By Peter Russell

Here's a great pub yarn where you can win a beer or two. Imagine telling your mates that one of the world's most famous photographers, Helmet Newton, worked in Shepp in the orchards. Then wait until they've taken the bait and win your beer.

Newton is best known for photographic excellence, working for fashion magazines like Vogue for years. He was also "the" photographer to the stars. He shot The Stones, Jim Morrison, The Police, DiCaprio, Mickey Rourke, David Bowie and more. Much more.

He was so well regarded that many hosted him at their homes, where he preferred to light and shoot in situ without the need for a permanent studio.

He also carved a career in erotic photography, shot mostly in black and whites for coffee table books. Authentic prints from his collection sell for huge amounts. Some test sheet prints of Bowie are expected to make 22,000 pounds at auction this year.

Rewind 20 years, and in 1946 he was released from his illegal alien status with 100 pounds and so began his career as a photographer. Here in Australia.

He scored some work shooting for Shell Petroleum and won some fashion work for Vogue Australia. Once he got a byline, for him, that was pure gold, as he came to notice by Vogue's European and American editors.

So began the stellar career of Helmet Newton, one of the most prolific and creative photographers of the 20th century.

He had landed in Australia as Helmut Neustaedter (He later changed his name to Newton by deed poll) with a boat load of German-Jews who were placed into internment. He was held at number 3 Camp, C Compound (Bachelor's Group) and was to remain there for nearly sixteen months.

At Tatura the internees entertained themselves as best they could – the food was good and plentiful, the guards ‘kindness personified’, but after the daily two hours duty cleaning latrines, Newton was free to sit in the sun, read and amuse himself.

‘Time seemed to drag on forever and ever, monotonously’. The tedium of internment was relieved after nearly eighteen months when the internees were released for war work as ‘refugee aliens’.

This new policy, a reflection of the gravity of manpower shortages after the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, was announced by the Army Minister (Forde) on 21 January 1942.

Within a week, Newton and 122 other volunteers left camp to work as fruit pickers near Bendigo, Shepparton, Kyabram and other country towns. The volunteers were allotted to rural employers who assumed responsibilities for their living conditions and rates of pay set down by the Victorian government.

One group of the volunteers was trucked to Shepparton Canning factory where, in a ‘slave auction’ scenario, about fifty local orchardists selected teams to be billeted and work on their properties.

Newton was one of five or six who worked happily and, apparently, profitably, even establishing a close relationship with their host and entertaining the farmer and his daughter ‘Sunshine’ at sing-songs in the farmhouse.

There was sufficient trust for an empty house on the property to be made available as living quarters, with occasional Saturday nights being spent at the Shepparton Hotel with the luxury of hot baths and a ‘real bed’.

This civilian service was shortly replaced by a military regime when the Eighth Australian Labor Company was formed, 7 April 1942, as part of the AMF. On that day the initial intake of 407 men from Shepparton arrived at the Reception Camp at Caulfield Racecourse. Newton took the oath, was photographed and taken ‘on strength’ the following day. Another internee who had joined the Company described the atmosphere that prevailed: Everybody was 'happy', smiling, in the best of spirits, we jumped to the roll calls willingly. The Singapore refugees were with us, with a jazz band with instruments, which used to play at a nightclub in Singapore. There was no barbed wire, no guards, officers and soldiers, nothing but friendliness

At the end of the war Newton had written to his mother about his love of Australia: ‘I adore the people. I love the country’.

The lure of fame and fortune would take him to Europe and America where he carved out a career becoming one of the most sought after photographers of the time.

His original works still command high figures. His Australian work is mostly lost, but there are a few examples in his autobiography.

He died aged 83, January 2004, in a car crash in Los Angeles.

Click Here to visit the Tatura Museum website

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