Bruno Benini’s remarkable photography archive was acquired earlier this year with funding assistance from the Australian Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account. Along with Wolfgang Sievers, Mark Strizic, Dieter Muller, Henry Talbot, Helmut Newton, David Mist and others, Benini an Italian-born, Melbourne-based fashion photographer, became one of a group of influential émigré commercial photographers working in post-war Australia. While Max Dupain is recognized as a genius of 20th century Australian architectural photography and Wolfgang Sievers the master of industrial photography, Bruno Benini can be regarded as one of Australia’s most elegant and refined mid-20th century fashion photographers.
Born in 1925 in Massa Marittima, a medieval town in Tuscany, he migrated to Australia with his family in 1935 just prior to the outbreak of World War II. He studied science at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University) and worked for a brief period at General Motors Holden at Fishermens Bend, Victoria before returning to Italy with a brief stopover in London in the late 1940s. It was during this trip, that he decided to pursue a career in photographer and joined Peter Fox Modern Photography Studio in Melbourne in the early 1950s working initially as a salesman and receptionist with the camera operators Henry Talbot and Katherine Perkins.
After setting up his first studio at 24 Cotham Road in Kew in the mid-1950s, Benini then also covertly honed his photographic and lighting skills by working as a male model with Helmut Newton, Henry Talbot and other Melbourne-based photographers. At the same time, he also became friendly with several local printers who assisted him gain proficiency in the aspect of photography that Bruno went on to master and thoroughly enjoy. From Kew, Benini moved to various locations in the city before settling in his 6 McKillop Street studio that he shared with model-turned-photographer, Janice Wakely, and later with his wife Hazel Benini during the 1960s. Bruno met Hazel, a New Zealand-born artist and display designer, in 1959 when she was already a working fashion display artist and he an established Melbourne fashion photographer, with numerous prestigious clients on his log books including the Australian Wool Bureau, the Gown of the Yea and Theo Haskin’s Salon Milano. Hazel and Bruno went on to form an indivisible partnership as leading Melbourne fashionistas – Bruno as the elegant photographer and Hazel as a vivacious and creative fashion publicist and stylist.
‘When I first met Bruno I was working at a big store called Hicks Atkinson, which ran from Collins Street through to Bourke Street (Melbourne). So we were getting to know each other then and I think he was doing a big colour photograph and he was worried he couldn’t get the right pink background. I organised a big roll of paper, heavy paper that they put under linoleum in those days and delivered it to his studio. I mixed up the paint and I painted just the background for him. So that was my first job helping him out.’
(Hazel Benini, interview with the author, Melbourne 2008)
In his obituary for Bruno Benini in 2001, Philip Jones summed up beautifully the world which Hazel and Bruno inhabited in Melbourne:
Habitués of Lygon Street, Carlton, have long been familiar with a couple of elegant indivisible boulevardiers. He tall, silver-haired, sanguine, handsome ‘ an overcoat slung over his shoulders, Roman style. She blonde, petite, stylish and intense. ‘ The Benini’s were intrinsic to the artistic and social life of Melbourne’.
Predominantly shot in black and white, Benini’s photographs were much sought after by newspaper and magazine fashion editors and regularly appeared in major interstate newspapers including the Hobart Mercury, the Perth Independent, the Brisbane Courier Mail, the Canberra Times, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald. Today, the photographic prints, negatives and transparencies survive as vibrant, clearly delineated records of what would otherwise survive only as grainy press prints.
The archive was meticulously accumulated over 50 years by Bruno and Hazel Benini. It came to the Museum after literally being stored in boxes under beds, in the bottom of cupboards, in drawers and on the tops of wardrobes. With each change of address or studio, came the need to rationalise stock. Over time material was lost, damaged or discarded. Hazel re-tells the story of a tea chest of very early shots which Bruno stored in his father’s garage. When his father decided to throw them all out, permanently lost were shots of Barry Humphries’ first wedding and a portrait, which Humphries claimed was the best photo he’d ever had taken. Years later he would phone Bruno and Hazel and implore, ‘Bruno, please try and find the negative.’ Well, Bruno knew it wasn’t there.
After Bruno’s death, it became imperative that the collection was preserved. Despite the loss of material over time, the Benini archive is still a very substantial and comprehensive collection, providing a vivid record of the Australian fashion industry over five decades – from the elegant couture of the 1950s, the mod and hippy modes of the 1960s, through to the confronting funkier styles of the 1970s, body conscious images from the 1980s and athletic fashion from the Nike-dominated 1990s.
There are over 250 photographic blow-up prints and several thousand black and white negatives and colour positive transparencies, as well as hundreds of contact sheets and proof prints, biographical material including scrap books, posters, tear sheets, diaries, magazines and newspaper cuttings dating from the 1950s through to the photographer’s death in 2001. Haute couture gowns, niche labels and ready-to-wear brands are represented including Norma Tullo (perhaps the only Australian label with its own outlet in the Isetan Department store in Tokyo in the 1970s), Phillippa Gowns, Theo Haskin’s Salon Milano, Hall Ludlow, Simona, Solo, Prue Acton, Mike Treloar, Ninette and its related youth brand Nutmeg, Gala, Sportscraft and Sportsgirl.
Many top Australian models appear ‘ Maggie Tabberer, Maggi Eckardt, Helen Homewood, Jan Stewart, Nerida Piggin, Pip Colman, Janice Wakely and Bambi Shmith, formerly Patricia Tuckwell, violinist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and later, Countess of Harewood. International fashion labels retailed in Australia through small boutiques are also captured by Benini’s lens – like Fiorucci from Italy and Laura Ashley from England. The unusual Australian settings of some of Benini’s shots make them uniquely memorable – like the shot of Liz Scarborough modelling a Le Louvre coat in a blackened landscape after the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983, and the photograph of Di Sweeney modelling Bottega’s newly imported blue Italian gumboots and jip-jacket wet weather suit inside a car wash in Carlton in 1976.
By the late 1980s, Benini began to tire of fashion photography and decided to turn his lens to male nudes. He later added delicate colour still life photographs of flowers to his portfolio as a refreshing diversion from the countless nude male text shots he was commissioned to shoot for models aspiring to join Greg Tyshing’s Giant model agency. The archive also contains many portraits of Australian and visiting actors, writers, artists, dancers, designers and pop singers as they would often pop into Bruno’s studio to have their portraits taken.
The Powerhouse Museum first drew attention to the significance of Benini’s collection in 1996. In April of 2009, Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts announced that the Bruno Benini photography archive would be acquired by the Museum with funding assistance from the National Cultural Heritage Account. It is now widely appreciated that this uniquely comprehensive and well documented archive provides a vivid record of fashion design, manufacture, retailing, marketing and consumption as well as a close look at accessories, shoes, sunglasses, hair, makeup and swimsuits. The Benini collection supports the Museum’s dress collection and enriches the Museum’s pioneering holdings of Australian design and fashion photography archives.
Over 50 photographs from the Bruno Benini photography archive can be viewed as a screen projection in the Museum’s Inspired!: design across time exhibition (Until mid-November 2009)