Bruno Benini – “Creating the Look” @ Powerhouse Museum

Bruno Benini – “Creating the Look” @ Powerhouse Museum

Maggi Tabbarer – 1958

Sydney Design 2010 – Powerhouse Museum 31 July 2010 to Feb 2011

“Creating the look: Benini and fashion photography” explores the creative processes involved in styling, crafting and designing powerful eye-catching fashion photographs

bruno and hazel benini

Bruno Benini was a pioneering Australian fashion photographer, bringing a European elegance to the field from the post-war period right through until his death in 2001. Together with his wife, Hazel, who played an important role in styling the photos, the Beninis were central, glamorous figures in Melbourne’s cultural scene for 50 years, documenting not just fashion through his commercial work, but also leading players in the world of arts and entertainment through portraits

Capturing the beauty and style of an era, Bruno Benini is recognised as one of Australia’s leading 20th century fashion photographers. For five decades the Italian immigrant recorded the evolution of fashion, from the elegant couture of the 1950s through to the hippy chic of the 1960s, to the raunchy attitude of the 1970s, right up to the fit, body-sensitive era of the 1990s.

Running parallel to the fashion work, well known through its reproduction in newspapers of the day and magazines like Vogue and Flair, are other series which predate similar work by the American Robert Mapplethorpe: male nudes, including African and African-American men, and flowers.

Anne-Marie Van de Ven will be talking about her insights into the Bernini archive on Wednesday 5 August at the Powerhouse Museum from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. Her special guests will be some of Benini’s models. The talk is free with museum entry. 

Establishing his studio in Melbourne in the mid 1950s, Benini refined his craft, working alongside famed photographers Helmut Newton and Athol Shmith. His marriage to artist Hazel led to the formation of an innovative partnership – Bruno as the elegant photographer and Hazel as the creative fashion stylist. Together, the couple produced some of Australia’s most memorable and elegant images.

Drawing on the remarkable fashion photography archive of Benini, the exhibition features vintage and recent photographic prints, original colour transparencies and black-and-white negatives, and biographical material, dating from the 1950s through to the photographer’s death in 2001.

Creating the look unpicks the ideas, props, backdrops and locations, the tricks, technical devices and other compositional elements used by the Beninis, as well as by today’s digital generation of contemporary fashion photographers. It reveals how designers, models, make-up artists, hair stylists, fashion editors, props and locations all work together to produce the shot. Interviews with Benini’s collaborators including Hazel Benini, former models Jan Stewart, Janice Wakely and others, help bring the photographs to life.

The exhibition acknowledges how Benini’s photographic techniques are interpreted in innovative ways by contemporary photographers and stylists. Four case studies are Australian fashion photographer Juli Balla, styling by Edward Coutts Davidson, urban street fashion photographs of Fernando Frisoni and a selection of directional new Australian fashion film and video for online media.

Bruno Benini was a pioneering Australian fashion photographer, bringing a European elegance to the field from the post-war period right through until his death in 2001. Together with his wife, Hazel, who played an important role in styling the photos, the Beninis were central, glamorous figures in Melbourne’s cultural scene for 50 years, documenting not just fashion through his commercial work, but also leading players in the world of arts and entertainment through portraits



The Benini photography archive had been produced and collected over many years by Bruno and Hazel Benini (nee Craig) as a record of their working lives together – Bruno as photographer, Hazel working as a fashion publicist in display, visual merchandising and public relations for fashion designers, manufacturers, retailers and fashion editors.

The Powerhouse Museum was the first public institution to draw attention to the significance of the archive in 1996, encouraging the photographer to preserve the collection and organise it by identifying dates, models, clients and locations. Phil Quirk, a photographer and close friend of Bruno’s assisted with this process. This process highlighted the significance of the collection, and led to a revival of interest in Bruno Benini’s work (see production/ biography notes).

