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Sunday, 03 April 2011


The portrait of Bill Burroughs could serve as an example of "how NOT to light a portrait."

Dear Mike,
Think you're being far too severe on Helmut Newton. Yes he was a bit of a rogue but his work was distinct, full of humour and intelligent. I've watched him from the 60's hold onto his strong point of view never giving in to American Vogue who so wanted to tone him down, to make him manageable. To put it less mildly he had a set of balls on him that are so clearly lacking in photography today. If you like Alice Springs work then you must read Helmut's short autobiography. They truly were a great creative team.

Simple question. Is it 'harder' to make
a superb portrait as a painter or as a

"Alice" Springs to life,
in Australia, eh?

Plus One for your feelings on Helmut Newton. I 'get it', but I don't 'get it' for me. Not anything I would consider 'erotic', by any means. I never met him, so I can't tell if he really thought his work was erotic, or he was working towards an opinion of what he thought others would find erotic. Either way, it's almost pedestrian, kind of a trip through the most hackneyed version of erotica.

This makes me think of seeing the movie Eyes Wide Shut. As a Kubrick fan, I usually find a lot to like in almost any of his films; but I was totally underwhelmed by this unfortunate last film. A guy and his wife going to a masked erotic ball from some sort of sex cult? Really? Like some bad euro-porn magazine from the 1970's! Laughable! I almost did a spit-take in the theater with my soda! First thing I thought was: "...must be bad getting old and having your idea of culture freezing thirty years ago...".

I'm not saying Helmut isn't good, or isn't important, or isn't excellent, or that other people shouldn't love his work if they DO respond to it. I'm just reporting how I respond to his work. We're all different in this respect.


"Simple question. Is it 'harder' to make a superb portrait as a painter or as a photographer?"

Painter. Portraiture is one of the things that photography is best at.


"The portrait of Bill Burroughs could serve as an example of 'how NOT to light a portrait.'"

Right, if you're doing a picture for pay of a graduating senior or something. I think it's perfect lighting for that particular picture.

Some times you can't be afraid to break the rules.


Another plus one re Herr Newton. I like my women long and lean, but his look like androids. And that is a deviation I'm not sure I'd ever be into.

PS. Is the word 'breasts' somehow offensive? I find that USians use almost any alternative over the correct term, and I'm curious.

The portrait of Bill Burroughs is an example of the perfect way to light the William Burroughs. It is technique serving vision, not vision constrained by technique. I'm reminded of Mike's post a few months ago about the point of learning 'technique' is so that you master it well enough to serve your vision, not as an end in and of itself.*

Mike, every time I'm tempted to give up on reading anything photography-related** on the internet, you turn up yet another thoughtful post. Kudos.


*possibly what people mean when they talk about someone's work being 'too commercial' or musicians 'selling out.'
**I did the reading equivalent of overeating, while reading about camera gear. Both rumor sites, and classic film gear. That said, if anyone wants to mail me a large format camera of any kind, feel free to contact me via flickr.

Hear hear, know the rules and know how to break them.

Convention is always an obstacle to creativity.

Can't remember where or when, but someone once wrote of Alice Springs, "she must be a really good sport."

I don't get anything from Helmut Newton's photos either Mike. It strikes me as too commercial. I don't get any sense of personal involvement.

Dear Mike,

I find Newton's work unlikable and unappealing (not exactly the same thing). Worse, I think I do get what his obsession is, and I don't especially like it.

My claim to shame:

20 years ago or so, I got contacted by Newton because he wanted advice on how to best preserve his work and ensure its longevity. Detesting the work as I did, I was sorely tempted to politely put him off. Unfortunately my professional scruples won out and I treated him as honorably as I would any other photographic colleague.

Consequently, I have made some modest contribution to ensuring that his work will endure, and I hope future ages will forgive me for that.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com


No need to feel guilty. You did the job you were contacted/contracted for. If he'd called you and asked for your critical appraisal and you'd done the sycophant thing, THEN you'd have reason to feel guilty. :)

Do we have the right to decide what the future sees of us? I really feel that we don't - let the future decide on its feelings about the relative merits of Newton. And Geddes. And Leibowitz. The future may think we were the hippest age ever.

