Photographer and provocateur, Helmut Newton created some of fashions most influential (and transgressive) images. Now a new documentary film from German director Gero von Boehm aims to give an insight into the man behind the lens. This is what you need to know about Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful.
“Most photographers are terribly boring, and most films about photographers are terribly boring, too” says Helmut Newton in the documentary film about his life. It’s a tongue-in-cheek pronouncement – anyone who is familiar with the work of the famous fashion photographer will know for a fact that Newton was anything but boring.
In Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful, we’re given an insight into the man behind the lens, branded ‘The King of Kink’. Shot while Newton was in his early 80s – almost 20 years ago – the documentary still feels modern and pertinent, helping us reassess the photographer who has divided the world of fashion.
Best known for his erotically charged, black-and-white nudes of women, Helmut Newton’s iconic images were a staple in international fashion titles such as Vogue during the 70s and 80s. But while his work was considered subversive, Newton’s vision was refreshingly original, says Anna Wintour, who credits him with reviving the then stale medium of fashion photography in the film.
A naked woman being eaten by a crocodile, a model sporting a walking stick and leg cast but no clothes – these are just a couple of Newton’s most controversial shots. But his shock tactics would prove hugely influential, leading him to shoot campaigns for fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel.
Devotees will notice a darker element that often pervades Newton’s work, which can arguably be contributed to his personal history. Born in Berlin, a century ago this year, Newton’s Jewish family fled the country in 1938 to escape the Nazi regime. These early years influenced him greatly, leaving a trauma he discusses openly in this new fashion documentary.
Yet the film isn’t only about Newton’s work, but his relationship with women. While many have criticised his works as misogynistic thanks to its sexual objectification of women, his supporters believe Helmut to be a radical feminist who perfectly captured female power. His work was provocative, yes, but it stimulated conversation in a world still reeling from the wake of the sexual revolution.
Director Gero von Boehm interviews many of the Amazonian women Helmut immortalised on camera, including Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Claudia Schiffer and Marianne Faithfull. Each of them discuss the way in which women are portrayed in Newton’s work, claiming to have enjoyed being a part of his subversive creativity. But it’s Grace Jones’s appreciation which rings the most true, saying, “Yes, he was a bit pervert. But so am I, so it’s ok.”
But it’s not just the women depitcted in his work which the film examines; it also explores his relationship with his wife, June. A successful photographer in her own right who operated under the pseudonym Alice Springs, June was his greatest support and critic. Newton was devoted to her and the pair remained happily married until his death, a fact which supporters have argued casts his work in a new light.
Could Helmut Newton’s work have been created today in our post #MeToo society? Probably not. But as to whether Newton’s work has actually helped enable a new wave of feminism or whether it encouraged male violence through its fetishizing of the female body? The debate continues, and this documentary is bound to restart the conversation.
What is sure, however, is that Newton’s acclaim is deserved. This documentary about an art-world rebel who captured the beauty, eroticism and strength of the female form shows exactly why Newton has garnered a reputation as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. Expect an enlightening 89 minutes for culture lovers and fashion aficionados alike.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is available in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.