Bruno and Hazel Benini moved house several times and some of the material in the archive was lost, damaged or thrown away. Bruno Benini died unexpectedly in 2001. It became imperative that this important commercial photography archive was preserved. The Powerhouse Museum acquired the archive with assistance from the Commonwealth Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account.

Through the Lens of Benini

Essay reproduced courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum.

Author: Anne-Marie Van de Ven.  ( curator )

‘It’s ok for you.’ said Bruno Benini’s sister who worked for the Italian Consulate in Melbourne, earnestly to her younger brother one day when she was struggling to come to terms with the world in which her young brother and his artist wife Hazel Benini had decided to make their life and living, ‘You guys live in fantasy land’.

The following morning, out of hearing range of his sister and with arms flung wide overhead in a Italianate gesture of joyful defiance, Benini retorted as he and Hazel Benini entered the studio to begin another day’s work, ‘Fantasy land—here we come!’

In some ways, it’s not surprising that at times, Ilda Benini struggled to come to terms with her brother’s career choice, as she would have been fully aware that Hazel and Bruno spent their days concocting fun stories, meeting and  shooting beautiful people, and generally immersing themselves enthusiastically into a wonderfully fanciful, weird and creative craft. Interestingly, like her, they too were very much a part of Melbourne’s post-WWII cosmopolitan inner-city scene.

With her other brother a medical doctor, it’s maybe not surprising that Ilda Benini was concerned about her brother’s choice of occupation. The world of fashion photography was generally not well known or understood at the time. While fashion photographs were familiar through the press, the process of fashion photography remained mysterious, and male photographers were often represented as hedonistic playboys in films like Blow-up (1966) and media headlines like ‘Bruno is the darling of the best looking birds’ (Woman’s Day, 1 June 1970).

Also, Bruno Benini never gained professional qualifications or training as a photographer. Initially he started photography as a hobby and then learnt on the job, at first in Peter Fox’s large commercial studio of modern photography on Collins Street, Melbourne, and then from photographer friends and colleagues who occasionally engaged him as a model.

Printers, like Benini’s close friend Norman Ikin, also helped kick start his knowledge of printing, though Ikin tragically died in a car accident just days after Hazel and Bruno Benini’s wedding.

Although Benini initially studied industrial chemistry and worked for General Motors Holden at Fishermen’s Bend, Melbourne, he had opted to pursue a career as a fashion photographer after a return trip to Italy in 1950. His scientific background no doubt stood him in good stead, and contributed significantly to his success as a fashion photographer, and to the sheer pleasure and relaxation he enjoyed while working magic with his chemicals and time exposures in the darkroom, or the early years in Kew when he produced contact prints using sunlight exposures.

A Linhof bellow camera which used single 4x5inch colour or black and white negatives was the camera of preference when Benini began working in the mid-1950s. He then moved on to shoot with a Rolleiflex twin lens camera, a Hasselblad rangefinder camera (around 1958), and then square format 2¼inch or 6×6cm and later rectangular 2¼x 2¾inch or 6×7cm Mamiya cameras from the mid-1960s. He also began experimenting with a 35mm film Cannon camera around the same time.

Each different format film stock survives in the archive, each with its own distinctive look and characteristics. The detail found on the original negatives and prints, in comparison to the graininess of the original tear sheets and newspaper cuttings, is breathtaking.

Benini met Hazel Craig around 1959 or 1960 and they married in 1962.

They went on to live and work closely together for four decades, genuinely complementing, supporting and nurturing each other’s creativity.

‘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 thebackground for him. So that was my first job helping him out.’

Finding and making suitable props, backdrops and locations was always a challenge for both of them, and deciding whether to use natural or artificial light a daily dilemma, but careful thought and forward planning ensured most shoots went smoothly. There was no accounting for bad weather however, and as grey overcast Melbourne days were common, reflector boards were frequently carried in the back of the cab or model’s car when venturing out on location. Benini loved working on location, but he never drove a car, so it’s perhaps not surprising that many of his outdoor shots have been taken in close proximity to Melbourne’s CBD, on the streets, in the Carlton Gardens, along the bayside, in Melbourne’s immediate hinterland, especially at Monsalvat, or down by the Yarra River in Kew. In these shots Benini often achieves beautiful low contrast images in which the subject and backgrounds merge and interact with each other to create romantic and surprising moods and atmosphere.

