Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful opens with the image of a naked female model, smoking in front of a giant billboard of the Marlboro Man. The clash of brash female sexuality, hyper masculinity and the male gaze sets the stage for a fascinating look at the legacy of one of fashion’s most influential photographers. Blending an impressive archive of backstage video, with family films shot by his wife June and new interviews with a stellar line-up of talent (Anna! Grace! Claudia!), director Gero von Boehm delivers a documentary of remarkable warmth and charm.
“He was a little bit ‘pervert’ but so am I, so it was okay,” says Grace Jones, one of the film’s noted interviewees. “Never vulgar.”
Pulling fashion photography away from the minimalism of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton brought a confronting, fetish-laced perspective to the mainstream. In the eyes of some of his subjects and through the behind-the-scenes footage, the subversive photographer comes across as a amiable, jovial man – a duality the film aims to explore. Is his work sexist? Is it toxic? Or was he empowering women? As Susan Sontag said when confronting him live on television, a lot of misogynists think they love women.
It’s clear that the models, actresses and musicians interviewed here don’t have a bad word to say about him. Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithful, Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann, and more, all line up to sing his praises and dissect their place in his provocative oeuvre. Anna Wintour tells of her first shoot with Newton that filled her with fear (there is a great moment on set when Newton can be heard gleefully giggling saying, “When I send this to Anna she’s going to have a fit.”)
Auermann looks back at one of her most shocking photoshoots and dissects the images of her looking like “a Barbie doll left lying there” saying, “We can say that this is sexist or misogynistic, but we can also say that he holds a mirror to society.”
The best insights though come from Isabella Rossellini who pulls apart the concept of heterosexual masculinity, with the competing impulses to love and hate women, and places Newton in a broader, historical context. “I think of him as Weimar,” she says of his aesthetic before juxtaposing his work with that of Robert Mapplethorpe; both photographers exploring nudes and fetish influences from different perspectives.
Despite the title The Bad and the Beautiful, the balance of the film is heavily in the favour of the beautiful. While the documentary pulls its punches when examining his legacy, fashion lovers will thrill at the tales behind some of Newton’s iconic images and the glimpses of his personal life and the work of his wife June (aka photographer Alice Springs).
Gero von Boehm has produced a loving tribute to his friend Helmut Newton and his access to personal footage and the archive of the Helmut Newton Foundation give The Bad and the Beautiful the depth it requires. By filling the film with female voices, von Boehm has gone some way to reframing these revolutionary images in a contemporary context, but ultimately this is a celebration not a debate.
By Chad Armstrong
Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful opens in Virtual Cinemas on Friday July 24th via Kino Marquee.