astonished the world and worked steadily for magazines including ELLE, Vogue and Vanity Fair. June’s trademark was her attention to the face, caught on 35 mm film with natural light. She hardly ever shot in a studio environment, preferring to work out in the open or near or in a subject’s home, and didn’t overplan her portraiture.
“She worked quickly and spontaneously, exposing only a few negatives during her shootings,” explains Harder. “She hardly used any accessories and was soon able to get a satisfactory image of her subject ‘in the box.’ This is how her images of people were created, full of empathy.”
It’s likely that empathy stemmed from her time as an actress and model. She knew what it was to be on the other side of the camera and how to be authentic while playing a part. As an image-maker, she had a knack for creating or identifying and tailoring environments specifically for her protagonists—making them feel comfortable, even when they were nude.
“She was a very good, sensitive and surprising photographer, a chronicler of a slowly fading time,” adds Harder.