Today, Bruno is fondly remembered by almost everyone who knew or worked with him.

I have a lot of respect for Bruno not just as a person. He had a fantastic personality, extremely generous, kind and soft. He was also a very good photographer who never really got the accolades he deserved. Athol Smith was an absolutely fantastic character too, the Max Dupain of Melbourne, a chain smoker. For him, everything was always gracious, a bit like Bruno. They were a certain style of people, which maybe you don’t see so much these days. The first thing you know about them is that they’re gentlemen. Bruno with a huge amount of style, probably Athol a little less, but at the same time, with a huge personality. Bruno’s personality was softer and quieter. (Phil Quirk, photographer, interview with author and Jean-Francois Lanzarone, April, 2010. Worked in Benini’s studio, 1969–1970s)

Benini’s outer grace and charm functioned almost as a special device or tool in the photographer’s tool kit, ensuring his models relaxed into their poses, making it easier for him to capture seemingly effortless fashion photographs. Hazel’s creativity and vivacious enthusiasm on the other hand, brought drama and dizzying excitement to the job.

One day in 1966, Jan Stewart (1965 Mannequin of the Year and 1967 Model of the Year) was asked to climb up onto a huge cast metal crane hook and then told to hold on tight to the cable as the crane lifted the hook incrementally higher—just so Benini could ensure the model, the crane and building behind could be perfectly framed in the camera lens. What a performance! This youthful urban drama played out on the street to sell a youthful urban mood and concept for the Sportsgirl youth brand in press ads. ‘What could you do’ notes Hazel, ‘you’d go to any length to get the look.’

Benini had the ability to look through his lens and find beauty in every detail. It might be the edge of concrete steps, the site line of a skyscraper, a pile of leaves or rubble on the ground, or even paint peeling off a wall. On the other hand, making, sourcing or recycling props and inventing stories for the press was Hazel Benini’s forte. At the same time, both frequently referred to international sources for inspiration in much the same way all Australian creative designers did at the time, and still do today.

Today their inspiration, Benini’s amazing eye for composing frames and Hazel’s creativity and inventiveness, provide a rich and enduring legacy which not only documents the fashion of the day, but also takes the viewer into a land of fashion, fantasy, fiction and storytelling. Urban and rural locations are documented, so is the process and behind-the-scenes workings of the fashion photography studio. Lights, fans, props and other studio devices are revealed around the edges of some negatives. Uncropped, and many never before published, these negatives and transparencies remain as little gems of a past era.

The Beninis’ photographic prints successfully wound their way into all the major Australian newspapers—partly because of the quality of the photographs themselves but also because of the many unusual or unexpected storylines they contained. They were picked up by The Hobart Mercury, The Perth Independent, The Brisbane Courier Mail, The Canberra Times, The Adelaide Advertiser, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun Herald, The Australian Women’s Weekly and many other daily, weekly and weekend newspapers and magazines. There’s now an urgency to capture and document the stories behind the photographs before they’re lost as many of the shots were taken half a life- time ago.

The Museum is working hard to capture as many interviews with the models, photographers and other fashionistas who entered the lives of this indivisible creative couple.

As the bulk of Benini’s images were designed and constructed to sell fashion, dress and accessories to Australian consumers, the Benini archive now provides 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.

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), Philippa Gowns, Theo Haskin’s Salon Milano, Hall Ludlow, Simona, Solo, Prue Acton, Mike Treloar, Ninette and its related youth brand Nutmeg, Gala and its youth label Emma, Sportscraft and Sportsgirl.

