Alice Springs and Jacques Henri Lartigue, two of the most high-profile figures of 20th-century photography, have a couple of things in common. The obvious one is that they are both the subjects of retrospective exhibitions currently at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. The less obvious is that both became photographers by chance.
J.H. Lartigue (1894-1986) got his first camera aged seven, and took pictures of friends, family, and sporting events all his life. But he made a living – quite a successful one – as a painter. It wasn’t until he was 69 years old that his early photographs were seen by Charles Rado of the Rapho agency, and John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski arranged an exhibition of his work, Life magazine published the images in 1963, and Lartigue’s photography career took off.
(The portrait of Lartigue below is by Alice Springs, shot in 1984, when he was 90 and she was 61.)
June Brunell (1923), née Brown, met Helmut Newton in Australia when she was 24, and they married a year later. June was working as an actress – again, quite a successful one – until one fateful day in 1970, when her husband, who was booked to shoot a Gitanes ad, came down with flu. Unable to contact the model and cancel the job, June stepped into the breach. The clients were happy, and just like that, another photography career was born.
June used the professional name Alice Springs because Helmut “thought one Newton in the family was enough. And if I didn’t succeed…” In the highly entertaining Mrs Newton, published by Taschen in 2004, June describes how a fortune teller predicted she would “always be surrounded by cameras, but never be in front of them.” This exhibition shows to just what extent that was true. Part of the show is devoted to portraits of photographers – Lartigue himself, the brothers Javier and Valentin Vallhonrat, David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Brassai – and most of them also feature the photographer’s husband.
Here he is, clowning with Bruce Weber. There, keeping a straight face whilst Bailey gropes around in Don McCullin’s pants. In a well-known self-portrait, Springs’ own face is hidden by the camera lens while her husband looms beatifically behind.
What stands out about these shots is the sheer fun the Newtons seem to have together. No matter how many statuesque nudes he’s surrounded by, it’s June for whom Helmut dances, and giggles, and gets his kit off.
The other thing that stands out is Helmut Newton’s nose – a bulbous cartoon schnozzle that’s impossible to ignore, catching the light as it invariably does, and overshadowing other elements of the picture, sometimes literally. Once noticed it is impossible to un-notice. After a while, you start to see it as a sly in-joke: one of the fashion world’s most in-demand photographers, the images Helmut Newton created were erotically super-charged – but Alice/June presents him as Cyrano de Bergerac. He may have had the world’s most beautiful women naked at his feet, but his wife could still show him as a figure of fun.
About the only portrait in this exhibition where Helmut Newton’s nose is not front and centre is the picture of him in hospital in a neck brace, in 2004, following his car crash at the Chateau Marmont. It’s a simple picture, with zero melodrama. But the angle says it all: joke’s over.
The current show at MEP follows an earlier exhibition of Springs’ portraits, in 2012. It’s a rather complicated set-up, bringing together work from several different parts of her career. As well as the black-and-white portraits, including her photographer friends and acquaintances, there is a set of portraits of New York socialites, all of whom look more or less like hell (actually you CAN be too rich and too thin.) A collection of celebrity portraits from the 80s and 90s seems slightly random, and a room of street photography from California in the 1980s really doesn’t add anything to the show. Better just to enjoy the moments with “Hel” and friends, and June Newton’s life-long love affair with her husband.
Alice Springs, Maison Européenne de la photographie, Paris, until August 23, 2015
© Fiona Hayes 2015