For many impressionable adolecent men in my era, sex was something that had to be tracked down via illustration, and a look at some kind of instruction manual seemed appropriate; hence a copy of Playboy magazine seemed like a good place to start in terms of getting insight into female anatomy. But with most of the magazine devoted to in-depth interviews with Lionel Ritchie and Yassar Arafat, insights were few and far between, yet the striking black and white photography of Helmut Newton was the kind of artful work that almost managed to give voyeurism a good name. Now Gero Von Boehm’s documentary on Newton arrives to provide some surprising insights into the man whose iconic photographs both tease and disturb fashionistias and voyeurs alike.
Netwon’s widow June gets star-billing here, and correctly so; participants in Newton’s photo-shoots note that she, rather than he, was the authority figure on set. Questions about male gaze and female empowerment are discussed here, but the notion that the Newtons were a husband and wife creative team does something to deal with qualms. ‘My punk husband’ is how June Newton describes her husband; others compare him to a boy with a toy-box. That toy-box also reflects the stark Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl, also addressed here, but it’s fair to say that’s only one of the influences involved. Noting her own magazines need for a ‘stopper’ in terms of controversial pictorials, Anna Wintour describes Newton as ‘not politically correct’, and the relentless nude forms contained here require some trigger warnings, but Grace Jones is quick to attest his work is ‘never vulgar’ even though she herself considers him a ‘weapon’. What Newton’s work represents is in the eye of the beholder, but judicious use of the freeze-frame reveals some incredible images; a snap of Charlotte Rampling reclining on a desk, or one of Jones and Dolph Lundgren which plays artfully with sexual roles.
“Helmut loved chickens, he always loved chickens,’ confides another contributor incongruously, but it’s Newton’s view of women that makes this film so tricky. The women interviewed all feel they were part of a shared collaboration, and seem proud of the results. And yet Newton seems to be consciously trolling the world by provocation, the quote ‘more enemies, more honour’ seems to have informed his choices. Helmut Newton; The Bad and the Beautiful is a riveting documentary, packed with star-names and surprises, and walking a thin line between investigation and adulation. Of interest to fashion and photography fans, it’s a Rorschach blob for the rest of us, a deep dive into an artistic psyche that defies conventional explanation.
Thatnks to Blue Finch Film Releasing for early access to this title.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful on Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download 23 October