We find many top Australian models—Maggie Tabberer, Maggi Eckardt, Helen Homewood, Jan Stewart, Nerida Piggin, 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—such as 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 bushfire landscape in the Dandenong ranges and another photograph of Di Sweeney modelling Bottega’s newly imported blue Italian gumboots and jip-jacket wet weather suit inside the car wash on Drummond Street, Carlton. The beautiful composition of the Benini photographs, and the whimsical stories within and behind them, will no doubt continue to entrance and captivate viewers for many years to come.


1925: Born 17 February, 1925 in Massa Marittima, Tuscany, Italy

1935: Migrates to Australia with his Tuscan family (aged 10) – mother, brother and sister.

Father arrived in Australia a year earlier.

1935- : Secondary education at Rathdowne Street School.

1940s: Studies science/chemistry at the Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University).

1949: Works as an Industrial Chemist at General Motors Holden.

1949/1950: Travels overseas to Italy, with a stop over in London, and decides to pursue a career in photography.

Early 1950s (date to be confirmed poss 1953): Joins Peter Fox Studios in Collins Street, Melbourne (training under Catherine Perkins and working with Henry Talbot.)

1954 (date to be confirmed): Sets up his own studio/ business in Kew – primary income derived from wedding photography and studio portraits.

1950s: Occassionally working as a fashion model for Helmut Newton, Henry Talbot and Athol Shmith as a means of honing his own photographic skills.

(The Henry Talbot and Janice Wakely photography archives include photographs of Bruno modelling.)

Norman Ikin encourages Benini’s photographic activities, and also Hans Hasenpflug who briefly worked with Bruno as a printer.

From 1956: Benini was producing glamorous, high-end fashion photography.

Clients/fashion included Phillipa Gowns, Ninette, La Petit, Hall Ludlow, Potter and Moore, Hall Ludlow, Theo Haskin’s Salon Milano, Sutex, Knitcraft, Diamond Cut, Cole of California, Georges, Australian Wool Board and Dominex.

Works with models: Bambi Shmith, Janet Dawson, Helen Homewood, Pauline Kiernan, Leah McCartney, Francine Brown, Kathy Murrell, Wendy List and Lynn Gleeson.

Late 1950s: Travels to London, via New York. Meets up with Helmut and June Newton and Janice Wakely in London. Meets David Bailey and other photographs around Portobello Road and Carnaby Street.

1959: Returns to Melbourne. Meets Hazel Craig (nee Craig, born New Zealand).

1962: Marries Hazel Benini in Melbourne.

1960s: Hazel and Bruno Benini worked together. Bruno moves his studio to various buildings in the city.

Earlier high fashion styles progressively gave way to funkier, younger styles. Photographs appear in fashion magazines and all major Australian newspapers.

1973: Hazel and Bruno travel overseas together – to Sardinia, Florence, Rome, London and Paris.

Clients/fashion include Phillipa Gowns, Georges Imports, Diamond Cut, Arnel, Dominex, Cole of California, Suzie Fergusson, Arnel Fabrics, Sharene Creations, [Bythway] Gown of the Year, Arnel Fabrics, Charlotte 5th Avenue, Jeff Bade, Steven Glass, Hicks Atkinson, Sharene Creations, Jo Bond, Everglaze, Potter and Moore, Everglaze, Sportscraft, Norma Tullo, Sharene, Sportgirl, Adal, Stephen Glass, Villawool, Robert Pierce, Wittner Shoes, Balenciaga, Maglia, John J. Hilton, Norma Tullo, L’Officiel, Holepoof, Noel Jenkin for Harbigs, Ninette, Wool Board.

Works with models: Helen Homewood, Janice Wakely, Anita Hastings, Jenny Ham, Alan Pitkus, Lynn Gleeson, Gillian Montgomery, Margo McKendry, Leah McCartney, Jill Copner, Lynn Richmond, Wendy Mead, Terry Taylor, Ushi Huber, Yvonne Hayes, Robin Garland, Justine Silver, Rosemary Naughton, Anne Hamilton, Carol Townsend, Lorraine Childs, Si Young, Alan Walker, Jan Stewart, Joan Green, Susie Cuthbert, Edith Freeman, Janni Goss, Marg Hanna, Dawn Scott, Gillian Dixon, Wendy Marshall and Maggi Eckardt.

