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Cousin Athol's Portrait of Helmut Newton
A portrait by Athol Shmith from 1957 establishes a personal connection with Helmut Newton's "mysterious" years in Melbourne.
I'm roughly sketching my mother and maternal grandparents' world in Melbourne from the 1930s to when Mum fled for NYC in 1958, aged 19, and became secretary to the Chinese ambassador to the UN. Her feelings about Melbourne were similar to Helmut Newton's, who left with his wife June — known professionally as Alice Springs — for Paris in 1961, and never returned. I have a sort of emo-professional kinship with Newton via a portrait that Athol Shmith, my cousin twice removed, took of him in 1957.
Grandpa Archie grew up in the same house in St. Kilda with Shmith, his first cousin, and that made Archie more of an older brother than a cousin. Cousin Athol was the Cecil Beaton of Australia; with Newton and his business partner Henry Talbot, a fellow German Jewish refugee, Shmith was responsible for the rise and establishment of Australian fashion photography in the 40s and 50s.
Both of my grandparents modeled for Shmith. Grandma Iris was a pioneer of the profession who walked the floor of Georges department store on Collins Street in the latest Paris couture. Achie was a professional gambler "who never worked a day in his life," according to Mum and Iris. When I visited Cousin Athol in Melbourne in 1983 — Mum bought me a one-way ticket and made me work my way back to NYC, which took a year — he corrected me: "That's not strictly true. We both worked in the family's (textile) factory for two weeks, until we quit. We hated it." Cousin Athol took my parents' wedding pictures.
This para from the LaTrobe Journal speaks to Newton and Mum's shared ambivalence about Melbourne and why they left for good:
Is there any purpose behind the deliberate secretiveness of Newton and his attempt to negate his Australian output? Newton himself points to an answer in his autobiography, where he writes of his ego being ‘fanned’ by clients and friends and working where there was ‘no competition to speak of'. This is clearly forgetfulness, not borne out by details in his autobiography, or exaggeration aimed at diminishing the work of contemporary photographers active in Melbourne during his time there. Athol Shmith (1914–1990) is dismissed as a ‘very chic society photographer’, despite the fact that he, too, had work published in Vogue, sometimes in the same issue as Newton."
Athol was certainly not at Newton's level as a photographer, but who was? Perhaps Avedon and Penn, that's it. But his portrait of Newton isn't anything like his formal portraiture, which is mannered and derivative of Hurrell and Beaton himself. It's candid, warm, familial. There's clearly a friendship between the two, perhaps healthy competition. My reading of the image — note the old large-format camera in the upper left — is Newton was being catty in his dismissiveness of Cousin Athol. Is that the reason for the cat on Newton's lap? Probably not, but it's there for the punning.
Of course, the appraisal of my family as being 'very chic' by the greatest fashion photographer who ever lived, in my opinion, is a backhanded compliment I can live with.
There's a deeper bond still between Shmith and Newton: Both were Jewish. Given that Newton come to Australia in 1940 via Singapore as a refugee from Nazi Germany, it's hard to imagine that his connection with Athol, and perhaps by extension Grandpa Archie, didn't have something to do with being members of the "tribe."
A MASTER IN A STRANGE LAND
Newton came from a similar manufacturing family to mine. While his parents fled to Chile following Kristalnacht at the end of '38, Helmut Neustaedter, as he was known then, struck out on his own on a slow ship to China — the same age as Mum when she got on the Achille Lauro's maiden around-the-world voyage, bound for New York. He disembarked in Singapore, and settled in for a disastrous stint at the Straits Times. In 1940, when German citizens were rounded up, he was shipped off to a cushy internment camp on a farm in Australia. In 1942, he signed up for a four-year stint in the Australian Air Force. It was on his discharge that he changed his surname to Newton, the English translation of Neustaedter.
There may have been some deep-seeded professional rivalry between Newton and Shmith: Whereas the latter was a refugee who struggled throughout the 40s to establish himself as a photograph at "the end of the world," as Ava Gardner famously called Melbourne, Cousin Athol was already a fellow at the Royal Photographic Society by the time he was twenty-five, in 1939. Shortly thereafter, he established a studio on Collins Street, just a few doors down from where Grandma Iris strutted her stuff.
It's at the studio that Shmith essentially godfathered Australian fashion photography, as well as creating the concept of a fashion photography model as a respectable pursuit for women by convincing society dames to pose for him in the latest from Paris, likely courtesy Georges of Collins Street. Prior to Athol's intervention and reinvention, photography models were pinup girls, or outright porn models; in other words, hookers. To be clear, Iris was what was known as a mannequin, not a photography model in the traditional prurient sense. In any case, by 1939, when Athol started his studio, Iris and Archie were married, and Mum was born; my grandmother had retired from the newest profession in the world a couple of years before. She modeled for Athol as an older woman, in the 40s. Archie posed for advertising shots, notably a subliminally homoerotic cigarette campaign, accepting a light from another man, the brims of both men's trilbies partially concealing their faces.
By the time Newton came on the Melbourne fashion scene after being discharged — hustling with other paparazzi outside weddings, hoping to sell the photos afterward; taking photos of hats for catalogs — Cousin Athol was already master of the domain. Melbourne is a very small pond — even smaller back then. Fellow Jews or not, professional rivalry being the blood sport that it is in the commercial arts, it's likely there wasn't enough room for both fish. And, frankly, Cousin Athol was a bit of a dick and a diva, as we all are from time to time, Newton resolutely included.
