Few contemporary photographers achieve the international recognition and acclaim of Helmut Newton. The groundbreaking imagist pushed far past the idea of beauty to create bold, dimensional compositions. His photos were often erotically-tinged portraits of women—and in the eyes of some critics, views of a male fantasy gaze, while others saw Newton’s work as an ode to feminine strength and power. His singular aesthetic of stylized black-and-white images—with ambiguous and sometimes controversial interpretations—is at the center of the newly-released documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful. This 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection, directed by documentarian Gero von Boehm, considers how the photography legend impacted fashion and the arts, and whether women were ultimately the subjects or objects of his lens.
Newton’s interest in photography began during his early years in Berlin. He purchased his first camera at the age of 12 and he went on to work as an assistant to German photographer Yva, whose real name was Elsie Neuländer-Simon, a forerunner in fashion imaging. Newton, who was of Jewish heritage, fled the Nazi invasion of Germany in 1938 with stays in Asia before settling in Australia two years later. There, he met his wife June, who also became a successful photographer under the pseudonym Alice Springs. Two decades later the duo moved to Paris, where Newton rose through the ranks of fashion in the ‘80s and ‘90s to become a renowned provocateur of chic. His work spurned image-making traditions, melding high glamour with unexpected visual elements.
Often, the photographer’s subjects were the celebrated models of the era—including Grace Jones, Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann, as well as musician Marianne Faithfull and actress Charlotte Rampling—who offer perspectives and anecdotes in the new film. Known for his humorous and playful persona, Newton is presented as esteemed—and genuinely appreciated—by many within the industry. His untimely passing in 2004 occurred in a car crash near LA’s Chateau Marmont, which now bears a plague in remembrance of him.
Marking the centennial of his life, The Bad and The Beautiful offers an up close and personal view of Newton in rare home videos, behind-the-scenes archival footage, and innumerable photographs. Here, the film’s director speaks with CR about what set Newton apart as an artist, why he loved unconventional twists in his photo scenes, and how his legacy is defined by the enduring freedom of his photographs.
Across your career, you have directed more than 100 documentaries. What made Helmut Newton’s story unique and fascinating?
“Even when I made a television documentary about him in 2002, I always felt that Helmut and his images deserved the big screen. He was a boy from Berlin who went on to have an incredible life and achievements, but in many ways, he remained the same boy all his life. He was a gentleman, an anarchist, and an artist. His life story in itself is incredible—he fled from Nazi Germany and followed his career all over the world—Singapore, Australia, Paris, and later, Monte Carlo, and LA. Over the years, ours also became a great friendship and I learned a lot from him. He had such a positive view of life, and even in difficult circumstances, he kept everything and everyone around him going. He always saw the best in any situation.”
What about the photographer’s work and approach led to the film’s title, The Bad and the Beautiful?
“Most people are both sides of that comparison. Some saw Helmut as a bad boy photographing women in suggestive poses. The film even asks if his [perspective] was of a male fantasy gaze, or one of admiration and love. There is also a ‘50s film by the same title directed by Vincente Minnelli, Liza Minnelli’s father. It is a behind-the-scenes story set in Hollywood. Helmut loved LA—he wanted to belong to his own life, not the glamour and the scene of it, but he did love the city. So, the title references both his point of view and the Minnelli film.”
Newton is known for striking images that were often controversial. Why was his work important in shaping contemporary photography?
“His work is very interesting historically. One had to see his photos, especially the nudes, in the context of the times. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was sexual liberation and everyone in fashion photography was waiting for a revolution. Beyond loveliness in photographs, they wanted something that touched the culture at large. Those two developments came together and there was Helmut, always a rebel and provocateur—so he was just right for the moment. In his diptych ‘Dressed and Naked,’ he shows that empowered women are images of strength with or without couture clothing. There is another famous photo, ‘Rue Aubriot, Paris’ with two women, one is dressed in a YSL tuxedo and the other is naked. There is a strange suspense to the scene—the two women together on deserted street in Paris with an erotic sentiment. The image was extraordinary and far ahead of its time. Helmut was more ambiguous and dangerous than anyone else in fashion photography then, but he was accepted because a revolution was needed.”
How did Newton’s portraiture reveal new dimensions of who women were and who they could become?
“He personally loved strong women and it was his ambition to show the world how strong women could be. In the film, Charlotte Rampling says that Helmut gave the women in his photos a type of power and that he even helped her develop her career—to find her image, as well as herself. Theirs was both his and her first nude photoshoot, so it was a bit embarrassing for them both. It only lasted about 10 minutes, because they both wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Yet those few minutes shaped the entire future of her career. Even Claudia Schiffer, who was 17 the first time she worked with Helmut, said that she played many different roles for his camera. She was able to try on different identities and personalities, and she found that in working with him.”
What do you feel is most misunderstood about the photographer’s vision and creativity?
“Many people think that the women he photographed were just objects. Of course, everything in front of a lens becomes an object, but Helmut wanted to show women’s dimensions and to tell their stories. His photos were either the beginning or the end of a story and the rest is simply our fantasies around it. He played with that idea a great deal in his work. I can see that some people say his images have a male gaze or a male fantasy, but life itself is filled with our fantasies. The freedom of art and expression is so precious—you can choose whether or not to look at his photographs, but art and ideas need to be visible. Helmut wanted to incite fantasies but his were not dangerous ones, they were just stories. We must look to see the images themselves, not only the man or the artist, or to speculate about his intentions, but to see in our own right.”
In the film, model Isabella Rossellini says, “There is no neutrality, there is no right and wrong. Everything is tinted with a point of view.” After making this film, how do you ultimately see Newton’s artistic point of view?
“I think that his point of view came from total freedom. Helmut’s ambitions were to seduce, amuse, and entertain. He said, ‘I am not interested in good taste. I want vulgarity because it is much more interesting.’ He loved vulgarity in the sense of amusement, but there was always a limit within his photographs. Even the photo of the chicken next to a million dollars in Bulgari jewels [‘Roast Chicken and Bulgari Jewels’]—the people from Bulgari must have wanted to faint. Who else could have done that besides Helmut? He loved contradictions and the freedom to create fantastic, unexpected stories. In his photos, next to the bad, there was always the beautiful, so to speak.”
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is now available to watch through virtual cinemas in New York with Film Forum and in LA with Laemmle Theatres and Lumiere Cinema.
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