So I've been working, little by little, on a post called "Great Books You Can't Buy," comprising...well, it seems like the title should suffice.
And yesterday's post reminded me that although Helmut Newton is not a photographer I care for, there's a related photographer who created a great book that I've always prized. The book is called Alice Springs: Portraits. I simply assumed it had to be long out of print: it was published a full quarter of a century ago by a small fine-art publishing house. And it was a limited edition—there were only 3000 copies made.
I'm not sure I can admit this out in the open without being accused of being some sort of deviant*, but I get absolutely nothing from Helmut Newton. Leaves me completely cold and always has. I don't get titillation, sensuality, depth, a feeling of danger, style—nothing. Don't even get any sense of his own obsession. He reads as completely superficial to me, empty trying-too-hard styliness. Not even enjoyable as nudes—the boobs on his women might as well be made of marble, or inflated plastic. I am untouched.
Different, er, strokes for different folks, I guess. :-)
Alice is quite different. Although many of the portraits are of high-level celebrities—Gianni Versace, Drew Barrymore and her mother, Christopher Isherwood, William Burroughs, David Byrne, Diana Vreeland, Angelica Huston, Princess Caroline of Monaco, the painter Balthus—the pictures are naturalistic, with the offhand quality I prize in photographs. Many of them work for me both as portraits and as pictures.
Plus, the book is a beautiful example of the bookmaker's art: a simple, elegant design. And the reproductions are sheet-fed gravure, always one of the rarer, more aristocratic processes.
Alice Springs, William Burroughs, Los Angeles, 1984
from Alice Springs: Portraits
Plus, the book is a fine example of Leica photography... [NOTE: This is wrong. See Larry Watson's Featured Comment below]. The work of one photographer working alone, unpretentiously, without lights, usually without assistants. Alice took only two rolls, typically, at each sitting.
Perfect for my post, right?
But not so fast. Take a look at this page. It's in the "Out of Print" section of the publisher's website, but it sure looks like they still have new copies for sale, doesn't it? It's the weekend, or I'd call and check.
I might call tomorrow, if I remember.
"Alice Springs," by the way, is a pseudonym of June Newton, Helmut's wife. She got started in her photographic career when Helmut was indisposed. Rather than cancel a scheduled shoot and lose the income from it, she shot it herself. Before you ask, I haven't seen the other book of hers that's available.
*Theoretically, would you be more of a deviant if you like Helmut Newton's pictures, or if you don't like them? Open question.
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Featured Comment by Peter Barnes: "I respond similarly Mike—I went to the Newton Musuem in Berlin last year and found two rooms full of Alice Springs portraits, a temporary exhibition I think. As celebrity portraits they were outstanding, and I found them more interesting to look at than the Helmut work on show. (It was there that I discovered that Alice Springs (my hometown) is June Newton's AKA, and that she is an Australian who Helmut met when he migrated to Melbourne in the early '40s.)"
Featured Comment by Larry Watson: "Hi, I was Helmut Newton's assistant from 1983 to 1989 during the three to four months he would come to Los Angeles every year. During that time I also assisted June (a.k.a. Alice Springs) on some of her photo shoots as well. One job in particular was the session with Anjelica Huston that yielded the photo for the cover for the book we're discussing here, Alice Springs: Portraits.
"I just wanted to set the record straight—she used a small Olympus with a 50mm lens. It was an OM body type. Not sure if it was an OM1, 2, 3, or 4, but it was one of them. I remember she specifically liked it because it was small and light. She did not use a motor drive. I think she also had a 35mm lens, but mainly used the 50. The only other gear was a light weight tripod and a circular pop-open reflector which I would use to bounce light into the subject. We did the readings with an incident meter. Always natural light.
"I have a signed copy of the book and the years of those portraits range from 1976 to 1986. During the time that I worked with Helmut and June (1983–89), neither owned a Leica—at least they didn't bring it to Los Angeles if they did own one.
"Just as an aside, I would also like to say that they were perhaps the nicest photographers I ever assisted and I assisted a lot of photographers back then."
Mike replies: Thanks very much for that, Larry. Glad to have the record set straight.