Newton opened his own photography studio in the late 40s with the help of June Brown, whom he married in 1948. But it seems he couldn't catch up to bigger-fish Athol's success; the fact that he stopped pursuing wedding photography speaks to the fact that local boy Athol had that market well cornered. His most lucrative gig came in 1951, working for Shell Australia, taking pictures of pipes being laid, and other massive-scale industrial building that boomed in the post-War years.
I know Melbourne and Melbournians both firsthand and epigenetically: If they're going to give a job to someone, a society darling like Athol is going to win it, not the emigré German. Like most of my family on both Archie and Iris' sides, Athol spoke with a cut-glass British RP accent — it still commands respect to this day. It doesn't surprise me that the Newtons packed up and moved to Paris in 1961, and never looked back. As for Newton as a photographer, after the chronic rejection and struggle he faced in Melbourne, his raw talent and boldness was awarded not just with acceptance in Paris, but eventual late-life superstardom.
By the 70s, when Newton was cresting magnificently, Athol was already winding down, devoted to teaching more than shooting — he was mentor to Bill Henson, and art photographer I rank as a sui generis master at Newton's level. Athol's second wife, Patrica "Bambi" Tuckwell, had eclipsed him by marrying George Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, a cousin of the Queen. The fact that both Bambi and Lascelles — the only non-Prince Royal to be a Counsellor of State, or an official representative of the monarch — were divorcés caused a huge scandal, aggravated by Bambi having Lascelles' son out of wedlock. Athol the godfather of Australian fashion photography became the wanton Countess of Harewood's first husband, a talented version of Andrew Parker Bowles, or whoever that guy was who was the Duchess of Cambridge's first husband. Mr. Simpson? Nobody cares.
Athol suffered a brain hemorrhage that severely debilitated him. By the time I met him in 1983, he was an acerbic, albeit charming curmudgeon. After grilling me about Archie and Mum, he said, "Right. You may ask one favor of me. What is it?"
I asked his agent, Joyce Evans, to loan prints to a friend's restaurant. It was a rash, youthful missed opportunity, but I was taken aback by his rudeness and lack of warmth for his good friend and cousin's grandson — it was a typically Yankee counter-snub to inject altruism into it. Now that I do the math, I'm surprised he was only sixty-nine years old — he looked to my twenty-year-old eyes to be in his eighties. Joyce Evans coddled him as if he were a frail octogenarian, which likely affected my perspective.
As I was writing this post, rereading Guy Featherstone's LaTrobe Journal piece about Newton, I was struck by part of a sentence,
... a small hut at the rear of an apartment house at 3 Bromby Street, South Yarra, became his residence. This allowed considerable freedom and considerably more female companionship.
Not knowing anything about Henry Talbot, the third Jewish Australian fashion photography founding father, I find a kinship between Athol, Newton and Grandpa Archie, three Jewish men who didn't just love women, they worshipped them, and not in a creepy MeToo way. They could easily live in in the title of one of Newton's early books, World Without Men.
As much as I hate to use the word, I suppose because of puritanical socio-cultural prejudices that were hardwired into my upbringing, Archie was the archetypal playboy; when I describe him to people, they often say, "he was a playboy." He had money, style, charm, social connections. His best friend was his cousin, the first true Australian fashion photographer, also a playboy. It's hard to say which, the gambler or the fashion photographer, was the bigger playboy.
His George Hurrell-inspired, hand-colored portrait of Grandma Iris with a perfect daffodil stands among other uncommonly striking framed family photos. On a table in my mother's living room is a framed print of the cigarette ad campaign featuring Archie perhaps about to hook up with another man late some restless night on an empty street.
I'd always assumed the cigarette ad was the only photo of Archie from that period that Athol took; he's present in my parent's wedding pictures. But there are two others that are clearly taken by Athol, too: Archie with a shit-eating grin beside his new 30s Studebaker Commander, his foot on the running board; the other a goofy shot of him at Stonehenge in England between two monoliths, leaning forward, right foot raised behind, his hand in a mock "ahoy, sailor!" salute. On either side of him, framed by the monoliths, are two sunning women, both with one leg raised flapperishly. The composition of the photo is clearly professional — this is no candid happy snap.
Until now, I've assumed that both women were in Archie's menage. The photographer was unknown, irrelevant. But Wikipedia suggests that Athol was in England at the same time Archie was in the mid-30s, before Archie married Iris — that's presumably why Athol was made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society so young. He's the photographer, and the second woman flanking Archie at Stonehenge is Athol's date. The ménage à trois in Salisbury that I've imagined my whole life is now either a foursome, or just two close cousins on a double date.
I've always believed I take after Archie more than anyone else in the family, and perhaps Athol in terms of the creative aspect; it doesn't come from my predominantly Scottish DNA, and the accompanying rigid, assiduously anti-creative Anglo-Celtic culture that was raised with. Archie and Iris divorced after she found a used condom in the aforementioned Studebaker. He was almost entirely absent from Mum's upbringing, flitting around the world from racecourse to casino, dying with exactly the amount he inherited. I didn't find out that he was born a Jew until I was seventeen — he'd converted to Catholicism later in life, to marry his second wife, Freddie. I'm as goyishe as they come, even if I've always had a deep affinity for Jewish culture, especially the humor and adoration of the arts that is considered anathema in the stultifying Yankee culture I was raised with. It's only from Archie's family that Mum and I get our shared creative streak.
The devotion to women, whether uncommonly beautiful or smart, is now another connection that I have with Athol and Archie, even if I much prefer men sexually. I also have a long history of being smitten with models. As a fashion photographer friend observed in the 80s, while watching me make out with an It Girl of the moment perched on my lap at a party, "With James, it's either dudes, or the most beautiful women in the world." All in the genes, baby.
This piece was originally published on Pure Film Creative.