Alice Springs (otherwise known as June Newton, an Australian former actress) well deserves her reputation as one of the great portrait photographers. Emerging from the shadows of Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Peter Lindbergh and her own husband Helmut Newton, this courageous and instinctive photographer carved out a niche all of her own – and all self-taught.
Her career started by accident: in 1970, she filled in for her sick husband on the shoot of an advertising campaign for Gitanes, with no more than a couple of bits of techincal advice to go on. Looking at her curled hair and macho stance, cigarette hanging from her lip, the model surrendered to Mrs Newton as if she had been born in a darkroom. The shoot was an immediate success: Alice Springs was born, and she was going to go places.
As you work through exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, you start with the playful images that she dreamt up for hairdresser Jean-Louis David and fashion magazines like Elle and Vogue, with their dramatic makeup. But her talent really comes to the fore in the second room, with the portraits, in the most traditional and bourgeois sense, where she so excels. From Yves Saint Laurent to Robert Mapplethorpe and from William Burroughs to Karl Lagerfield, the photographer immortalised the high society of her era with unnerving acuity. She captures the essence of her model in a single photo, all of their tiny distinct features in one gesture.
The selection also includes Hell’s Angels and dancers, proof that the allure of Springs’ images doesn't just stem from the notoriety of the upper classes. And while her photos might seem similar to those of Helmut Newton in terms of sexual tension, she has none of the the strictness or perfectionism of her husband – and perhaps it is this ambiguity that keeps her fresh. In the 40 years of her career, the Alice Springs knew exactly how to create energy between the model(s) and the photographer, an aptitude that she never demonstrated better than in her series of female stars with their newborn babies. Seen through June Newton’s eyes, they are both mothers, icons and women, unlikely Madonnas of modern times, cradling a little part of themselves in their arms.