Love the portrait of the woman. But... Out of the five portraits on the publisher's page, I recognise only David Byrne. I feel I should know the first guy, the one in the jeans jacket, but I don't. Sic transit gloria mundi and celebritiness. :)

You can be forgiven for not recognizing that guy--that's Christopher Isherwood, the author of "Goodbye to Berlin." Authors are usually more recognizable by name, and I suspect Isherwood isn't as well known now as he used to be when he was writing. He died in '86, shortly after the picture was taken.


Never mind the light on the face--how about that dandy suit!

I'd love to know about his tailor.

The photographic style reminds me of Jane Bown--the touchstone for photo-journalist celebrity portraiture, ca. 1950-99 (?).


Mike, of course it's necessary to break the rules at times. But, IMO, there is one rule of portraiture that should never be broken, and that is to try to flatter the subject in some way. Again IMO, the lighting on Burroughs' face is totally unflattering. OTOH, the lighting on Burrough's suit is good. Is the photographer expressing her opinion of Burroughs? Has she earned the right to do so?

Is it my imagination or did the price of "Alice Springs: Portraits" just jump to $100. I checked in the page last night and I believe that the price was a bit lower.

Has Mike Johnson moved the market once again. BTW: I have some Cisco stock that could use a little pop. Perhaps you could lend some kind words Mike. Might be little something in it for you.

Flatter the subject--?

You've never read any Burroughs, I'm guessing?


I honestly don't remember what the price was yesterday.

It appears to be a moot point, as the title is now listed as "backordered," rather than "in stock."


I ordered it this morning for $75 and it was in stock. Now it's $100 and backordered. Mike moves markets.

Having just read Larry Watson's comment, I find myself a bit puzzled as to why June Newton needed an assistant ... just because she could have one?

Noting your entirely understandable error regarding 'Leica photography', I was wondering what that might say about 'Olympus OM photography'. Patrick has already made the comparison with Jane Bown. Would I be right in assuming that the underlying thought is the contrast between rangefinder and reflex technique?

Also left cold by Newton, though his stuff does leave me feeling like he had a genuine appetite for something or other and wasn't just styling. I also admire him for having the balls to do what he did and keep doing it. Good on him.

As it happens (and completely off-topic), your reaction to Newton's photographs ('Don't even get any sense of his own obsession. He reads as completely superficial to me, empty trying-too-hard styliness') describes my reaction to Bowie's music, even though I know people that I really get on with and admire who love the stuff. The same two sentences perfectly describe many hardcore music fans' reaction to Ferry's albums, most of which I absolutely love. There's probably a future book of the week about the mystery of taste. By the way, have you tried hunch.com? It's scary.

Dear Rob,

Well, thank you for your kindness, but I still feel a little guilty. Mind you, if this had actually been a contractual/business situation, it would've been very simple. I would've refused the job. Rather, it was a call out of the blue for a minor favor as a professional courtesy. I can turn down a business offer without feeling like I'm being rude. Much harder to turn down an entirely reasonable request, even if I detest the work.

Do I think I have the absolute right to decide what the future sees? Well, no, not until I'm elected Dictator of the Universe. (BTW, I'm running in the next election–– vote for me!) Do I think I have the right to exercise what minor influence I have? Oh, absolutely! Anytime I write a review, I'm trying to exercise such influence. Whether it makes much difference is another matter. But I do think I have an absolute right, even a responsibility, to exercise what miniscule influence I can.

So, just the littlest teensy-weensy bit of guilty feeling.

The future doesn't just happen. It gets made.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Browsing through a Melbourne (Australia) remainder bookstore yesterday I found several sealed copies of "Us and Them" by Helmut Newton and Alice Springs. Cost $A19.99.


OF COURSE it was an OM. (Sorry, couldn't help myself ... just acquired another OM-1n with 50/1.8 miJ a few weeks ago. No, you can't have too many.)

This is one of my all-time favorite books. A nice selection and superb printing. June is one of my favorite photographers.

June has several books out, including a well-illustrated autobiography. And a brand new one of her portrait and fashion work.

She's one of the best.

Regarding cameras -- she's taken a lot of self-portraits in mirrors, holding Minolta cameras.

And her home video of Helmut shows him using a Minolta Maxxum. He addresses the camera -- "This is the same camera any amateur might use. The art is in here," (points to head).

I'm not a big fan of the fashion photography genre, but Newton was a good portraitist, and if you've ever seen one of his prints, you'll be amazed by the quality -- often 35mm negs enlarged to 20x24.

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