Fashion/clients include Garry Bradley (Jeweller), Ninette, Nutmeg, Sportsgirl, Norma Tullo, Bettina, Lisal Furs, Solo, Gala, Prue Acton, Mike Treloar, Solo’s Storm Stopper, ‘Emma’ for Gala, Ninette, Lurex, Moya Shoes, Nutmeg, Norma Tullo for Holeproof, Concept by Gala, Stiletto the Italian Torch, Laura Ashley, Frenchknit, Ninette, Le Louvre, Coffeys Boutique, Adelaide, Laura Ashley, Fibremakers, Raymond Castles, Le Louvre (Collins St), Ozzie Clarke for Georges, Hiltons Boutique, Batika, Holeproof, Van Roth, Prestige Ltd, Maglia, Bob Leopold (hair), Fiorucci, Yves St Laurent, and Bottega Boutique.

Works with models: Yvonne Goederman, Terry Scott, Sandi Mitchell, Jenny McKenzie, Nola Clark, Anne Brownlee, Dawn Scott, Janice Wakely, Yvonne Rockman, Astrid Corporal, Gael McKay, Jull Hamilton, Kissane Codrington, Robin Fong, Bronwyn Baillieu, Marg Hanna, Sue Rein, Gary Rowland, P. Golding, Jenny Ward, Monica Liebich, Sue Smithers, Robin McBeth, Louise Volke, Marg Hanna, Jackie Holmes, Jill Hamilton, Lori Craig, Julie Wilkinson, Jenny McKenzie, Di Sweeney, Jamayl, Joybelle, Di Sweeney and Finlay Light.

1980s: Continues fashion photography but also undertaking more portraiture, including male nudes.

1990: Closes McKillop Street studio. Continues photographic practise from his home in Fitzroy.

1996: Powerhouse Museum curator meets Bruno Benini and encourages the photographer to collate and document his collection.

1998: Emerging interest in the photographer’s work: Benini fashion photographs published in ‘PARADE The story of fashion in Australia’ by Alexandra Joel (Harper Collins Publishers); Photographs (4) purchased for the newly-refurbished Georges basement brasserie, Collins St, Melbourne (alongside 30 by Athol Shmith); National Gallery of Victoria acquires small group of Benini photographs; and Bruno Benini presents his photograph of the Henry Haskin ‘Gown of the Year’ photograph to the Jewish Museum, Melbourne as they hold the original dress.

1999: Retrospective, ‘Bruno Benini Fashion Images 1956-1976’ held at RMIT University Gallery, Storey Hall, Melbourne as part of the Woolmark Melbourne Fashion Festival.

2009: Powerhouse Museum purchases the Bruno Benini archive with support from the Commonwealth Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account.

This mounted gelatine silver photographic print is one of Bruno Benini’s earliest nude male portraits.

It shows Antonio Rodrigues a dancer who originally came to Australia with the Katherine Dunham dance company, an early New York-based African-American modern dance troop. It is one of many photographic portraits from an archive dominated by fashion photography in print, negative, transparency and proof print or contact formats.

Taken during the 1960s, the photograph features a textured, wall surface with peeling paint as a key background element. Bruno’s widow Hazel Benini recalls that Bruno always ‘loved a peely’.

1 Comment

  1. marian ruhe - October 5, 2013

    My name is Marian Ruhe , from the Netherlands and I am writing you hoping you would be able to help me to find Astrid Corporaal , who has worked as a model with Bruno Benini in 1973.
    I would greatly appreciate any possible help , thank you in advance.

    Sincerely yours ,

    Marian Ruhe

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