June Newton, Photographer and Muse, Dies at 97
The widow and inspiration of the provocative photographer Helmut Newton, she took pictures that were as tender as his were erotically charged.,
June Newton, the widow, muse and collaborator of Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer and provocateur known as “the King of Kink” for his erotically charged tableaux of Amazonian women — and, under the name Alice Springs, a photographer in her own right — died on April 9 at a hospital in Monte Carlo. She was 97.
Her agent, Tiggy Maconochie, announced the death.
While Mr. Newton’s Berlin noir images were carefully constructed mise-en-scenes depicting sex work or bondage or some other dark fantasy — like the notorious photograph of the model and creative director Jenny Capitain posed in a German pension, naked save for a neck brace and a cast — Ms. Newton’s pictures were unmediated and intimate. Charlotte Rampling’s sharp eyes stare you down in a portrait from 1982; a young and beautiful Robert Mapplethorpe, shot in 1977, looks as if he would live forever; Graham Greene is quizzical and pensive in a photo from 1988 (she later recalled that meeting her literary hero made her a nervous wreck). Brigitte Nielsen brandishes her son like a trophy, from a series of mothers and their babies — the subjects drawn from the Newtons’ glittering social circle of models and actors, designers and European royalty.
“His pictures were self-portraits,” said Philippe Garner, curator and former international head of photography and 20th-century design at Christie’s, the auction house. “They told you something about him. Hers are almost X-rays; you feel she knows the subjects. That was June — she cut to the chase.”
Ms. Newton picked up a camera in 1970, when the couple was living in Paris. Her husband was commissioned to shoot a Gitanes cigarette ad but was ill with the flu, so she took his place.
She began to photograph on her own for magazines like French Elle, working under the name Alice Springs — chosen by sticking a pin on a map of Australia — because Mr. Newton did not want her working under his name. He was happy for her to take photographs as long as the territory was strictly demarcated, Mr. Garner said. She had long ago agreed that her focus would be on Mr. Newton and his work.
They seemed inextricable as a duo, a symbiotic couple known to friends as “Helmie and Junie,” comfortable and even cozy to be around, as the actress Anjelica Huston said. In later years they wore matching white tennis shoes.
“One would think of the images in his photos and the mind would boggle,” Ms. Huston said. “How did they come to that sort of arrangement?”
Ms. Newton was often both her husband’s collaborator and his model. In one series of pictures from the early ’70s, she is posed as Hitler, and Jerry Hall, the towering Texan model, plays Eva Braun.
“June was Helmut’s superpower,” said Ms. Capitain, who worked for a time as Mr. Newton’s stylist. “She had all the strings in her hands.”
June Browne was born on June 3, 1923, in Melbourne, Australia. Her parents, Alice Maude Browne and Thomas Browne, a vaudevillian, divorced when she was very young, and at her mother’s request she never saw her father again. June and her older sister, Peggy, grew up in a constructed family made up of Maude, as her mother was known; a friend of Maude’s whom June and Peggy called Aunt Allie; and a retired schoolteacher named George Henry Shugg.
The trio bought a farm outside Melbourne in a town known as Kangaroo Ground.
June’s childhood was mostly idyllic, if a bit gothic, in the way of rural life. Maude dealt with an infestation of snakes by playing a harmonica to lure them to a bowl of milk, after which Aunt Allie whacked them to death. Mr. Shugg was not a skilled farmer, so there were early mistakes (saddle sores on the horses, ailing sheep). The family was Roman Catholic — Peggy and June were beaten up regularly at school for their Irish heritage — but June was more smitten with Hollywood than religion, as she wrote in her autobiography, “Mrs. Newton” (2004).
June worked (briefly) in a radio factory and as a secretary in a garment warehouse. Three nights a week, she performed with other amateur actors in a theater company.
Helmut, born in Berlin to a well-off Jewish family, had left Germany in 1938 and ended up in Australia after a detour as a gigolo in Singapore. He served in the Australian Army for five years and opened a photography studio in Melbourne in 1946.
He was looking for models and she was looking for extra cash when they were connected by a friend. From his name, June conjured an old man with a beard, not a dashing young European. They married in 1948, though Helmut warned her that his work would always come first.
Fame eventually came to Mr. Newton. His contract with English Vogue took the couple to London in the 1950s. Frustrated by photographing twin sets in the demure manner of the times, he broke his contract, and they moved to Paris.
Ms. Newton, whose stage name was June Brunell, was at the time much better known than her husband because of her work in television, radio and the theater, and moving to London cost her an acting career. By the 1970s, however, his bold, transgressive pictures had made him a sought-after name, with both Newtons devoted to his oeuvre.
“They were accomplices,” said Joan Juliet Buck, the author and former editor of French Vogue whose travel writing was often matched with his photographs. She recalled meeting them in 1981 at their high-ceilinged Parisian apartment and noting “an exhilaration that the bid for bohemian freedom had paid off rather nicely.”
But later that year, the Newtons moved to Monte Carlo to avoid France’s high taxes. They spent their winters at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. In the mid-’90s, when the hotelier Andre Balazs bought the then-seedy Chateau and reimagined it as a playground of old Hollywood and contemporary fashion, the Newtons were its anchor tenants, its “most illustrious guests,” said Philip Pavel, the longtime manager there.
In an oft-told story that Ms. Newton loved to hear, one day while she was having her daily swim in the hotel pool, the palm trees that surrounded it were being pruned, exposing a nesting rat that fell on her back. (Ms. Newton survived; the rat did not.) The new hotel staff scrambled to make amends by throwing a grand dinner in the couple’s honor.
“I was thinking Monte Carlo, with chandeliers and silver and crystal,” Mr. Pavel said, “and I put together something that looked like a wedding banquet. June took one look at the long table and walked away. Andre said, ‘I think there’s been a mistake. What we’re going for is proletariat chic.’ So we chopped up the table and put paper cloths on it like an Italian restaurant with bowls of pasta and bottles of plonk. That was more their way.”
He added: “There was something about June that was incredibly authentic, and she demanded authenticity from other people. She could get people to sing on command. She would say, ‘It’s time to sing for your suppah!’ I saw her make Rob Lowe sing, and Joan Collins. When Helmut died, she made Anjelica Huston sing ‘Danny Boy.’ She would often remind you, in her best Shakespearean actor’s voice, ‘To thine own self be true,’ pointing her finger at you.”
Since her husband’s death in 2004, Ms. Newton had been the keeper of his legacy as president of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, which exhibits his work and that of others. Her photographs have been shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris, and the Newton foundation.
Throughout their long marriage, the couple trained their cameras on each other, too, in an ongoing and very tender visual diary that captured personal moments — Mr. Newton in a hospital bed after a heart attack; Ms. Newton dusting shelves with no clothes on. They collected these and other images in the 1999 book “Us and Them.”
No immediate family members survive.
“I loved June as a photographer,” said Ms. Huston, long the subject of both Newtons. “She was precise and calm. No mess, no fuss. It was very much like being photographed by Helmut, but in a feminine way. She was like a reporter — she had that smart, alert attitude. Always searching for something slightly under the skin.”
When Mr. Newton died, after suffering a heart attack and crashing his car in the driveway of the Chateau, friends like Ms. Buck and Ms. Huston gathered at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to watch over him while his wife returned to the hotel to get her camera. She wanted to take his photo before his body was removed.